And In That Corner … No. 4 Notre Dame returns to ‘normalcy’ against Louisville

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Brian Kelly expressed appreciation for Notre Dame’s return to normalcy this week and the routine that came with it. Instead of shuffling the roster to fill out the secondary, the Irish can focus on scouting Louisville’s mobile quarterback and his speedy running backs and receivers.

To understand how that combination has yielded just a 1-3 start, let’s check in with Cameron Teague of the Courier-Journal.

DF: Louisville was always on Notre Dame’s schedule in Scott Satterfield’s second year, a quirk of the ACC agreement. Holding onto that does not bother many Irish fans who were enamored with how quickly Satterfield seemed to right the Cardinals ship last year, but perhaps that progress was overstated.

We’ll get to that. First, the requisite 2020 check-in. Notre Dame is only a couple weeks removed from a coronavirus outbreak, and its defense showed those conditioning effects against Florida State, though it seems the Irish may be nearing zero in terms of positive tests. How is Louisville faring?

CT: Louisville has done pretty well. The university, as a policy, does not go deep into its COVID numbers. It will release an update every week but doesn’t specify sports. I will say that none of the starters have missed games this season because of it and only four players, in four weeks, have been on the unavailability report this season but two were injured, one had personal reasons and the other wasn’t specified. I think overall, Louisville is doing a really good job containing the virus and keeping it out of the program, but I can’t say for a fact that they’ve had zero all season because that hasn’t been released or mentioned.

Satterfield’s fast arrival was built on a solid offense. It may have scored just 17 against Notre Dame in last year’s Labor Day opener, but any scheme that catches Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea off-guard is one to note. Improving by six wins and averaging 33.1 points per game, up from 19.8 in 2018, deserves credit. The impetus then was the speed and shiftiness of running backs Hassan Hall and Javian Hawkins, and receiver Tutu Atwell. What new wrinkles has Satterfield introduced? He should be grateful the summer wrecked by a pandemic was not before his debut season, as most of the playbook should have already been installed.

There haven’t been that many new wrinkles honestly. The first week of the season they went four-wide quite a bit because Western Kentucky was loading the box to stop Hall and Hawkins and they found some new playmakers, but other than that it’s the same stuff mostly. There are some new plays here and there, but no huge scheme changes. I think their experience does help them, but they haven’t been as crisp to start the season as they were a year ago. It’s been one of the reasons they are 1-3 instead of 3-1, which they could easily be if the offense was playing to form. 

I assume trotting out a returning starting quarterback in junior Malik Cunningham has made life easier for Satterfield. I remember him as more a mobile threat than anything else, but looking at Cunningham’s 2019 stats, he completed 62.6 percent of his passes at 11.5 yards per attempt. Those figures have fallen off to 58.9 percent and 8.0 yards per attempt through four games this season. What has changed in Cunningham’s game, for better or for worse?

He knows the offense better and he’s become a much better leader for the team, but I think at times this year his touch on the deep ball has been off. Last year it was rare that he would miss Atwell or senior receiver Dez Fitzpatrick deep, this year he’s missed a fair amount of times. I also think the pressure is getting to him. He seems to be a bit antsier in the pocket this year. He is still fairly accurate on short-to-medium throws and is moving well in the pocket, but the deep ball is what is missing right now. That was his strength last year. If they get that back they will be fine I think. 

If there is a failing in the Cardinals’ offense, it is the offensive line, and it may be a crippling weakness. Losing both tackles and the center from the year before is never a recipe for success. I suspect giving up 14 sacks already is just the tip of the iceberg of those problems. How bad is it?

It’s not nearly as bad as some would make it out to be. Seven of those sacks came against an absolutely loaded Pittsburgh defensive line. They also played an NFL Draft pick in Western Kentucky’s De’Angelo Malone and a good pass rush against Miami. They gave up three sacks against Georgia Tech, but those all came late when Louisville was dropping back and throwing out of necessity. Their problem is tackles for loss. Louisville is allowing 10 per game and it was one of the worst in the country in this last year. That needs to improve, but when Hawkins finds a hole it doesn’t even matter honestly because he’s so fast. I think the line was very bad against Pitt and they weren’t great against Georgia Tech, but they are not as bad as some would make it seem. It is serviceable but has some poorly-timed mistakes. 

Defensively, I know Louisville runs a 3-4 with a bit of an undersized line, the only heft at nose tackle, so the instinct is to think Notre Dame’s dominant offensive line will simply overpower the Cardinals. That may well happen, despite an experienced Louisville linebacker corps. But I would rather discuss the mind-blowing defensive lapses.

Losing 23-20 at Pittsburgh is understandable and perfectly reasonable, but giving up 46 points to Georgia Tech is baffling, and only a few weeks after handing 47 points to Miami, it sparks reason for concern. These images have stuck with me …

How? What? Is Brian VanGorder back leading the Cardinals defense?

I’ll start by saying, yeah Louisville had some very big blown plays against Miami, but since then have really stopped a lot of big plays from happening. It gave up a few against Georgia Tech, but only one was mind-boggling like those plays against Miami. Louisville does not have the exact personnel yet to fit defensive coordinator Bryan Brown’s system and sometimes they have lapses in alignment and mental mistakes, especially in the secondary. They also struggle to tackle consistently, but that’s been the case at Louisville for years.

Fatigue isn’t really a big deal. I mean, they were coming off an idle week and held Pitt to 3 points in the second half the week before. I think that was more of a problem that the offense couldn’t get anything going, kept turning the ball over and put the defense in a lot of bad spots.

Louisville doesn’t have a terrific defense. It’s a bend-but-don’t-break group so it’s hard to win if the offense can’t move the ball. It doesn’t help that they didn’t force any turnovers. I will say one touchdown in the fourth quarter was a major coverage breakdown by a safety so there are still some problems there.

That defense gave up 20 points to Georgia Tech in the fourth quarter last week, turning a one-point lead into a 19-point loss. There is an obvious fatigue question to ask here, but on top of that, how has that collapse resonated with the team in the ensuing days?

The team is doing fine after the loss. They know they let one get away from them and they are focused on Notre Dame. They know at 1-3 they don’t have a lot of time to bring back this season so whether it’s a win or not, they have to perform well against Notre Dame just to build some momentum even if they lose. I think the type of staff they have at Louisville keeps the players focused and not thinking too negative.  

Notre Dame Louisville
In Scott Satterfield’s debut, Louisville’s quick-read option gave Notre Dame some trouble out of the gate, but the Irish eventually took control in a 35-17 victory on Labor Day in 2019. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lastly, broadly speaking, what are the biggest differences between what Notre Dame fans will see Saturday afternoon and what they saw on Labor Day 2019?

I think you’ll see a much more balanced, and potentially explosive, offense. Louisville should really be 3-1. They had every chance to beat Pitt, but missed three deep post routes that were open to give them a late lead. They had the ball, and the lead, with 11 minutes to play against Georgia Tech and fumbled.

Louisville is not a bad team, but offensively, it has been shooting itself in the foot and the defense isn’t good enough yet to make up for those mistakes consistently as it did against Pittsburgh. If they can connect on some deep shots and cut down turnovers Louisville can put up points, but they haven’t done that since the second half of the Miami game. 

I won’t bother asking you to pick against the spread of 17 points-and-rising in Irish favor. Unless, of course, you want to.

I won’t but I could see it being a 14-point game. That wouldn’t shock me, but I won’t pick against the spread right now.