Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh

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If there is a trap game for Notre Dame this season, it just may be Pittsburgh, as always seems to be the case when the Panthers are on the schedule. The other prime candidates would be trips to Wake Forest and Northwestern, but the Deacons gave Notre Dame enough of a challenge last year to be remembered and the Wildcats received plenty of votes in the preseason Coaches Poll to be sure they are not off all radars.

Pittsburgh being a headache is not inherently an Irish difficulty. The Panthers upset both Penn State and Clemson in 2016 and topped then-No. 2 and undefeated Miami to close last year.

2017 REVIEW
Pittsburgh went through three quarterbacks last season, originally due to injury and then out of ineffectiveness. Max Browne started five games in the first half of the year before getting knocked out, at which point Ben DiNucci took over. When freshman Kenny Pickett subbed in and nearly pushed the Panthers past Virginia Tech in the penultimate week of the year, he earned the start against the Hurricanes.

Pickett’s first career start marked a high note for all involved. He scored three total touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air.

The other change for Pittsburgh as the season progressed came from its defense. Early in the year, the Panthers hardly stopped anyone — Oklahoma State most notably hung 59 points in the season’s third week. In their final five games, however, only one opponent broke 17 points, winning three of them to push the record to a nearly-respectable posting of 5-7.

WHAT PITTSBURGH LOST
Browne and DiNucci, for starters, but Pickett’s closing and age made him the frontrunner for the starting quarterback gig, anyway. He will need to find new receivers, with leading man Jester Weah (41 receptions for 698 yards and four touchdowns) done and multi-positional threat Quadree Henderson (17 catches for 186 yards; 36 rushes for 251 yards; 46 combined returns for 767 yards and two punt return touchdowns) now working his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.

Pickett will also have to trust a new offensive line, having lost three starters, including first-team All-ACC left tackle Brian O’Neill.

Defensively this listing is rather short. Cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead are the only names not returning among Pittsburgh’s top-15 tacklers.

WHAT PITTSBURGH GAINED
Pickett’s dual-threat abilities make him the almost-certain starter, but if he struggles in his first extended time, the Panthers can turn to former USC and Arkansas quarterback Ricky Town, eligible immediately thanks to a year in junior college. Pittsburgh also added four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin.

Returning nine defensive starters means not much is needed on that side of the ball. First-year coordinator Randy Bates likely will not complain about that, having arrived from Northwestern, where he was the linebackers coach.

Pat Narduzzi. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Pat Narduzzi is a known name for Irish fans. He is, indeed, the same Pat Narduzzi who used to coordinate the Michigan State defense. He did quite well there, but has yet to find a groove in Pittsburgh.

Narduzzi began with two 8-5 campaigns before tailing off last year. Nonetheless, the Panthers are a worthwhile 2-3 against top-10 opponents in Narduzzi’s three seasons.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Pickett gets off to a strong start, he will get the attention. Part of that strong start will presumably derive from a running game, one most likely hinging on a committee of …

Junior Darrin Hall: 128 carries for 628 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Senior Qadree Ollison: 90 carries for 398 yards and five touchdowns.
Sophomore A.J. Davis: Preserved a year of eligibility.

Pittsburgh’s ground attack regressed last year, but that is in part due to losing two-year starter James Conner. Even then, it was an emphasis for Narduzzi. He has kept a balanced offense throughout his Panthers tenure. There is no reason to expect that to change now.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This defense could be vintage Narduzzi. It returns its entire front-seven, its top-six defensive linemen and 13 of its top-15 tacklers, including eight of the top nine.

Last year those players gave up 26.6 points per game, to establish a middling comparison point.

SEASON OUTLOOK
More than looking at 2018, a strong season from Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020, but that is getting ahead.

Staying ahead, November could halt that hype, though that will be a bit of a short-sighted overreaction. Ending the year vs. Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest and at Miami is not anybody’s idea of an ideal finish. That stretch could also short-circuit any chances of the Panthers exceeding the win total over/under of 5.5 or them even finishing as high as No. 5 in the ACC’s Coastal division, as the media projected in a preseason poll, only ahead of North Carolina and Virginia.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech

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There is not inherently a spot below to discuss Virginia Tech’s entrance to the field at Lane Stadium. This space makes too much of it, admittedly, considering the scribe has long been a fan of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

The soon-to-be first-ballot Hall-of-Famer used the same entrance song the Hokies use: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The classic piece of metal sets the atmosphere in Blacksburg, one that should not reach the crescendo of Hard Rock Stadium last November, but will still very much test Notre Dame’s lessons learned from that 41-8 debacle at Miami.

2017 REVIEW
Virginia Tech relied on a first-year starter in sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson last season, and he began very well, exceptionally well, to win a 31-24 rivalry matchup with West Virginia in the opener. Jackson completed 15 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a score, adding 101 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Such success continued until Clemson visited in week five, picking off the youngster twice.

As the season progressed, though, Jackson seemed to regress. Conference competition and available film will do that. In the regular season’s final six games, he did not break 218 passing yards, throwing for as few as 153 at Georgia Tech and 143 at Virginia. In three of those six, Jackson’s completion rate fell below 50 percent.

Sound familiar, Irish fans?

As Jackson struggled, the Hokies could rely on a fantastic defense. Even with Clemson scoring 31, Miami and Georgia Tech each tallying 28 and Oklahoma State reaching 30 in the Camping World Bowl (all losses), Virginia Tech gave up only 14.8 points per game last year along with an average of 319 yards.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
This offseason could have been worse for the Hokies, but not by much. For a few days, smoke swirled around Jackson’s eligibility, but when it cleared there was nothing to see.

That was not the case with likely starting senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, gone in June. Senior nickelback Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program, and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb furthered the difficulties with an Achilles injury knocking him out for the year.

Even without those unexpected departures, Virginia Tech’s secondary had already lost Greg Stroman (20 tackles, 11 passes broken up plus four interceptions) and Brandon Facyson (19, 2, 5).

If that sounds like it would result in a dearth of depth, it pales in comparison to the Hokies’ linebackers. Tremaine Edwards (109 tackles with 14 for loss including 5.5 sacks) heard his named called 16th overall in the NFL draft and Andrew Motuapuaka (92, 11.5, 3.5) is gone, as well. Including others, Virginia Tech essentially lost all of its linebacker rotation to natural attrition.

To top off the defensive woes, tackle Tim Settle (36 tackles with 12.5 for loss including four sacks) went to the Washington professional football franchise in the fifth round of the draft.

Offensively, the losses seem minimal in comparison. Running back Travon McMillian (104 rushes for 439 yards and two touchdowns) transferred to Colorado, top receiver Cam Phillips earned first-team All-ACC honors in his final season (71 catches for 964 yards and seven scores), and first-team All-ACC right guard Wyatt Teller finished his collegiate career.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not necessarily intentionally, the Hokies counteracted some of those defensive farewells by bringing in 10 early-enrolled freshmen. That may not pan out in production, but given the NCAA’s relaxed views on eligibility concerns, there is a better chance than ever that some of those freshmen make their presences felt.

More specifically, speedy freshman running back Cole Beck will be a local favorite throughout his career, hailing from Blacksburg. His quickness alone could get him onto the field.

Justin Fuente (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Junior receiver Damon Hazelton sat out last season after he transferred from Ball State, where he caught 51 passes for 505 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. That debut campaign made him think he could play at a higher level, and Virginia Tech agreed.

HEAD COACH
Justin Fuente enters his third year in the unenviable role of being the guy to replace a legend, but thus far Fuente has fared well following in Frank Beamer’s footsteps. The Hokies won the ACC’s Coastal division in 2016, finishing 10-4, and then fell to second in the division last year behind Miami.

Fuente’s system might be a bit more familiar to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long than it is to most. Long arrived at Memphis immediately after Fuente and his staff headed east. In familiarizing himself with his new team, Long undoubtedly studied an abundance of Fuente’s film. That does not necessarily mean he knows the intricacies and nuances, but it is a starting point.

If any Virginia Tech receiver is going to present problems for Notre Dame’s secondary, it will most likely be sophomore Sean Savoy. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
This offense will go as far as Jackson takes it. By season’s end, his will likely still be the only name on it known nationally. The best other chance would be sophomore receiver Sean Savoy. As a freshman, Savoy caught 39 passes for 454 yards and four scores. If he emerges as Phillips’ replacement, those numbers could all easily double.

Fuente has made a career of preferring a running back by committee approach. Three look ready to share carries this season:
Junior Deshawn McClease: 108 carries for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Steven Peoples: 70 carries for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore Jalen Holston: 70 carries for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

As such, do not be surprised if Jackson actually leads the Hokies in rushing yards, having gained 324 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in 2017. One way or another, Fuente generally insists on running the ball, even if unsuccessfully at points.

Three returning starters along the offensive line will attempt to keep Jackson upright, but it was not inherently an excellent front last season, so development will be needed. It cleared the path for the Hokies’ offense to average a mere 3.9 yards per rush last year, including four games of less than 3.0, one of which was against FCS-level Delaware.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any other year this would be a much greater concern for opponents, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster returns only five full-time starters and even less overall experience.

Then again, Foster has been leading the Virginia Tech defense for more than two decades, and he has a strong building block to start with in three returning defensive line starters, led by third-team All-ACC tackle Ricky Walker (41 tackles with 12.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks). Pertaining to Notre Dame concerns, this defense will have had four relatively unconcerning games to come together immediately before facing the Irish.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Of all seasons to have a young defense, the Hokies undoubtedly wish it was not one in which they opened at Florida State on Labor Day. Blame the ACC conference offices. However that game ends, Virginia Tech should cruise to four wins before facing Notre Dame (vs. William & Mary; vs. East Carolina; at Old Dominion; at Duke).

Doing so would get the Hokies halfway to the bookmakers’ projected win total.

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus

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A year ago this preview piece remembered a freshman year Canadian roommate who gave one of the simplest and most cutting reviews ever offered of a piece of writing.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

Well, Mr. Maple Leafs Fan, I think your wedding last weekend was more fun than I expected. I think it was worth spending more than 24 hours in Columbus, Ohio, despite no news coming of a certain Buckeyes investigation. And I think I actually enjoyed eating dinner with two recent Tennessee graduates. Conversations with them and a few Ohio State folks will, in fact, inform certain projections seen in the second half of this series next week.

So there, you married PhD, sometimes “I think” works out just fine, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, I think …

1) Maxing out one’s credit cards in a West Virginia sportsbook on the Notre Dame vs Michigan point total over/under makes all the sense in the world, which inevitably means it will lead to garnished wages. Currently bookmakers have that number at 48 points with a bit of incentive to take the under.

2) How confident might that bet be? The Irish and Wolverines will not even break 41 points, falling a full touchdown short of that current mark.

3) The only way it breaks 48 is with multiple defensive and special teams touchdowns. Both defenses are talented enough to make that happen, but both doing so seems unlikely. That is where the new kickoff rules will be noticed: A kickoff fair caught within the 25-yard line places the ball at the 25-yard line.

It will reduce opportunities for special teams scores. As a collective society of football fans, we’ll notice the change the first weekend, maybe even the first month. By midseason, though, the casual remote-holder will have largely forgotten about the shift toward safety.

4) Notre Dame senior kicker Justin Yoon will make the biggest kick of his life. That may not come against Michigan, but it will become a reality by the end of the season.

5) Remember receiver John Goodman’s incomplete pass to start the fourth quarter at Oklahoma in 2012? That game is remembered as a dominant 30-13 victory, but the final period began with only a 10-6 Irish lead, though Notre Dame was driving deep into Sooner territory. Goodman’s pass toward TJ Jones felt like it hung in the air forever. It had, after all, been five years since Goodman quarterbacked his high school team to an undefeated regular season. Two pass attempts in 2010 had not kept his arm lively.

Enter sophomore quarterback-turned-running back/receiver Avery Davis. At some point this year, he will throw a pass, be it on a trick snap or his own read option or a double pass. It will be a breath-holding three seconds. Perhaps this is simply the voice of a hope, a dream, a want for entertainment.

6) Irish running backs will have more catches than they did a year ago, totaling 24 and led by Josh Adams’ 13 for 101 yards. This was thought even before Davis and sophomore receiver-turned-running back Jafar Armstrong made their respective position moves. Those changes make it a real safe guess now.

The last time the Irish had as little experience at running back as they do now, it was 2013 and 2014 and Cam McDaniel was leading the way. (Getty Images)

7) The last time Notre Dame entered a season with fewer career rushing yards returning in its running back depth than this year’s 875 (641 from senior Dexter Williams, 234 from junior Tony Jones), was 2013 when Cam McDaniel entered with 134 yards and George Atkinson had rushed for 388.

The last time it had fewer career touchdowns than the current 11 (Williams with eight, Jones with three) was 2014. McDaniel claimed four scores and Tarean Folston offered three.

In 2013, the Irish finished with 1,963 rushing yards, averaging 151.0 per game.
In 2014, they managed 2,073 and averaged 159.5.

While Notre Dame will not match last year’s prodigious rushing output of 3,503 yards and 269.5 averaged per game, it will not fall to those depths. Instead, it will finish a bit closer to the most-recent numbers than the ones from earlier in the decade. Averaging between 214.5 and 224.5 rushing yards per game sounds about right. A mobile quarterback deserves credit for some of that reduced regression.

8) Senior receiver Chris Finke will match his career totals of 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

9) Two freshmen receivers will outperform then-freshman Michael Young’s 2017 of four catches for 18 yards and a score. Those two will be Kevin Austin and Lawrence Keys.

Once the ‘Has he matured?’ storylines fade, it figures to be a boom or bust season for Irish junior receiver Chase Claypool. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

10) Junior receiver Chase Claypool will not finish second in receptions or receiving yards, as he did in both last season with 29 catches for 402 yards.

11) Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will catch at least three touchdowns, placing no lower than second among tight ends in the category. This thinking is largely based off Weishar’s performance in the red zone last year and the trust he earned there both from the Irish coaching staff and from senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Two of Weishar’s nine catches were for scores. That percentage could comically rise in 2018.

12) Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch will score twice against Notre Dame on Sept. 22.

13) Stanford senior running back Bryce Love will equal that, if not more, a week later.

14) The game against the Cardinal will be the first of two in a row in primetime for the Irish. When Virginia Tech takes the field on Oct. 6, it will raise goosebumps, and no 280-character praise will come close to giving it proper due.

15) That entrance will still pale in comparison to the daunting feeling felt by the opposition whenever Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was played in its proper sporting environment, as Mariano Rivera took the field for the New York Yankees. A Red Sox fan of a father used to lament those eight-inning games.

16) Junior Ian Book will attempt fewer than 75 passes, his total of a year ago when he started one game, played the majority of another, saw mop-up duty in four more and collapsed under the lights at Miami, as well. It is the loss of the 18 passes in victorious blowouts that makes this guess most-likely accurate. Freshman Phil Jurkovec will take many of those snaps this year thanks to the NCAA’s rule change regarding eligibility not being affected by appearing in up to four games.

17) Sophomore offensive lineman Josh Lugg will start multiple games. Notre Dame’s offensive line enjoyed remarkable health last season. The only blip came when Alex Bars missed the second half at North Carolina, at which point Tommy Kraemer moved from a timeshare at right tackle to right guard, now his full-time position.

Expecting such fortune again is a bit of a leap, and nearly any injury would activate Lugg. If Kraemer is injured, in steps Lugg. If either tackle goes down, Kraemer is expected to move there, and in steps Lugg at right guard. If now-left guard Bars sprains an ankle, Lugg will be one of two considered, along with classmate Dillan Gibbons.

The only position which may not prompt Lugg would be if fifth-year center Sam Mustipher was knocked out of a game. First of all, that would be an absolute worst-case scenario for first-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. Second of all, there is a chance it would elicit Bars moving inward to center, at which point, well, you get the idea.

18) The Irish do not play freshman offensive linemen who do not enroll early. Even then, only three have played since 2008: Trevor Robinson that year, Steve Elmer in 2013 and Robert Hainsey last season.

No offensive linemen enrolled early this spring, yet multiple will play thanks to the NCAA’s shift regarding eligibility concerns. That may not be the most-exciting reason to watch the fourth quarter against Ball State on Sept. 8, but it should be reason enough.

As he competes for backup duties behind All-Pro Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer has thrown for 283 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-30 passing in two preseason games. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

19) Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer threw two touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers on Thursday in a 51-34 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That will be the most success Kizer has this year.

20) Long ago notes for this bit included a scrap of paper buried beneath a pile of legal pads. It speculated ESPN’s “College GameDay” would visit campus when Florida State does on Nov. 10, marking the exact matchup which began the show’s on-site trips 25 years ago. The Irish and Seminoles could conceivably still force that issue, but it seems exceptionally unlikely now with “GameDay” already showing up for the season opener. Rather than count this as a prematurely-incorrect pick, let’s wonder if the Florida State weekend includes a 30th anniversary celebration of Notre Dame’s 1988 title team.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford

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Stanford has come to be known as a defensive-minded, fundamental program. That took a step backward last season, and not only because the Cardinal season was hijacked by the brilliance of running back Bryce Love. If anything, Love’s excellence overshadowed some of the regression.

Ranked No. 13 in the preseason Coaches Poll, Stanford could end up relying on the Heisman front runner even more so this year.

2017 REVIEW
For only the second time in head coach David Shaw’s seven-year tenure, the Cardinal lost five games last season, the most Shaw has ever endured as a head coach. Winning the Pac-12 North took some of the sting out of that struggle, but the year still ended on a two-game losing streak.

Bryce Love (Getty Images)

Love was the story of Stanford’s 2017, exploding onto the scene despite the team struggling to a 1-2 start thanks to losses at USC and at San Diego State. The Cardinal then won seven of its next eight to force its way into the Pac-12 title game, falling 31-28 in a rematch to USC to lose out on a playoff-access bowl bid.

Love was six weeks into dealing with a bad ankle sprain by then, something he could not shake the second half of the season, limiting his relative effectiveness despite playing through it. From a Notre Dame perspective, watching Love take 20 carries for 125 yards in the regular-season finale stood in stark contrast to the entire Irish running back stable failing to fight through sprains and bruises.

Love’s hobbling was somewhat counteracted by then-sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello’s emergence. Costello took over the starting gig for the final six games, leading the way to scoring 30 or more points in four of Stanford’s last five games. He finished the year with 1,573 yards and a 58.8 percent completion rate, throwing 14 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions.

WHAT STANFORD LOST
Criticizing the Cardinal defense from a year ago as subpar for Stanford should stand out when now realizing it will be without two first-team Pac-12 defenders in tackle Harrison Phillips and safety Justin Reid, and a second-teamer in cornerback Quenton Meeks, along with linebacker Peter Kalambayi and defensive end Eric Cotton. They were the defense’s strengths.

Phillips: 100 tackles (as an interior defensive lineman) with 16 for loss including seven sacks.
Reid: 99 tackles with 6.5 for loss and five interceptions.
Meeks: 66 tackles with two interceptions and eight more passes broken up.
Kalambayi: 61 tackles with seven for loss including four sacks.
Cotton: 30 tackles with three sacks.

Offensively, the greatest loss is either former starter and now backup insurance quarterback Keller Chryst, who will be immediately eligible at Tennessee as a graduate transfer, or first-team Pac-12 tight end Dalton Schultz (22 catches for 212 yards and three scores).

WHAT STANFORD LOST IN THE SPRING
A chance to develop Costello. A hip injury kept him sidelined throughout the entirety of spring practices. With Chryst’s departure, that left third-string junior Jack Richardson taking all the snaps.

As well as Chryst played in the second half of 2017, he was still a first-year starter primarily looking to avoid mistakes. He did largely avoid them, but there was certainly room for improvement, both overall and in developing chemistry with his targets.

WHAT STANFORD GAINED
If the Cardinal defense outperforms meager expectations, it will probably have a pair of freshmen defensive ends to thank for that. Four-star recruits Thomas Booker and Andres Fox will both be given genuine chances to crack the lineup this year. Whenever Florida State (both), Clemson (Booker) and Alabama (Fox) recruit a defensive end, take it as a sign of talent. Yes, Notre Dame sought each, as well.

Speaking of former Irish targets, receiver Osiris St. Brown (Equanimeous’ younger, but not youngest, brother) will presumably reach the field after preserving a year of eligibility in 2017.

Most of all, though, Stanford gained Love’s health. At the least, he will be healthy to begin the season. If he can maintain it through the year, a college football-loving nation should be thankful for the blessing. It is hard to fathom improving on a season that finished with unanimous All-American honors and as the Heisman runner-up, but anyone who saw Love grimacing throughout last November knows it is within the proverbial world of possibility.

David Shaw. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Already the winningest coach in Cardinal history at 73-22 (passing Pop Warner’s 71 wins last season the week before Notre Dame arrived in Palo Alto), Shaw has nothing to prove … except it Stanford get over the hump and into the College Football Playoff.

This is not likely the year to figure such out, but it goes to show how well he has done in following in Jim Harbaugh’s footsteps. (For thoroughness’ sake, Harbaugh went 29-21 in four years, a .580 winning percentage, well behind Shaw’s .785.)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Love has been discussed, as has Costello.

His preferred receivers have not been. Junior JJ Arcega-Whiteside and senior Trenton Irwin lead the way, along with last year’s Nos. 3 (sophomore tight end Kaden Smith) and 4 (sophomore receiver Connor Wedington).

Arcega-Whiteside: 48 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns.
Irwin: 43 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith: 23 catches for 414 yards, an average of 18 yards per reception, and five scores. He caught three passes for 65 yards and a lead-taking ouchdown against the Irish.
Wedington: 31 catches for 243 yards.

The Cardinal also return four offensive linemen, losing only guard David Bright. That group is highlighted by sophomore tackle Walker Little, who was limited by injury to six starts in his debut campaign.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This is not meant to sound entirely negative. At its worst under Shaw, as last year was, Stanford still trots out a defense that gives up little without contest. That said, it was his worst defense, and it had been trending that way for a few seasons. In both 2015 and 2016, the Cardinal gave up 368 yards per game, then the most of the Shaw era. That skyrocketed to 405 yards last season.

Aside from Shaw’s first season (21.9 points per game in 2011), the last three seasons have also seen the most points allowed per game by his defense: 22.6 in 2015, 20.4 in 2016 and 22.7 in 2017.

Forcing 28 turnovers helped keep that last figure manageable, but losing the aforementioned defensive stalwarts may knock out that crutch from underneath Shaw’s defense. The defensive line returns little experience or depth, setting up the unproven linebackers and secondary for trouble.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Love may be enough to outpace those defensive concerns, but that is asking a lot, even of the electrifying speedster. Stanford’s schedule will not make life much easier. The week before traveling to South Bend, the Cardinal head to Oregon. November includes trips to both Washington and UCLA, now led by Chip Kelly.

For the second-straight year, Stanford’s schedule opens with San Diego State and USC. That should not go as poorly as it did last season, in part because the games are at The Farm, not on the road, but the Aztecs’ perennial rushing attack could lead to issues in this defensive line’s debut.

Nonetheless, preseason polling picked Stanford third in the conference and second in its division (behind Washington). The floor is rather high. Bookmakers offer a win total over/under of 8.5 with still rather even odds.