And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes

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In the short history of the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame has had the chance to play in some great venues in some terrific cities. Starting the neutral site renaissance with an odd match against Washington State in San Antonio, the Irish exponentially improved the concept when they played the first football game in new Yankee Stadium against Army in 2010, and went to the nation’s capital for a game against Maryland in FedEx Field. This Saturday, the Shamrock Series marries the the best package of opponent and venue thus far, with the Miami Hurricanes joining Notre Dame in Chicago for a night game in Soldier Field.

This may not be the spirited rivalry it was back when Jimmy Johnson and Lou Holtz squared off, but it’s certainly a game that both teams have circled on their schedules for some time. With the ‘Canes entering the game at a surprising 4-1, it’s also a game that’ll garner some of the national spotlight, with the Irish looking to knock off another impressive opponent and Miami hoping to vault into the top 25.

Looking for a little bit more insight into the game, I tracked down Michael Casagrande of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Fresh to the Hurricanes beat after covering Alabama from 2009-2012, Michael was generous enough to find some time for me while spitting out columns left and right before the big game.

I asked, he answered. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy.

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1. The ‘Canes seem to have been on the high-wire this season, winning shootouts with Boston College, Georgia Tech, and most recently North Carolina State. That Al Golden’s young squad is 4-1 (3-0 in ACC play) says something about his team. How confident is this Miami team heading into Chicago?

They’re in a much better place than they were three weeks ago. The ‘Canes faced a turning point after the 52-13 pounding at Kansas State. There was no guarantee of anything at that point, but things started to click at Georgia Tech and they’ve played like a different team since. Well, at least on offense. Defense is another issue.

2. The last time most Notre Dame fans saw Stephen Morris, it was in mop-up time against the Irish in El Paso at the Sun Bowl. Morris was the bright spot of a pretty mediocre performance by a ‘Canes team playing without a head coach. Now a junior, he seems to have put the pieces together. What type of challenge will he present to Notre Dame’s defense?

Morris has a cannon for an arm. Coaches even had to ask him to dial it back a bit sometimes and throw with a little more touch. He’s thrown with both recently when fitting deep balls in tight windows. Morris can also move around in the pocket and take off on occasion. A few planned QB runs have been effective this season. He’s also spread the ball around to several different receivers and running backs. So far, the tight ends have been a disappointment in the passing game.

3. On the other side of the ball, the Hurricanes have some pretty ugly numbers defensively. As someone that’s watched every snap this year, how bad is it? What’s been the biggest problem for Mark D’Onofrio’s unit?

It’s pretty bad at times. This is a young group with serious deficiencies in certain places. The defensive tackles aren’t very deep and will likely be without starter Olsen Pierre on Saturday. The most talented players are also the youngest. Sophomores and freshmen play many key roles, but also make the biggest mistakes. It’s a work in progress that might not be complete for another year. Forcing turnover (six of them) was huge last week when allowing 644 yards to NC State.

4. There’s a lot of good young offensive talent at Miami. I imagine we’ll hear plenty from Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett this weekend. Who else should Irish fans be worried about?

Receiver Allen Hurns was having a big season early on, but went down with a head injury (assumed to be a concussion) early at Kansas State. He has the size, speed, and hands to make a difference out there. Running back Mike James has also had a few big games here and there. Having the balance between run and pass will be huge in Miami’s shot at the upset.

5. Two recruits Notre Dame chased hard were Hurricanes Seantrel Henderson and Anthony Chickillo. Now that the recruiting spotlight is off of them, how have they played?

Both should play big roles. Henderson has been all over the map this year. He got in trouble when arriving late for summer classes, then there was a preseason concussion suffered in a car wreck. He missed all of August with that and attending two family funerals. Henderson even played on the scout team in the first week before moving back into the rotation. He’s been at both left and right tackle, but figures to start on the right side Saturday night. Chickillo is battling through almost constant double teams. As the bright spot on the line, he’s drawing much more attention. The Hurricanes need him to get pressure on the quarterback.

6. Vegas has this game with Notre Dame a double-digit favorite. How do you see it? What does Miami need to do to win the game on Saturday?

I have no clue. Seriously. This Miami team is all over the place. My gut says Notre Dame by 10, but my gut has been so wrong so often this year, it’s not worth asking anymore.

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For more of Michael’s coverage leading up to the game, you can follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande and check out the Sun Sentinel’s Miami Hurricanes Blog.