Associated Press

Notre Dame vs. North Carolina State: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1) vs. No. 14 North Carolina State (6-1), two of about 16 remaining genuine College Football Playoff contenders. The Irish removed a name from that list last week.

WHAT? Continuing the stretch of “playoff” games on Notre Dame’s schedule, a win is absolutely necessary to keep that pipedream alive. This contest will likely come down to the strength-against-strength matchup of the Irish offensive line and running game against the Wolfpack’s defensive front seven led by senior end Bradley Chubb.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET, though an Air Force F-16 flyover is expected beforehand, so if in attendance, don’t wait until the last minute to get inside.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-north-carolina-state

Those abroad should take a look at NBC Sports Gold for the evening, and for anyone hoping to see the Notre Dame band’s halftime show: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-halftime-show

A postgame show will also be available online: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/?pid=37523

WEATHER? There are rumors of snow, but it would not likely accumulate. The more pertinent fact is Saturday in South Bend will be in the low-40s and precipitation is possible. If this were mid-November in the home finale against Navy, such might be expected, but it is still October, and this qualifies as cold on a comfort spectrum.

WHY? Entering the season, few would have expected this contest to have national implications, but it very much does. Both North Carolina State and Notre Dame have viable means of reaching the College Football Playoff, provided they win out after losing in the season’s first and second weeks, respectively. A loss would not stop the Wolfpack from chasing the ACC title, especially not with No. 7 Clemson awaiting in a week.

BY HOW MUCH? The Irish are favored by a touchdown with a combined point/total over under of 57.5, though that latter figure began the week a bit higher. Those current odds would indicate an unusual final score of Notre Dame 32, North Carolina State 25.

This space has been quietly warning of the difficulties of this matchup since August. It became an underpinning theme this week. Some excerpts, in chronological order:

Aug. 18 — Let’s also add North Carolina State exceeding 7.5 wins to the previous list of over bets.
Aug. 22 — Make no mistake about it: When the Irish host North Carolina State on Oct. 28, they will not be entering a trap game. The Wolfpack will be anything but average this season.

Sept. 19 — It may be a bit bold to predict the Wolfpack to win outright [at Florida State], but a cover and an under would go hand-in-hand.
Sept. 26 — North Carolina State notched its biggest win of the year, a 27-21 victory at Florida State. The Wolfpack benefited from 11 Seminoles penalties and a turnover, but overall North Carolina State just played a solid game.

Oct. 3 — As four-point underdogs, expect North Carolina State to come out on the high side of a 34-31 projected final [against Louisville].
Oct. 10 — The Wolfpack has definitively arrived, topping Louisville 39-25 on Thursday to add a second victory over the ACC’s top teams.

Monday — This seems an applicable time to remind folks, North Carolina State had the week off.
Tuesday — For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame will face a viable passing threat. North Carolina State senior quarterback Ryan Finley, however, has had a consistent and mistake-free season, especially if compared to USC junior Sam Darnold. Finley has yet to throw an interception and has been held to fewer than 200 yards only once, when he threw for 198 at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
Wednesday — Notre Dame will have a difficult time running against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack gives up a mere 3.04 yards per carry, No. 14 in the country. For context, Georgia ranks No. 7 in allowing 2.82 yards per rush and Michigan State comes in at No. 8 at 2.89 yards.
Thursday — North Carolina State may be, particularly in the eyes of this scribe, the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.
Friday — “They’re one of the top teams in the country,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They can play with anybody.”

All this was whole-heartedly intended to lay the groundwork for this prediction. The Wolfpack is a season-opening moment’s focus away from being undefeated. If South Carolina had not returned the first kick of its season for a touchdown, North Carolina State would enter this weekend no more than three-point underdogs. At that point, picking the upset would be much trendier than it is. It shouldn’t be trendy. It should hardly be considered an upset.

North Carolina State 28, Notre Dame 24. (6-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands safety commitment and Adams lands in more Heisman talk
Notre Dame’s Opponents: BC & Mich. St. rise while Miami continues its streak of well-timed luck
Notre Dame doesn’t ‘have anything else to play for’ but a Playoff bid
Questions for the Week (Some, Notre Dame already answered)
And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense
Things To Learn: Notre Dame will need the year’s best rushing performance vs. NC State
Notre Dame’s injury returns will aid needed punt return coverage
Friday at 4: If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE USC GAME:
Notre Dame makes quick, easy work of USC
Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook; Results create belief & an injury update

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Swarbrick reflects on his commitment to Brian Kelly over the offseason
Notre Dame left guard Quenton Nelson lands in the conversation of most NFL-ready, non-QB draft prospects
Irish linebacker Te’von Coney has returned from a public mistake to become a valuable on-field contributor
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has made all the difference for Notre Dame this season. How?
Do bye weeks lead to wins? ($)
A Notre Dame alumnus pledged a $100 million gift to the University to be used in any way the school sees fit
Former Notre Dame basketball guard Pat Connaughton has shown he is ready for an increased role with the Portland Blazers this season
Only one starting quarterback has yet to throw an interception this season
DeShone Kizer’s late night out doesn’t sit well with Browns
The Athletic’s Heisman straw poll has a familiar name debut this week ($)

Friday at 4: If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

Associated Press
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For all those encouraged and emboldened by the 49-14 Irish rout of USC a week ago, remember disappointment is still the most likely conclusion to Notre Dame’s 2017.

That is not a shot at this version of the Irish. It is an understanding of how hard it will be to win against North Carolina State, at Miami and at Stanford, not to mention versus Wake Forest and Navy. A loss is probable. Perhaps it will come this weekend, perhaps it will wait until the end of November.

If and when that second defeat dashes Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes, remember where this season started. As long as the next five weeks do not devolve to five straight losses and a holiday week spent in Nashville, Tenn., before the Music City Bowl, this season is set to be considered a success.

A genuine worst-case scenario of 8-4 would elicit some earned lamenting, but even that feels unlikely at this point. (Did you see Stanford on Thursday night? This space has been low on the Cardinal since August, but last night’s 15-14 struggle over Oregon State should prove to all that the Irish are not likely to struggle in the season finale.) Back in August, if offered a 9-3 or 10-2 season with two or three notable wins — including a blowout over USC — and no bad losses, most Notre Dame fans would have gladly, readily and blindly accepted that step in the right direction.

If the No. 14 Wolfpack knock off the No. 9 Irish on Saturday, keep that starting point in mind.

An 11-1 regular season finish and a spot in the College Football Playoff are possible; they just aren’t probable. If and when those latter odds pay out, look past the natural disappointment and focus on the leaps and bounds forward Notre Dame has taken in a short time span.

Even as recently as late April, no reasonable observer would have expected the Irish offense to score 41.3 points per game. In the spring-concluding Blue-Gold Game, the first-team offense managed only two touchdowns and 361 total yards. All but 58 of those yards came through the air, yet junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s aerial attack seemed disjointed at best.

Two weeks before that exhibition, Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley predicted, “Barring season-ending/altering injury to starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame will break the program record of 37.6 points per game set in 1968.” O’Malley is a reasonable person with generally good analysis, but after the Blue-Gold Game, his prognostication looked rather foolish.

How far have the Irish come? They can dial back their scoring by nearly a touchdown per game in the remaining five and still break that record. Well done, Tim. And impressive growth, Wimbush & Co., led by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Following that spring barometer, concern about Notre Dame’s offensive line would not have been misplaced. Going up against a supposedly-thin defensive line, Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book were “sacked” 11 times.

Now it is realized that was a testament to the defensive line’s strength, not the offensive line’s weakness as presumed.

In the “Jeopardy” category of Phrases no one expected to write about the Irish in 2017, the $800-clue would get the answer of “the defensive line’s strength, Alex.” The $1,000-clue and Daily Double would obviously be answered by, “Ireland lasted longer in World Cup qualifying than the United States Men’s National Team.”

Pertaining to American football, these are all steps forward, and they should all last beyond this season. Much like winter in South Bend (apparently Saturday may feature snow!), a loss is (probably) coming. That will not diminish the growth of 2017.

The immediate Notre Dame concern remains winning the point of attack on the line of scrimmage against North Carolina State’s veteran defensive front seven. The long-term view realizes the magnitude of progress already seen.

Notre Dame’s injury returns will aid needed punt return coverage

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Notre Dame’s punt return coverage has been good enough this season. No opponent has returned a punt (or a kick) for a touchdown. Few have been broken for advantageous field position. On 15 returns, Irish opponents have averaged nine yards per chance.

Yet, it is a primary concern for No. 9 Notre Dame heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 North Carolina State. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.) Wolfpack junior running back Nyheim Hines has returned seven punts for 137 yards this season, including a 92-yard touchdown in NC State’s most recent game two weeks ago at Pittsburgh.

“We can’t outkick our coverage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “55 yard punts are not good for us. We can’t stretch out our coverage units where we give big spaces and field for a guy like this. We need 4.5, 4.4 [seconds of] hang time. I’ll take 38-to-42 [yards] and give us great coverage opportunities. The punting is really going to be key in this game with a dangerous return man.”

In addition to a level of natural shiftiness, Hines’ threat derives from his elite speed. In the spring, he moonlights with the Wolfpack track team, qualifying for the NCAA Regionals in both the 100-meter dash and the 4-by-100-meter relay despite spending only part of his year on the oval. Hines also made the ACC first-team in the 100-meter in 2017 thanks to a wind-aided 10.34 seconds. Without the wind at his back, he ran 10.42 seconds in the first round of prelims at the NCAA East Regional, his personal record.

To date, the longest punt return allowed by Notre Dame was a 28-yarder to Georgia’s Mecole Hardman. He also notched the longest kick return allowed, at 38 yards, tied last week by USC’s Velus Jones.

“We’ve just been okay [on kickoffs],” Kelly said. “We have to be better there, we’ve worked hard on that. Directionally, [NC State is] a team that we’ve got to look to put the ball in tough positions where we can obviously get down there.”

Hines has returned 16 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards with a season-long of 50 yards.

The Irish coverage units will receive a boost — two, actually — this weekend compared to the rout over the Trojans. Junior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Greer Martini rejoined the special teams units during practice this week, recovering from a sprained ankle and a torn meniscus, respectively. As much as Kelly may often project returns from injury with a later-realized optimism, Williams and Martini engaging with the special teams units is as strong an indicator as any that both are at or near enough to 100 percent.

On Williams, Kelly said, “He should be able to impact the game.” Regarding Martini, Kelly kept it simple, “He’ll be playing.”

Fifth-year receiver and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith will most likely not be due to a hamstring strain.

“I’d say he’s doubtful,” Kelly said. “He’s better, but he doesn’t have the burst right now.”

Notre Dame will need all hands to keep the Wolfpack in check on both sides of the ball. Kelly may have offered the week’s most succinct-but-effective summarization of the challenge about to be presented.

“Rightly so, they get a lot of credit for what they’ve done defensively in [senior defensive end Nick] Chubb and [senior defensive tackle B.J.] Hill and a veteran defense that’s really good,” he said. “It’s a physical defense. It creates a lot of problems. Their defensive coordinator does a great job with their scheme and causing a lot of problems.

“The efficiency offensively, they are not getting a lot of possessions per game … and yet they average [3.26] points per possession. That’s extremely efficient in what they do. The efficiency of their offense—obviously everybody knows that they don’t throw picks—but very rarely in college football can you sustain long drives without making mistakes. They sustain them and they score. It’s pretty impressive.

“… They’re one of the top teams in the country. They can play with anybody.”

For context, the Irish offense averages 3.01 points per possession.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame will need the year’s best rushing performance vs. NC State

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It is an age-old rule of college football: Nobody has played anybody.

As soon as a team is beaten, it is proof that squad was overrated. It is never evidence the victor was just a better team beating its scheduled opponents, the only objective at hand.

Alabama could be the next opponent and a diehard would insist, “The Tide hasn’t played anybody. Florida State isn’t any good this year. That’s the only win of note.” This would be ignoring the fact that the Seminoles have given up only 22.5 points per game this season despite playing Alabama and five ACC opponents in a season disjointed by Hurricane Irma.

Florida State is good this year, just not as good as years past. That was a high bar to start with. Only Nick Saban has found such sustained success in the last two decades, and let’s remember, he once described himself as not Attila the Hun. That’s a pretty easy bar to get underneath, in its own right.

Another mark difficult to replicate is any Heisman-winning campaign. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was going to be deemed a disappointment this year unless he threw for 4,000 yards, rushed for 2,000 and accounted for 60 total touchdowns. (His 2016 marks: 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing and 51 total scores.) Does any of that seem realistic? Of course not. Instead, Jackson is merely on pace for 4,027 passing yards, 1,411 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns.

Thus, while he may appear to be having a subpar season, it is only in comparison to his hardly-comparable 2016. When North Carolina State held him to 97 yards on 15 rushes (sacks adjusted) and an inefficient 55.3 completion percentage on his way to 354 passing yards, that was the Wolfpack defense limiting an offensive dynamo, not Jackson falling short again this season. (Jackson’s completion percentage on the year is 60.3.) He averaged 7.53 yards per attempt, more than a yard short of his season figure of 8.79.

When NC State scored 27 points against the Seminoles — none coming from short fields — that was the Wolfpack succeeding against one of the country’s better defenses, not a sign of Florida State’s demise.

These distinctions need to be made when discussing a conference as deep as the ACC appears to be this season. Reeling off four consecutive wins in that conference earns notice, hence why North Carolina State is up to No. 14 in the AP top-25.

Its rise further will hinge on that defense.

Can Notre Dame run against a genuinely good defense? It hasn’t yet.
Let’s use yards gained per carry as the metric for rushing offense and yards allowed per carry for rushing defense. By that measurement, the Irish have the second-best rushing attack in the country, gaining 7.06 yards per attempt, trailing only Stanford’s 7.74. North Carolina State has the No. 14 rush defense, giving up 3.04 yards per carry. (Note: For all rushing statistics in this section, they are not sacks adjusted. Unusual for this space, but making that alteration to the numbers would put the national figures out of context.)

Only one Wolfpack foe has ranked in the top half of the country as a rushing offense, Louisville at No. 8, gaining 6.13 yards per rush. How did the Cardinals, including Jackson, fare against NC State? They gained 116 yards on 29 carries, an average of 4.0 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, only two Notre Dame opponents rank in the top half of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense. You know the two. Georgia comes in at No. 7, giving up 2.82 yards per rush, and Michigan State is at No. 8 with 2.89 yards per carry. How did the Irish do on the ground in those two games? A combined 237 yards on 77 carries, an average of 3.08 yards per carry.

Clearly, the Wolfpack’s veteran-laden defensive front seven is more in line with the Bulldogs and the Spartans than it is with North Carolina (No. 98) and USC (No. 96). It has already limited one of the country’s most-potent rush attacks.

Notre Dame’s running game has improved since struggling against Georgia and Michigan State. The offensive line has developed as more of a unit. The running back stable has found a better semblance of health. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has become particularly apt at finding eight or 10 yards with his legs on any given passing play.

Has it improved enough to plow through North Carolina State’s defense? This answer may be the key to the remainder of the season. The next two Irish opponents also tilt more toward the top of the rushing defense spectrum than the bottom. (Wake Forest: No. 55, 4.14 yards per carry; Miami (FL): No. 57, 4.19 yards per carry.)

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has yet to lead a successful in-game two-minute drill. Admittedly, that is primarily because the Irish have typically had such large leads this season. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

It has been awhile since Notre Dame won a close game. A close game often hinges on an offense’s ability to score at the end of a half. Can Wimbush run a successful two-minute drill?
In the first half of the season, the junior quarterback was asked to execute in short-order only once, the final minutes in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. Twice the Irish had the ball in the final minutes, yet the Bulldogs still came out ahead.

Wimbush had a chance to show his command of the offense at the end of the first half against the Trojans, but drops by junior tight end Alizé Mack and junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown cut short a drive at the USC 40-yard line.

Heading into that game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Wimbush had started to find success in practice in two-minute drills.

“We couldn’t even get a first down [in those drills] throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks,” Kelly said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Some of that progress has come at the expense of the Irish defense. Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Wednesday he has noticed the differences.

“Those were the moments last year when we weren’t successful,” Tranquill said. “We lost a lot of games in the two-minute scenario at the end of the games.

“So it’s a big point of emphasis for us, and I think Brandon’s comfort in the pocket, his ability to deliver the ball downfield to the receivers just continues to grow. … When you have a quarterback who is as dynamic as he is to get out of the pocket and extend plays, but he continues to develop himself through the air, it becomes more of a challenge for the defense.”

It is not Wimbush’s fault Notre Dame has blown out its last five opponents and he has thus not needed to showcase this supposedly-developing skill. He may have that opportunity against North Carolina State, though.

Can the Irish defense stand strong for an entire game without the benefit of a forced turnover?
Notre Dame very well may take away the ball from the Wolfpack. It just seems unlikely. North Carolina State has lost three fumbles this entire season. There is no need to mention interceptions. Senior quarterback Ryan Finley hasn’t thrown any.

The Irish have forced 17 turnovers.

For this exercise, let’s grant the premise giving away just three turnovers in seven games is more impressive than forcing 17 in seven games. (This is debatable, hence the granting of the premise.) If removing those 17 possessions, Notre Dame has given up scoring opportunities (touchdowns or field goals attempted) 24 of 77 times. With an average of about 13 possessions per team per game, that rate would grant the Wolfpack four scoring opportunities this weekend.

Obviously, the Irish would rather take away the ball, but that might not happen against an offense this disciplined. In that case, the defense will need to hold its own 10 times or more.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Drue Tranquill could be the key piece to stopping North Carolina State’s offensive do-everything, Jaylen Samuels, this weekend when the No. 9 Irish host the No. 14 Wolfpack. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

To do that, who will keep senior Jaylen Samuels in check?
He isn’t quite a receiver. He is more than a running back. He seems far too talented to be a tight end. Samuels does a bit of everything.

This may be the assignment Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko envisioned when he first created the rover, his preferred schematic wrinkle. Tranquill can certainly match Samuels’ physicality, but Tranquill’s greatest lacking as a safety was his top-end speed. Samuels may test that.

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds, Samuels may also be too much for Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford to handle. Crawford is listed at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds.

This is why the Wolfpack features Samuels. No one defender can mitigate him. It is also why Elko has the safety/linebacker hybrid of the rover.

And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense

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Due to some crossed signals, two sets of responses came in from North Carolina State beat reporters for this week’s rendition of a boxing analogy. They offered different styles in their answers, complementary in nature, so let’s present both. It is appropriate to have even further insights into the No. 14 Wolfpack than usual, as it may be — particularly in the eyes of this scribe — the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

As an unnecessary reminder, the Irish host North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

For now, let’s turn to Matt Carter of The Wolfpacker and Joe Giglio of Raleigh’s The News & Observer.

DF: Hey guys. I hope you enjoyed North Carolina State’s bye week. For our purposes, it is always nice when those come right in the middle of the season. How many years have you been on the Wolfpack beat now?
MC: I started in the summer of 2004 just in time to see Mario Williams break out as an NC State defensive end and am in my 14th season.

JG: I’ve been at the paper for 20 years but only on the State beat since 2008 for basketball and 2011 for football.

Speaking of that bye week, how did NC State spend it? To my knowledge, the team isn’t too banged up at this point, so there was not an impetus on getting guys healthy, at least not more than there always is in the middle of a football season.
MC: Dave Doeren stated during his weekly Monday press conference that a lot of time was spent going back to the basics and working on fundamentals. The Wolfpack has been fortunate from an injury standpoint but it still was able to use the time to get some bumps and bruises taken care of.

JG: They got a few days off last week and spent some time on fundamentals. You’re right, for the most part they have been healthy, except in the secondary. A little extra rest doesn’t hurt, though.

Through seven games, including an active six-game winning streak, Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns without completing a single pass to the opposition. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a micro view, specifically senior quarterback Ryan Finley. The current buzz du jour around him is his complete lack of interceptions thrown, but he is certainly more than a game manager protecting the ball. His 69.4 completion percentage jumps off the page and averaging more than 280 passing yards a game is something Notre Dame’s secondary may fear. What about his game makes Finley so effective while also keeping him off the national radar?
MC: It’s a combination of factors. He graduated from Boise State in three years and is close to finishing his masters at NC State. Thus, he has a very good head on his shoulders. Secondly, he’s a smart guy who has been in this system for four years now. Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz was Finley’s offensive coordinator at Boise State and the two made the move to Raleigh together. Combining his intelligence and familiarity with the offense with an accurate touch throwing the football and a very calm and cool demeanor on and off the field, and you have a quarterback that just has not been easy to rattle this season.

JG: Finley makes quick reads and gets the ball out of his hands. He also has gotten better about taking more shots down the field. What has really helped him is the receivers making more plays on 50-50 passes.

Sticking with the offense, Irish coach Brian Kelly described senior H-back Jaylen Samuels as a “match-up nightmare.” I usually see him described as a tight end/wide receiver, but from the North Carolina State games I have seen, that hybrid description does not accurately explain his role in the offense. He has 191 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to go along with 453 yards and three touchdowns receiving, after all. How does the offense showcase, if not even rely on, Samuels?

Senior Jaylen Samuels lines up just about everywhere for North Carolina State. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

MC: The goal is to put Samuels in advantageous matchups, and because he is so versatile it can really strain a defense. He has the ability to exploit matchups at multiple spots on the field. More times than not you will probably see Samuels in the slot, but he will also line up in the backfield, occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight end and even take a few snaps out wide. This year it seems to me more than anything he has emerged as one of the offense’s go-to guys on third downs and in the red zone in particular.

JG: He’s basically a slot receiver they also use as a short-yardage running back. They’ve started using him more and more in the red zone at running back. He’s a little bigger than junior Nyheim Hines, which helps in short-yardage situations.

He leads the team targets (63) and catches (54). Those are mostly shorter, intermediate routes. There are some specific plays designed for him — on jet sweeps and shovel pass — but for the most part, he’s a glorified slot receiver.

In some respects, Finley and Samuels may have excelled without great notice because the Wolfpack defense gets the headlines, specifically its front seven. It hasn’t seen an offensive line like Notre Dame’s yet, though. Then again, the Irish struggled against Georgia’s defensive front, but the o-line has pretty clearly improved since the second week of the season. In something of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, how do you see the trenches being won?
MC: My suspicion is that you will see a middle ground met. I would not suspect Notre Dame is going to rush for 300 yards against NC State. Nor do I think it’s realistic for the Wolfpack to shut down the Irish like Georgia did, which as you pointed out was back in week two.

To me, the key is which team is winning in the fourth quarter when it’s quite possible the game is on the line. NC State’s defense, at times, has been far better in the second half of games this year than the first.

JG: I expect Notre Dame’s offense to do what a lot of teams have done against State: Get rid of the ball quickly and not give senior defensive end Bradley Chubb a chance to get after the quarterback. State’s run defense is pretty stout, with B.J. Hill and Justin Jones in the middle.

A few teams have found success through the air despite that pass rush. Specifically, Marshall threw for 350 yards, Syracuse 385 and Louisville 354. The Irish passing attack has been, shall we say, lacking this season, but could that be an opportunity to exploit a Wolfpack weakness?
MC: There have been teams that have literally abandoned the run to throw the ball against NC State. Those three games are very good examples of that. Marshall’s leading rusher carried eight times. Sixteen of Syracuse’s 30 rushes were by the quarterback. Louisville took a very similar approach. That is partly a tribute to the respect of the Wolfpack rush defense, but also the fact that teams know they can throw the football effectively against NC State if given time.

The Wolfpack has faced a lot of offenses using max protection to block the front to exploit matchups against the secondary. The question is will a fully healthy secondary make a difference in the second half of the year. By the end of the South Carolina game through week five against Syracuse, NC State was down two starters and a top reserve. The two starters have since returned and were rotating snaps the last three games while easing back in.

JG: The shots will be there. State’s a bend-don’t-break defense. Marshall receiver Tyre Brady had a big game by getting into man routes with corner Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver. I would expect Notre Dame to try to take some shots down the field with junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

Switching to a macro view, entering the season some considered North Carolina State an ACC dark horse, but with the defending national champion in the conference, not very many had that outlook. What were, and what are, the realistic expectations closer to the program? You certainly know more than those viewing from 35,000 feet.
MC: There was not much doubt that this was Dave Doeren’s best team at NC State, and it fit a lot of the criteria of a team that should have a really good season. It returned a ton of experience from a squad that went 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including a win against Notre Dame which had similar struggles in close games). If you ask those around the program, NC State felt, with justification, it should have won all four of those games it lost.

So it was a competitive team returning all the key players. But the expectations were also tampered for two reasons. One, the perception around NC State athletics, especially with its basketball team, is it historically underachieves when it should be good. Secondly, the schedule was going to be difficult, especially since the ACC’s Atlantic is considered far superior to the Coastal.

Perhaps fortunately for NC State, a couple of those Atlantic heavyweights — Clemson and Louisville — are struggling.

JG: The Wolfpack has won at least 10 games only once in school history. That’s it. Most people here thought this team could win 10 games. The playoff talk was always kind of looked at like a lark with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being the main obstacles.

Those expectations may have changed after wins over Florida State and Louisville. The nature of college football now devalues those wins a bit, but whether or not that is valid — and it is likely somewhere in between — those wins gave the Wolfpack season quite a bit of momentum from afar. How has that been felt around the program?
MC: If anything, it got NC State over that hump. Last year, NC State dropped an interception that probably would have sealed a 20-17 win over Florida State at home and opened the door for the ‘Noles to win it on a late touchdown, 24-20. The team needed a success to point to as proof its direction and approach were the right way. It got those wins under challenging setups.

As you noted, both FSU and Louisville may not have been what they were expected to be, but Florida State essentially had three weeks to prepare for NC State due to Hurricane Irma altering its schedule, and Louisville had played a couple of cupcakes leading into NC State while the Wolfpack had to play Syracuse the previous Saturday before playing the Cards on a short week.

JG: Yeah, those three teams have dominated the Atlantic Division and Dave Doeren had been 0-11 against those three teams going into this season. Any win over the group would have been considered a bonus. To possibly sweep those three? I don’t think anyone reasonably predicted that would be possible.

What have I missed? I didn’t intentionally leave out junior running back Nyheim Hines. I suppose I just see Finley’s arm as a bigger threat to the Irish defense. Is that foolish of me?

North Carolina State junior running back Nyheim Hines has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns this season with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MC: Hines is one of the country’s leaders in all-purpose yards and has gotten some midseason All-American mention. Entering the bye he led all ACC running backs in rushing yards and was on pace for more than 1,000 yards. He singlehandedly kept NC State in the game during the first half against Pittsburgh when the Wolfpack looked like it was sleepwalking a little following that win over Louisville. In the second half, NC State asserted itself and outscored the Panthers 21-3.

The most underrated aspect of NC State this season, to me, is the offensive line. In four ACC games, Finley has not been sacked yet. Pitt did not even register a quarterback hurry in the last game. Both senior right guard Tony Adams and junior right tackle Will Richardson could be All-ACC candidates.

On the flipside, NC State’s special teams was sure to be a focal point in the bye because both placekicking and kick coverage have been a sore spot.

JG: Hines is a home-run hitter. He can be quiet at times and then he’ll pop one. The difference in the Louisville game was the receivers and the plays they were able to make down field.

I was shocked to see Notre Dame favored by more than a touchdown. How do you see Saturday afternoon going?
MC: It’s hard to ignore how impressive Notre Dame looked against USC. Dominating any opponent from a Power Five conference in that fashion is the sign of a really, really good football team. I get the feeling this is a game of two teams headed for special seasons on a collision course with each other. Typically in those types of settings, I might prefer the home squad.

I do think it will be a close, competitive game that could be decided by a late touchdown.

JG: I’ve got N.C. State winning 20-18. A play on Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia and 18 being double its point total in the previous two games against N.C. State (six in 2002 and three last year).