Five things we learned: North Carolina State 10, Notre Dame 3

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Mother Nature won.

Technically, the box score will read North Carolina State out-lasted Notre Dame 10-3. But with Hurricane Matthew twirling its way through the Southeast, the Irish and the Wolfpack were the latest and greatest example that sometimes—national television viewing window be damned—an act of god is no place for a football game.

But that didn’t stop the action on Saturday afternoon. And in the end, NC State made one less storm-infested mistake than the Irish, coming up with the game’s biggest play when Pharaoh McKever pushed his way through Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, blocking Tyler Newsome’s fourth-quarter punt as Dexter Wright scooped it up from the slop and took it in for the game’s deciding score.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Throwing a football in a hurricane is not advisable. 

DeShone Kizer has, and will continue to have, many wonderful weekends throwing the football. This was not one of them.

Kizer completed just nine of his 26 throws, a red zone interception to freshman safety Jarius Morehead one of the few that didn’t end up splashing to the ground. The elements were just too much for Kizer—and at times, his receivers—to overcome, dropped passes and wobbly misses less the exception than the rule.

All of that makes you wonder why Notre Dame’s coaching staff—a group with roughly 50 years of play-calling or coordinating experience—would continue to throw the football. Postgame, head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to second guess the decision to air the ball out, though he did acknowledged the game plan.

“I feel like we let them down,” Kelly said of the staff’s plan for his water-logged team.

Getting behind the sticks didn’t help. First-down success was few and far between, a few runs short-circuited by Sam Mustipher snaps, missed blocks and blitzing defenders. But after building just a little bit of success on the offense’s final drive with the game on the line, Notre Dame’s offense went down with a dropped pass, dropped pass, Kizer scramble and tackle, and the final, fateful, 4th-and-8 blown shotgun snap.

That’s a game plan for the recycling bin.

 

The special teams nightmares continue. 

For the fourth-straight game, Notre Dame’s special teams have been responsible for an opponent scoring a touchdown. And this Saturday, that proved fatal.

“We give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown,” Kelly said. “That’s the difference in this one.”

Perhaps the most startling thing about the punt block was that it seemed almost accidental. An individual effort, not a designed block, was the difference in the game, with McKever powering through Luatua and Weishar before throwing his arm up and getting a hand on Newsome’s punt.

But that’s been life for Scott Booker’s unit. Even if NC State’s special teams battery had far more problems in the elements than Notre Dame’s, the Irish managed to lose on a punt that started with a perfect snap and didn’t feature an opposing team that came after the kick.

 

The Irish offensive line lost the battle in the trenches. 

Brian Kelly did his best to ignore the offensive line’s struggles last week, talking about the 40-point average and the 500-yards a game. Well, on a Saturday where the battle was in the trenches, Notre Dame’s front five got whipped.

DeShone Kizer was under duress all afternoon. The Wolfpack sacked Kizer five times, Bradley Chubb getting three of them, and totaled eight TFLs on the afternoon. They held the Irish to just 59 yards rushing on 38 official attempts. And stat after stat points to the dismal offensive performance—just 113 total yards, 1 of 15 on third downs, 0 for 2 in the red zone—all start up front.

Sam Mustipher had a horrific day snapping the football, whiffing on a wet ball that led to a turnover, air-mailing Kizer a few times with high snaps and eventually ending the game with a premature roller that sunk the Irish’s final offensive play.

A group that features high-end talent, but features four of five starters in different jobs than the ones they had in 2015, clearly lost the battle on Saturday.

 

The offense wasted a great defensive performance. 

If we’re looking for building blocks, it’s the performance of the defense. While the Wolfpack had some success running the football, for the most part the Irish defense stiffened when they needed to, Notre Dame losing a football game without surrendering an offensive touchdown.

Of course, give an assist to the weather. And give another to the field conditions. But also tip your hat to the effort the young Irish defense gave, especially a front seven that held its own.

Jerry Tillery had nine tackles, including a TFL. Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal paired for a dozen more stops. Devin Studstill was active and a secondary that started freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Studstill didn’t give up any big plays down the field.

With Stanford coming to town and looking to challenge the Irish defense in the trenches, there’s at least confidence and a performance to build from. And if that’s the silver lining, expect it to be used to turn this team around for another big challenge in a hurry.

 

With a fourth loss before mid-October, the goal needs to be finding a way to a bowl game.

Brian Kelly’s young team needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the tail. Because this weekend is on the coaching, not the players. And Kelly acknowledged that after the game.

“Kids were in great spirits, great energy. I feel terrible that we let them down,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about the decision to be in rugby punt, not a standard three-man wall, as one of the major differences. But outside of that one decisive play, it was Dave Doeren that made the adjustments first, not Kelly and his staff.

It was the Wolfpack who went to the wildcat and had success in the running game. It was NC State that had the Irish on the ropes for most of the afternoon. And it was Eli Drinkwitz who found some creative ways to engineer yards when the Irish continued to try and call failed zone-read runs and hitch routes like it was an everyday Saturday out there, not a category two hurricane.

Say what you want about the decision to be play through the eye of the storm as stadium lights swayed, rain torrentially fell, and field conditions became more and more unplayable, but it was the same for both teams. And with multiple scoring opportunities going up in smoke as fumbles and turnovers piled up, a young football team needed a coaching staff to devise a game plan that could find a way to mitigate Mother Nature, if only just a little.

But they didn’t. And now the Irish return home as a 2-4 football team. They stare down Stanford and Christian McCaffrey next. And after a much-needed week off they take on Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC, all football games that the Irish could just as easily lose as win.

Notre Dame needs four wins over the final six games to get this program back on track. They need the postseason momentum and the late-season practice that could help jump start spring drills.

Kelly pulled that rabbit from the hat in his first season when he rallied the troops from a 1-3 start. Staring at 2-4, he has an even bigger hole to dig out from.

The odds of doing it look long from this vantage point. But find a way to get to six wins and you very well could find something to celebrate this season.

Pregame Six Pack: Into the storm

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As Hurricane Matthew hits the Southeast, the Irish head to Raleigh. And after a week of contingency plans and storm tracking, the focus now changes decidedly—winning a football game that’ll present a new set of challenges for the Irish.

We’ve seen monsoon conditions. We’ve seen must-win weekends. And we’ve seen the Irish try and play good football in hostile environments. And even if nobody is going to confuse Carter-Finley Stadium with Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, the 50-year anniversary of the home of the Wolf Pack will have the NC State faithful ready to make things difficult.

A week after moving on from Brian VanGorder and emergency installing a game plan for Syracuse, Brian Kelly and his young team face another big challenge. Finding a way to even their record to 3-3 on the road against a team with plenty of talent.

Let’s get to the pregame sick pack.

 

Can the young Irish secondary play mistake free and still challenge Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game? 

Notre Dame’s secondary made some sweeping changes last week, a relative youth movement in effect with Troy Pride, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn sliding in at cornerback. And after a tough start against Syracuse, the unit settled in and played solid football, re-emerging as a basic-concept unit that went back to the basics to beat an offense that moved quickly and challenged vertically.

But that type of tweak won’t be enough against NC State. Not with Ryan Finley completing 72 percent of his passes and the Boise State transfer still to throw an interception. Not with Eli Drinkwitz’s tweaked scheme.

So after making it out of intro-level installation, the big question will be Notre Dame’s ability to make progress while also guarding against mental mistakes—not to mention an advanced offensive scheme.

“They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense,” Kelly explained this week.

“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. Or they’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”

Last week the Irish were pressed into a tight situation when freshman Devin Studstill was ejected for a controversial targeting call. That forced Nicco Fertitta onto the field for his first substantial playing time, the diminutive sophomore holding up as a two-deep safety.

But if the Irish want to take their next step forward defensively, they’ll need to incorporate a few strategic wrinkles while also protecting the freshmen that’ll inhabit just about every high-leverage position on the field.

Julian Love thinks they’re ready.

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love told CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”

 

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that his offensive line is struggling. 

While Notre Dame’s struggle in the trenches against Syracuse was noticeable, the results were never in doubt. That’s because the Irish posted 50-points, moving the ball at will through the air as DeShaun Kizer had the school record for passing yards in his sights before taking his foot off the gas.

It was easy to ignore some inconsistency in the ground game when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams broke long runs. So when Kelly was asked what’s ailing a running game that most expect to be more dominant, Kelly didn’t just look at the five starters up front, he looked at the massive roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball.

“We got seven new starters. There’s a lot of new pieces,” Kelly said.”I guess there’s definitely inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t throw it on the offensive line. I’d throw it on perimeter blocking, I’d throw it on decision making; coaching. There’s a lot of factors there.

“The right side is evolving. Half or two-thirds there are still coming together. They’re getting better. Those are two really good players on the left side, I think everybody knows that. One guy or two guys don’t make an offensive line.”

Colin McGovern will be back in the starting lineup, his high ankle sprain healthy enough. And while there’s certainly credence to the moving pieces that Kelly references, a tough war in the trenches will be on display as the Wolf Pack’s defensive front is the most disruptive the Irish have faced this season.

 

DeShone Kizer, from an opponent’s perspective. 

Mike McGlinchey has pledged to return for 2017. DeShone Kizer has made no such declaration, an NFL evaluation still evolving, and a choice that might be too hard to turn down.

But as we sort out the superlatives that have come from the mock draft community and an echo chamber that sometime’s runs away from reality, Wolf Pack head coach Dave Doeren had this appraisal of the Irish’s third-year quarterback.

“Well, he’s got really good talent around him, to start,” Doeren said. “They protect him well. He’s only been sacked twice. He’s got an offensive system that is well run. They give him a lot of opportunities to throw the ball down the field and guys make plays for him.

“As far as him personally, I think he’s a very accurate deep ball thrower. He’s tough, he takes some shots, but puts the ball right on the money. And he’s competed on a big stage for a long time, so I think he’s got good poise.”

 

 

The defensive basics will start by slowing down running back Matt Dayes

If beating Syracuse felt like scheming against an option attack, stopping NC State may sound easier, but it presents a bigger challenge. Namely, Wolf Pack running back Matt Dayes.

After having a big 2015 season derailed by injuries, Dayes is back. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of four starts and is the focal point of Kelly’s as his defense tries to master its musts.

“They’ve got a really diversified offensive scheme. I think, number one, you can’t give up big play runs,” Kelly said. “I think Matt Dayes is a game breaker. I think he can definitely be a difference maker in this game.”

That means the focus is on Notre Dame’s front seven, and the work we’ll see from Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell will set the tone.

Because slowing down Dayes is the start. The Irish also need to find a way to limit Stephen Louis in the passing game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore has made some big plays, averaging more than 25 yards a touch against East Carolina and Wake Forest and is very difficult to tackle.

“I think those two guys are really key to their offense,” Kelly said. “Finley is very smart and a very good quarterback. But Dayes and Louis are the guys that we have to focus on.”

 

 

Can the Irish defense shut down a competent quarterback?

All respect given to Dayes and Louis, but Notre Dame’s defense has made a lot of mediocre quarterbacks look like All-Americans. And Ryan Finley is no mediocre quarterback.

The Boise State transfer came east with offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, both leaving the Broncos to join Dave Doeren. And after both his freshman and sophomore seasons were ruined by injuries, Finley—who graduated in three years from Boise State—now has three years of eligibility in Raleigh.

“He is a great manager,” Doeren said last week, according to Blue & Gold. “He knows Coach [Drinkwitz], he understands why he does what he does and does a good job managing that part of the offense.

“He puts us in the right place a lot of times. I’ve said it many times. He throws a very catchable ball and he gets it out quick and allows his players to make plays. That’s the best thing a quarterback can do is get the ball to the right people quickly and let them do their thing. He’s done that repetitively and he’ll continue to get better because he’s a critic of himself and he works out it.”

Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford knows both Finley and Drinkwitz from his year in Boise, though Kelly downplayed any help that might give the Irish staff. But winning might require the Irish defense to make Finley play down this weekend, something we haven’t seen from an opposing quarterback too often these past two seasons under Brian VanGorder.

 

Rain + Special Teams + Turnovers = All causes for concern. 

No, that’s not an exact equation. But any time rain—and multiple inches are forecasted—is part of a football game, it’s time to restate the obvious. Mainly, the Irish need to make sure that the weather doesn’t impact their game.

That means taking great care of the football. That means being clean on special teams. And it means making sure that any huge game-changing plays are forced, not suffered.

Rewind back to last year at Clemson and the Irish didn’t get out clean. The Irish had four turnovers, with three fumbles lost, in a game where only two points made the difference.

With Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome off to a slow start, with CJ Sanders making some big plays but Scott Booker’s coverage unit giving up a few as well, the basics are going to be a big part of the story.

Even if Hurricane Matthew’s impact isn’t going to be as bad as first feared, heavy rain is almost guaranteed. And on natural Bermuda grass, expect a sloppy track.

So the Irish, a 2-3 team that has struggled to do the ordinary things well, needs to play cleaner than the Wolf Pack to win.

Talking Irish: Can the defense do it again?

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Before he takes off and braves the elements, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz chats with me about Notre Dame’s chances in Raleigh this weekend. 

***

KA: How much rain gear did you pack? And are you bringing rations in case of travel delays?

JJ: I have an umbrella ready to go and some stuff that will hopefully keep me dry, but with about 3 inches of rain expected…I’m not expecting to actually stay dry.

But thanks to Southwest (#brandloyalty guy here) I was able to switch my flight to an earlier one into Raleigh on Friday for free, so hopefully I actually make it to the Triangle area.

KA:  Boom. That’s good living. Now the real question: Do you think Notre Dame’s revamped defense shows up in Raleigh? (See what I did there?)

JJ: Physically they’ll be there, but man, NC State looks like a really bad matchup for this defense. NC State ranks 9th in success rate, ND’s defense ranks 105th. That’s a pretty wide gap.

KA: For those not fluent in advanced stats, explain please.

JJ: Success rate tracks a team’s ability to gain 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. So basically, NC State’s offense is really good at setting up easy-to-convert second/third down tries, and is converting them pretty frequently.

(Shout-out to fellow Mizzou grad Bill Connelly for S&P+, by the way).

What do you think, Keith? Where can ND’s defense find some success on Saturday?

KA: For some reason, I think monsoon conditions could actually help, though bad tackling doesn’t usually get better in the rain. But I do think there’s some momentum being built. And I do think that the simplification of the scheme — and the changes in personnel have me slightly more bullish that I was pre-coaching change.

So I’m excited to see a defense with basically a completely reformatted secondary — especially with Donte Vaughn getting a start and Cole Luke moving inside.

JJ: That’s certainly fair. I’m with you on being more optimistic about this group post-VanGorder, but until I actually see it in a game against an offense that’s more about operating with success than operating with speed, I’m going to be skeptical. Also re: Tackling. It’ll be tougher in the rain, but maybe we’ll see forced fumbles in back to back weeks!

KA:  That’s a really good point. Was Syracuse good at anything more than just going fast?

JJ: …no?

KA: Let’s talk about ND’s OL. Big news about McGlinchey coming back. But can this crew get it together as they get ready to face one of the more talented defensive fronts they’ll face?

JJ: So part of it is getting this group to play a little more cohesively, but I thought it was interesting that McGlinchey said the biggest deficiency for this group was maybe not taking advantage of opportunities when the opposing defense gives Notre Dame the looks it wants, i.e., doesn’t have an extra hat in the box. It’s hard to effectively run the ball with any consistency when teams are putting that extra guy in the box.

That’s not excusing the OL play, which still hasn’t been as good as I think we all expected it to be, but it is worth nothing for some of the run game deficiencies ND has had.

Also, this line next year? Holy crap. If the same five start, that’s 87-92 career starts. And that doesn’t even factor in the potential for Tommy Kraemer or Tristen Hoge to earn playing time.

KA: Yeah, next year will be great. But I thought it was telling when Kelly talked about wanting to get away from using Kizer so much in the running game, and then Syracuse — minus Dexter’s big run and a 28-yarder for Josh Adams — was stuck in the mud.

I think this game — if the defense can continue to take baby steps — will probably be in the image of what BK thought this season would be all along.
A very good offense carrying a defense that gets a few stops and doesn’t just completely stink.

JJ: That’s definitely the best-case scenario for the rest of the season. So far, Kizer has done a great job holding up despite having to play about as close to perfect as possible for a college QB, but at some point, he’ll need help. Whether that’s from the RBs/OL or the defense or special teams, we’ll see.

KA: Let me float a few crazy thoughts by you:

The first, not too crazy: Equanimeous St. Brown is the team’s No. 1 receiver.
But I think Kevin Stepherson is out-playing Torii Hunter at the X. Do you expect to see Torii float around inside and out as a match-up guy, because it’s clear — at least to me — that Torii doesn’t scare anybody vertically, and that seems like a prerequisite to the position, especially out on the wide side of the field.

JJ: You’re right on No. 1, but I’ll say this — Hunter has tremendous value on passing downs when ND needs 7+ yards for a first down. I’d trust getting the ball to him for a first down more than a true freshman. Stepherson, though — that dude’s taken some big steps forward, and he’s going to be a very, very good receiver at ND.

KA:  I just think Notre Dame is better when they’re making BIG PLAYS — scoring long-range touchdowns. I don’t have any belief that we’ll see that from Torii. Because we haven’t yet and we already have from the two young pups. And that’s already been the big change since looking completely lost against Texas after Hunter was KO’d.

Let’s flip sides of the ball. After our first week of Greg Hudson, can you walk me through some guys you want to see more of?

JJ: I keep going back to Daelin Hayes, but let me copy and paste what Isaac Rochell said about him this week:

“I look at myself from my freshman year to now and how much better I’ve gotten, and I’m looking at him like dang, Daelin’s way better than I was when I was a freshman, so what’s he going to be when he’s a senior. So that’s what gets me most excited and I tell those guys that all the time. Because they look at me and they’re like, he’s doing well, but I was like, I was not good my freshman year. You guys are way better than I was. I love it and I’m excited for them.”

It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think you hope by the end of the year Hayes is getting to the quarterback more consistently. He seems like the biggest key to unlocking whatever pass rushing potential this defense has.

Who’s a guy you want to see more?

KA: I’ll echo you on Hayes, but then I’ll focus on the young secondary. I think seeing how this group plays together — when you have Troy Pride, Donte Vaughn, Jalen Elliott, Julian Love and Devin Studstill all making an argument that they should be playing major snaps, that gets equal parts terrifying and exciting.

I don’t count Te’von Coney as a young guy maybe as much as I should, but boy was I excited to see them use him in a way that values his athleticism, rather than as a guy forced to shed blocks in the box and make run fits.

Let’s get to the dirty part of this: You’ve got Notre Dame losing again, don’t you?

JJ: Before I answer that question, let me pepper you with some positives: I really like Donte Vaughn’s potential as a rangy, athletic corner. It probably can’t hurt to get Studstill and Elliott significant reps as freshmen, since they’re going to be counted on plenty as sophomores, juniors and seniors.

But to answer: North Carolina State 34, Notre Dame 31.

KA: I can’t disagree with you from a logic perspective. But I chatted with a smart kid that covers the team for the Technician (awesome student newspaper name), and he picked Notre Dame. That’s something that usually doesn’t happen. So I’m giving these guys one more chance — and saying Notre Dame 35, NC State 24

And if that goes wrong, I’m done picking games. Or at least picking the Irish.

JJ: If you just put these two teams’ number side by side, you gotta go with NC State. But when you consider how much talent Notre Dame has and how NC State seems to, like, never beat Power 5 opponents, I can see why an NC State student would pick against them.

KA: The ECU game stands out to me.

JJ: But we all thought Notre Dame would beat Duke (which lost to Virginia a week later, with Daniel Jones being baaaaaaad) so everything’s on the table here.

KA: We live in a post-BVG era, so I’m still trying to ride that train. But it might be fleeting. And that’s why they play em!

JJ: *Hopefully play them! **in three inches of rain.

KA: Well said.

JJ: Before we wrap this up… Would you rather have Greg Hudson jump out of your cake or have Bob Diaco bake your cake?

KA: Is Erika Eleniak busy? If so, probably Bobby D. The heart and tenacity in that cake would be tremendous.

(Under Siege. Gotta respect that one.)

JJ:  Though its sticktoitiveness could be a problem with getting it out of the pan.

(I had to Google your last two references, as a #millenial)
*winky face*

KA: Don’t make me feel so old. But yes – That’s the gold standard of Cake Jumping. Let’s give you some travel mojo. Because it’ll be 70 and Sunny from the Inside the Irish HQ and breakfast time. Will be thinking of you over some OJ.

JJ: Appreciate it. Only chance of you getting your clothes soaked is if you accidentally fall into the ocean.

KA: Or my daughter spills her water. Which is a lock.

JJ: Hahahaha. Best of luck. Talk to you next week.

McGlinchey plans to return in 2017

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Mike McGlinchey plans to be back in 2017. And that’s very good news for the Irish football program.

On Wednesday afternoon, McGlinchey did his best to put to rest any of the speculation that was set to kickoff after the season ended, volunteering that he intends to stay, a five-year plan that was always part of the vision.

“It’s going to be a five-year process. I have 19 games left here, and that’s what I fully intend to take on,” McGlinchey said. “I have a lot left to learn. I’m not ready to go anywhere. I have the best in the business coaching me each and every day, and it’s to my benefit to just stay here and learn from him.”

McGlinchey’s return would be key for an offensive line that could return all five starters. It also feels like the right decision for an offensive lineman who has the chance to be a physically dominant player, but hasn’t necessarily put all the pieces together in his first year starting at left tackle.

McGlinchey had plenty of preseason hype heading into the season. The 6-foot-8, 310-pound offensive tackle was on the Outland and Lombardi award watch lists, and was one of PFF College’s Top 100 players in their preseason rankings. So while Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller both chose to forgo their final years of eligibility—Fuller after declaring midseason that he intended to return—McGlinchey’s decision sounds different.

“I have so much left to learn here, and it’s not going to come down to projections or potential money that I can make,” McGlinchey said. “Because if I’m good enough at the point when I feel ready to do it, I’ll do it. And those projections will become reality at some point when it’s my time to be ready to do that.”

And in that corner… The North Carolina State Wolf Pack

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Notre Dame is off to Raleigh on Friday—hopefully ahead of Hurricane Matthew. The Irish look to square their record at 3-3 and do so against a talented North Carolina State team that suffered a disappointing early-season loss to East Carolina.

A game that this offseason may have had the makings of a trap no longer has a chance at being overlooked, not with every weekend vital and not with the major midseason changes already taking place in the defensive team room. It’s also taken a huge turn towards the Wolf Pack, who opened as three-point underdogs but now appear to be field goal favorites in Las Vegas.

To get us ready for Dave Doeren’s team, we welcome in Daniel Lacy. A senior at North Carolina State who is majoring in sports management and minoring in journalism, Daniel writes for the student newspaper, the Technician, and is in his second semester as the sports editor.

I asked and Daniel answered. Hope we all enjoy.

 

 

When Tom O’Brien was replaced by Dave Doeren four years ago, NC State brass wanted to take the football program to the next level. Yet after two stellar seasons at Northern Illinois, Doreen’s success in Raleigh has been far more modest.

What are expectations for this year? And how stable do you think Doeren is as he gets into the meat of his 2016 schedule — a daunting stretch run?

Last season, expectations were sky-high, with some talks of NC State being a 10-win team. It fell well short of that, partially due to the midseason losses of its two star running backs — Shadrach Thornton before ACC play after he was kicked off the team and Matt Dayes in the eighth game of the season against Clemson after he sustained a season-ending foot injury. Therefore, expectations were not nearly as high coming into this season, especially with a more formidable nonconference schedule that features Notre Dame and ECU rather than last year’s slate that featured all cupcake games in Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama. Based on the tough schedule and loss of a few key seniors, expectations are that the Wolfpack most likely won’t surpass last season’s 7-6 record, and that six wins would be optimal for the team.

As for Doeren, I haven’t personally heard anything about his job being on the line other than the upset fan base after the loss to ECU. But if I had to guess, I would say that his job is safe for now, especially if the team goes .500. You’re absolutely right about the schedule though, it is a tough road ahead for the Pack. It faces Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State in four of the next five weeks before closing the season against Miami and UNC. Getting to .500 will not be as easy as it might sound on the surface, or as it has been in the past two seasons for this team.

Ryan Finley certainly has to be viewed as a nice surprise this season, the Boise State transfer flashing an impressive 9:0 TD:INT ratio, while completing 72 percent of his throws. What’s the Wolfpack offense look like with Eli Drinkowitz at the helm? How much trouble do you think they’ll give a Notre Dame offense that found only modest success last weekend with interim coach Greg Hudson at defensive coordinator?

The offense under Drinkwitz has looked much more efficient and moves at a faster pace. He has done a good job of working to his players’ strengths, and Finley has really thrived in his offense up to this point.

It also seems to features the wide receivers more, as Stephen Louis already has over 300 receiving yards on the season, while last year’s No. 1 wideout, Jumichael Ramos, finished with only 457. As long as it gets its playmakers involved, namely Dayes, Louis and Jaylen Samuels, this could end up being a high-scoring game.

 

Irish fans might not realize it, but this Wolfpack defense has a good looking front seven and a talented defense — featuring Josh Jones, Arius Moore, Kentavias Street and Darian Roseboro.

While the schedule hasn’t featured an offense as good as Notre Dame’s, how good can this defense be? And where do you expect the Irish to try to attack it?

The defensive line is definitely the strength of NC State’s defense, with the two guys you mentioned paired with the other three starters — juniors Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill and Justin Jones — forming a rock-solid unit. It held Wake Forest to under 70 rushing yards and has nine sacks in the last two games, so as long as the D-line keeps performing at this level, it makes the whole defense better.

That being said, Notre Dame will surely attack the defense through the air. NC State’s pass defense struggled last year, and the loss of two starters in the secondary from last season — Juston Burris, a fourth-round draft pick, and Hakim Jones — hasn’t helped to start this season. It has improved marginally on the surface, but will undoubtedly be tested over the next few weeks.

 

From a playmaking perspective, running back Matthew Dayes has already broken 100 yards in three of the first four games. Jaylen Samuels seems like a unique weapon as well, with seven offensive touchdowns already.

Is this the best offensive personnel (excluding Jacoby Brissett) Doeren has had in Raleigh since he’s taken over?

This is a tough one. In 2014, NC State had a three-headed monster (Tony Creecy, Thornton and Dayes) in the backfield to go with Bo Hines at wideout and David Grinnage as a good red-zone target. Last year, Thornton, Dayes and Samuels all looked terrific at the beginning of the season, but as I previously mentioned, Thornton and Dayes weren’t playing by the end of the season. It also lost three starting offensive linemen from last season. If everything stays intact, this could end up being the best group of offensive playmakers in the Doeren era.

Dayes and Samuels might be the two most talented players on the entire team. Dayes has been a workhorse and the team leans on him for success. Samuels is listed as a tight end, but can line up just about anywhere on offense and is particularly dangerous on jet sweeps, shovel passes or swing passes where he has space to operate, and as you mentioned, he is great in the redzone, with seven touchdowns so far this season and 16 last season. Finley and Louis have both been nice surprises, but Notre Dame will be their biggest test yet.

 

Notre Dame opened as slight favorites, with the line moving in NC State’s direction. With an early kickoff and the Irish off to a disappointing start, this game doesn’t necessarily have the high profile nature both problems probably hoped for. How important is this visit for Wolfpack fans, only the second time these programs have played, and the first since the 2003 Gator Bowl?

This is a very important game for fans. NC State will be wearing throwback uniforms as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the team playing in Carter-Finley Stadium. Like you said, these two teams have rarely played each other in the past, so this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Wolfpack fans and I’m sure they’d love to top off the experience by seeing a win.

 

If the Wolfpack win, give me a reason on offense and defense why it happens. If they lose, same thing.

And if you’re feeling generous, do you have a prediction?

If it wins, on offense, it will have needed contributions from all of its playmakers. Finley continues to be consistent and careful with the football, Dayes rushes for over 100 yards, Samuels gets a pair of touchdowns and Louis gets around 80 receiving yards.

Defensively, its pass defense can’t allow DeShone Kizer to get going. Part of the reason the Wolfpack lost to ECU was because Philip Nelson completed 33 of 43 pass attempts for 297 yards. It needs to limit Kizer and maybe force a couple turnovers.

If it loses, it would be because the Wolfpack couldn’t get Dayes going on offense. As I said previously, the team leans on him for success. Last week, Wake Forest cut the lead to 10 and had the momentum leaning in its direction going into the fourth quarter. This was largely because Dayes only got one carry in the third quarter, causing the offense to sputter and open a door for Wake to climb back into the game. It can’t afford not to get Dayes involved against a much better Notre Dame team.

Defensively, it would’ve allowed Kizer to get going both through the air and on the ground. NC State has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks in the past couple years, namely Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, UNC’s Marquise Williams and Boston College’s Tyler Murphy (back when the latter two were still in school), particularly against the zone-read. NC State has yet to face a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, but it could be the deciding factor in each of its next three games as it faces Kizer, Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the next three weeks.

Score Prediction: 41-31 Notre Dame. Both of these teams were expected to enter this game undefeated, but neither has been good as expected. Because of this, NC State has a shot at keeping it close, but simply hasn’t fared well enough against teams of Notre Dame’s caliber in the past few years under Doeren to convince me that it has a shot at the upset.