RALEIGH, NC - OCTOBER 01: Matthew Dayes #21 of the NC State Wolfpack leaps for a touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Carter-Finley Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)
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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.

Young defense ready for next challenge

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The youth movement is here. And that young war chest of defensive talent that Notre Dame recruited to walk in and compete is… well, already competing.

Spin that any way that you want. And after the Syracuse win, it’s at least a little bit easier to look at it as a positive.

In a matter of a week, the Irish rebooted their starting secondary. They shook up their supporting pieces at linebacker. And they found opportunities to work some depth into a defensive line that was in desperate need of a rotation.

It’s a change that Brian Kelly can sum up in two sentences:

“I can’t remember ever playing this many freshmen.”

And…

“It’s the way I want our defense to look, based upon who our personnel is.”

Leading the way are cornerbacks Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. A week after promising that no freshman would go from zero snaps to 70, Pride nearly did that, playing a sizable role in the Irish secondary against Syracuse after getting Kelly’s attention as a scout team coverman.

“He impressed me. I really was impressed with him. I wanted to play him,” Kelly said. “I thought we should have played him, so I’m making those personnel decisions. We played him a little too much.”

Across from Pride was Donte Vaughn. Matched up (with help) as the Irish tried to slow Syracuse’s game-breaker Amba Etta-Tawo, Vaughn showed what Kelly saw on tape as a recruiter—a lengthy cornerback who may have safety size, but is talented enough to cover.

“Obviously he’s a unique player in that he the size and the flexibility to play that position,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be a really good tackler, and he’s got really good ball skills. So for a guy that’s long, fluid, athletic, he’s not afraid, and he’s going to play the ball well in the air and tackle. All those things are really, really good traits to have as a 6-2 corner.”

While the Wolf Pack don’t have an All-American candidate at receiver, they do have better personnel than Syracuse on both sides of the ball. The offense will be challenged by a rugged and disruptive defensive front while Greg Hudson won’t face the turbo-charged offense the Orange displayed, but a group that’ll play with pace under Eli Drinkwitz.

And after getting back on the right side of the ledger, Kelly continues to want to see progress.

“We will see how that goes. It was good last week,” Kelly said. “We got another really good team we’re playing this week and we just have to understand that it’s hard to win, just look at college football.”

Hurricane path could impact ND-NC State start time

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.
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With Hurricane Matthew on its way towards Florida, the entire Southeast is preparing for storms. And with Notre Dame set to make its first visit to Raleigh and NC State, the Irish are preparing for as many scenarios as possible.

“Everything is on the table right now,” Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ve given them a window that we’re available to play this game from 12 o’clock until noon on Sunday. We feel like anything after noon on Sunday starts to encroach on our ability to prepare for Stanford.”

“So there is quite a bit of flexibility. We feel like we’ve secured accommodations and flights and such to leave a big window of availability to play this game.”

Those who remember last season’s high-profile showdown with Clemson certainly remember the monsoon conditions that impacted the football game. So while the storm’s pattern still isn’t assured to hit Raleigh, the ACC is communicating with both schools, as NC State released the following statement Tuesday afternoon.

“We are monitoring the path and potential impact of weather in our region this weekend due to Hurricane Matthew. While we will make every effort to play our much-anticipated game with Notre Dame this Saturday as scheduled, the safety of both teams and our patrons is our first priority. We had a conference call this afternoon with the ACC and Notre Dame, will remain in communication and monitor the potential conditions.”

Swarbrick addresses coaching change

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick speaks during a news conference at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Notre Dame is moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference _ yet keeping its football independence. The school will play five football games annually against the league's programs, but will be a full member in all other sports. The Irish will have access to the ACC's non-BCS bowl tie-ins. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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After one of the most chaotic weeks inside the Gug resulted in a victory, Jack Swarbrick publicly discussed the difficult week for his highest-paid employee.  And in case you weren’t sure, Swarbrick’s belief in Brian Kelly is unchanged.

Speaking to the South Bend Tribune, Swarbrick gave not just a vote of confidence to his seventh-year head coach, but talked about the thought process that went into removing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“My message, publicly and privately, is the program is in great shape,” Swarbrick told the South Bend Tribune. “When there are big program problems, that’s harder to deal with. When you just have to start playing as well as you can, it’s a narrower search.

“‘How do we fix that?’”

The commitment to Kelly isn’t surprising. It’s also not the first publicly supportive stance Swarbrick’s taken—he spoke with ABC57 in South Bend last week as well, an interview that’ll touch on more than just the current struggles on the football field, but also the larger ambitions of the Campus Crossroads project and the athletic department.

While some wondered if Swarbrick triggered the move by Kelly, it’s fairly clear that the relationship between head coach and athletic director is one where a big decision like the dismissal of your highest profile assistant isn’t made lightly, but done after significant discussion.

Swarbrick and Kelly identified what was broken and then made the move.

“We’re 1-3, everybody wants to know you’re doing something,” Swarbrick said. “You just can’t say, ‘We’re not going to change anything.’ Regardless of friendships; regardless of how much someone may like somebody; the message you send when you make some changes (is) that you’re willing to do what you need to do to win.

“From a staff and player perspective, notwithstanding the personal sorrow about it because of their relationships, they’re glad to see you’re doing it. ‘OK, we’ll follow you’re direction. Let’s go.'”

 

 

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 01:  Dexter Williams #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks away and runs the ball in for a touchdown in the second half against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Syracuse Orange 50-33.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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After a miserable September, the Irish kicked off October in a far more fitting fashion. Their 50-33 win, a much-needed victory after a week of chaos inside the Gug, hopefully served to settle down a program that has had to restructure its coaching staff and revise its goals before the season’s first month was finished.

While it’s a short-term band-aid if there ever was one, the victory gets the program back on course. It makes a bowl appearance more probably than not, and it gives a young Irish roster some positive affirmations.

So before we turn the page on the Orange, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Equanimeous St. BrownNotre Dame’s sophomore receiver is building confidence by the bushel. At least he should be. Because at a position where most expected the W to be the weakness, St. Brown is the Irish’s No. 1 receiver.

That leap was something that some saw coming after hints during a freshman season where St. Brown’s practice exploits were rumored. But a slow spring and the ascent of Kevin Stepherson in the spring had few talking about the sophomore. But with six touchdowns and 541 yards through four games, St. Brown is on track for a monster season.

 

Donte Vaughn. The true freshman cornerback led the defense in snaps, playing all 78 for the Irish. And for the most part he acquitted himself quite nicely.

The lanky, 6-foot-2 coverman spent a large portion of the afternoon matched up against Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo, and for the most part he held him in check. That was a battle Brian Kelly seemed fairly comfortable about the freshman’s ability to hold up—so good that they slid Cole Luke inside to the nickel and kept Vaughn matched up with Syracuse’s most dangerous weapon, a guy putting up All-American numbers through the season’s first quarter.

Vaughn might have solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.

 

Te’von Coney. Moved around the field, Coney was at his most impactful on Saturday afternoon, making seven official tackles and multiple times blowing up a play at the point of attack.

Schematically it was wonderful to see Coney moved all over the field, at times lining up over a wide receiver in a bunch formation, destroying blocks as the Orange tried to beat him with a few quick throws, all of which Coney did a great job covering.

Given the chance to start for Brian VanGorder after Greer Martini played a tough Texas game, Coney has struggled with consistency since then. But against Syracuse, he looked like the kind of “in space” linebacker who had very high expectations before this season.

 

Dexter WilliamsGiven the chance after a nice game against Duke, Williams made the most out of his opportunity—his 59-yard touchdown run a gain that salvaged the rushing attack.

It also turned the running back race on its head. Williams continues to move up the depth chart, likely closer to being the starter than the third-stringer at this point. And Kelly gave Williams credit for the development he’s shown on and off the field.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster, but where I see it is off the field. He’s grown in maturity, and I think that that’s translated itself on the field,” Kelly said on Sunday.

“He comes to practice every day with great energy and enthusiasm and I think that that has a lot to do with him being very comfortable here at Notre Dame. But let’s not mistake the fact that he’s also put on about 15 pounds. He’s explosive, and that’s all because he’s made that commitment to obviously Notre Dame and himself.”

 

The Big Chunk Offensive Plays. Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Kevin Stepherson all took big plays to the house. And those four scores did plenty to erase some of the other inefficiencies in the offensive performance.

A year after the Irish had the most explosive offense in school history, big plays won the day. And they were a sight for sore eyes. Even better? All three of these playmakers are underclassmen.

 

Quick Hits: 

* When Jay Hayes began to emerge as a starting candidate for the weakside starting defensive end position, it always seemed like a curious fit. That explains why Hayes was used differently this weekend, and still found a way to notch nearly two dozen snaps.

“He did some pretty good things. He’s a big physical kid,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about Hayes’ challenge as a “tweener,” not quite a three-technique, and not really a weakside defensive end, either. But with the Irish needed to be tougher at the point of attack, Hayes gave them a boost.

* I’ve probably set the bar too high, but you’ve got to include DeShone Kizer in the “good” if he throws for the third-highest yardage total in school history. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon in the offense, but he made some really nice throws and he played a second half that Kelly really liked.

* The run defense took a nice step forward, limiting big plays and featuring some impressive work by Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu and Coney.  Making Syracuse one-dimensional was key and credit the Irish front seven for doing that.

* Jarron Jones is the best kick blocker I’ve watched. His ability to both get a push and use his length to elevate sure is a nice luxury. That two-point swing was huge.

* You can’t get done with the good without mentioning Greg Hudson. It must’ve been a great week for the former Notre Dame linebacker who did a great job being a team player this week.

 

THE BAD

The Slow Start on Defense. It looked like things were headed in a very bad direction after watching the defense the first two series. Quick strike touchdowns. Free runners streaking vertically through the secondary. And whatever changes dialed up midweek looked like bad ideas.

But the Irish found their footing and actually had a pretty impressive outing, especially in the second half. But what a crazy start to the football game—with points hitting the board like a pinball machine.

 

The Run Blocking. It’s going to be an important week for Harry Hiestand’s troops. Because North Carolina State has a solid defensive line—much better than Syracuse. And take away two big runs and the Irish ground game was really mediocre, getting no push in the trenches and failing to win as they attacked the edges of the Orange defense.

Colin McGovern tapped out as he tried to fight through a high-ankle sprain. Hunter Bivin was the next man in and struggled at times. Alex Bars got noticed a few times for the wrong reasons, too.

If this season has done anything, it’s served as a reminder that last year’s offensive line was incredible and that the Irish miss first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and second-rounder Nick Martin.

 

The False Start Penalties. The next guy to jump offsides on 3rd-and-less-than-five should get stuck carrying the dirty laundry back to campus. Notre Dame’s defensive front—certainly a group eager to impressive—wasn’t all that sharp on Eric Dungey’s hard count.

New Rule: If you can pass admissions at Notre Dame, you should be able to watch the football and not bite on the hard count on 3rd-and-short.

 

The targeting penalty. Devin Studstill getting thrown out of the game—after a replay official triggered the review—was all the worst parts of a rule that seems to be good sense, but rarely gets properly enforced.

Listening to Kelly postgame, you could hear a head coach who was clearly frustrated, with the loss of Studstill a huge impact on an already young and inexperienced secondary.

“He was definitely not targeting. I don’t understand the rule,” Kelly said.

 

 

THE UGLY

That was one ugly win. And that’s a good thing. Because for the past few seasons we’ve had a hard time remembering that an ugly win is a good thing, and too often we’ve gotten wrapped up in style points as most struggled to enjoy Saturdays where the Irish sang the fight song postgame but didn’t play up to their potential.

Well, one terrible September goes a long way toward a remedy.

With next weekend’s kickoff set for noon, the Irish dodge a primetime bullet that usually comes with a highly-ranked Irish team going on the road. That’s mostly a good thing, especially if the Wolfpack—and their fans— find themselves a little slow rolling out of bed.

But at this point, there’s no such thing as a bad win. So good, bad, or ugly—any way to get it done will be good enough for this crew.