As Hurricane Matthew hits the Southeast, the Irish head to Raleigh. And after a week of contingency plans and storm tracking, the focus now changes decidedly—winning a football game that’ll present a new set of challenges for the Irish.
We’ve seen monsoon conditions. We’ve seen must-win weekends. And we’ve seen the Irish try and play good football in hostile environments. And even if nobody is going to confuse Carter-Finley Stadium with Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, the 50-year anniversary of the home of the Wolf Pack will have the NC State faithful ready to make things difficult.
A week after moving on from Brian VanGorder and emergency installing a game plan for Syracuse, Brian Kelly and his young team face another big challenge. Finding a way to even their record to 3-3 on the road against a team with plenty of talent.
Let’s get to the pregame sick pack.
Can the young Irish secondary play mistake free and still challenge Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game?
Notre Dame’s secondary made some sweeping changes last week, a relative youth movement in effect with Troy Pride, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn sliding in at cornerback. And after a tough start against Syracuse, the unit settled in and played solid football, re-emerging as a basic-concept unit that went back to the basics to beat an offense that moved quickly and challenged vertically.
But that type of tweak won’t be enough against NC State. Not with Ryan Finley completing 72 percent of his passes and the Boise State transfer still to throw an interception. Not with Eli Drinkwitz’s tweaked scheme.
So after making it out of intro-level installation, the big question will be Notre Dame’s ability to make progress while also guarding against mental mistakes—not to mention an advanced offensive scheme.
“They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense,” Kelly explained this week.
“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. Or they’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”
Last week the Irish were pressed into a tight situation when freshman Devin Studstill was ejected for a controversial targeting call. That forced Nicco Fertitta onto the field for his first substantial playing time, the diminutive sophomore holding up as a two-deep safety.
But if the Irish want to take their next step forward defensively, they’ll need to incorporate a few strategic wrinkles while also protecting the freshmen that’ll inhabit just about every high-leverage position on the field.
Julian Love thinks they’re ready.
“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love told CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”
Don’t tell Brian Kelly that his offensive line is struggling.
While Notre Dame’s struggle in the trenches against Syracuse was noticeable, the results were never in doubt. That’s because the Irish posted 50-points, moving the ball at will through the air as DeShaun Kizer had the school record for passing yards in his sights before taking his foot off the gas.
It was easy to ignore some inconsistency in the ground game when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams broke long runs. So when Kelly was asked what’s ailing a running game that most expect to be more dominant, Kelly didn’t just look at the five starters up front, he looked at the massive roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball.
“We got seven new starters. There’s a lot of new pieces,” Kelly said.”I guess there’s definitely inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t throw it on the offensive line. I’d throw it on perimeter blocking, I’d throw it on decision making; coaching. There’s a lot of factors there.
“The right side is evolving. Half or two-thirds there are still coming together. They’re getting better. Those are two really good players on the left side, I think everybody knows that. One guy or two guys don’t make an offensive line.”
Colin McGovern will be back in the starting lineup, his high ankle sprain healthy enough. And while there’s certainly credence to the moving pieces that Kelly references, a tough war in the trenches will be on display as the Wolf Pack’s defensive front is the most disruptive the Irish have faced this season.
DeShone Kizer, from an opponent’s perspective.
Mike McGlinchey has pledged to return for 2017. DeShone Kizer has made no such declaration, an NFL evaluation still evolving, and a choice that might be too hard to turn down.
But as we sort out the superlatives that have come from the mock draft community and an echo chamber that sometime’s runs away from reality, Wolf Pack head coach Dave Doeren had this appraisal of the Irish’s third-year quarterback.
“Well, he’s got really good talent around him, to start,” Doeren said. “They protect him well. He’s only been sacked twice. He’s got an offensive system that is well run. They give him a lot of opportunities to throw the ball down the field and guys make plays for him.
“As far as him personally, I think he’s a very accurate deep ball thrower. He’s tough, he takes some shots, but puts the ball right on the money. And he’s competed on a big stage for a long time, so I think he’s got good poise.”
The defensive basics will start by slowing down running back Matt Dayes.
If beating Syracuse felt like scheming against an option attack, stopping NC State may sound easier, but it presents a bigger challenge. Namely, Wolf Pack running back Matt Dayes.
After having a big 2015 season derailed by injuries, Dayes is back. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of four starts and is the focal point of Kelly’s as his defense tries to master its musts.
“They’ve got a really diversified offensive scheme. I think, number one, you can’t give up big play runs,” Kelly said. “I think Matt Dayes is a game breaker. I think he can definitely be a difference maker in this game.”
That means the focus is on Notre Dame’s front seven, and the work we’ll see from Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell will set the tone.
Because slowing down Dayes is the start. The Irish also need to find a way to limit Stephen Louis in the passing game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore has made some big plays, averaging more than 25 yards a touch against East Carolina and Wake Forest and is very difficult to tackle.
“I think those two guys are really key to their offense,” Kelly said. “Finley is very smart and a very good quarterback. But Dayes and Louis are the guys that we have to focus on.”
Can the Irish defense shut down a competent quarterback?
All respect given to Dayes and Louis, but Notre Dame’s defense has made a lot of mediocre quarterbacks look like All-Americans. And Ryan Finley is no mediocre quarterback.
The Boise State transfer came east with offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, both leaving the Broncos to join Dave Doeren. And after both his freshman and sophomore seasons were ruined by injuries, Finley—who graduated in three years from Boise State—now has three years of eligibility in Raleigh.
“He is a great manager,” Doeren said last week, according to Blue & Gold. “He knows Coach [Drinkwitz], he understands why he does what he does and does a good job managing that part of the offense.
“He puts us in the right place a lot of times. I’ve said it many times. He throws a very catchable ball and he gets it out quick and allows his players to make plays. That’s the best thing a quarterback can do is get the ball to the right people quickly and let them do their thing. He’s done that repetitively and he’ll continue to get better because he’s a critic of himself and he works out it.”
Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford knows both Finley and Drinkwitz from his year in Boise, though Kelly downplayed any help that might give the Irish staff. But winning might require the Irish defense to make Finley play down this weekend, something we haven’t seen from an opposing quarterback too often these past two seasons under Brian VanGorder.
Rain + Special Teams + Turnovers = All causes for concern.
No, that’s not an exact equation. But any time rain—and multiple inches are forecasted—is part of a football game, it’s time to restate the obvious. Mainly, the Irish need to make sure that the weather doesn’t impact their game.
That means taking great care of the football. That means being clean on special teams. And it means making sure that any huge game-changing plays are forced, not suffered.
Rewind back to last year at Clemson and the Irish didn’t get out clean. The Irish had four turnovers, with three fumbles lost, in a game where only two points made the difference.
With Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome off to a slow start, with CJ Sanders making some big plays but Scott Booker’s coverage unit giving up a few as well, the basics are going to be a big part of the story.
Even if Hurricane Matthew’s impact isn’t going to be as bad as first feared, heavy rain is almost guaranteed. And on natural Bermuda grass, expect a sloppy track.
So the Irish, a 2-3 team that has struggled to do the ordinary things well, needs to play cleaner than the Wolf Pack to win.