When facing an offense like No. 25 North Carolina’s that scores 43.1 points per game this season and 51.0 in the last four, Notre Dame’s run-game reliance can counterintuitively not only help the Irish keep up on the scoreboard, but also cut down on the Tar Heels’ red-zone opportunities.
Notre Dame leading the country in time of possession, among teams having played more than five games and No. 5 among those to have played more than three, at more than 34 minutes per game is not a coincidence. The dominant Irish offensive line combined with bull-headed backs has created a strength. Thus, subbing in two new offensive line starters is concerning enough for No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC). Relying on sophomore center Zeke Correll and senior right guard Josh Lugg to block for banged-up running backs would further compound the issue.
Fortunately, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said both sophomore Kyren Williams and junior C’Bo Flemister have largely bounced back from ankle injuries suffered late in Notre Dame’s win at Boston College on Nov. 14.
“Our trainers were optimistic that [Flemister] will be ready to play this weekend,” Kelly said. “We’ll be smart with him, but he should be a go for this weekend.”
Williams is faring even better. That should allow the Irish to stay true to offensive form.
“We have to be who we are,” Kelly said. “We want to be physical. We want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That’s how we play.”
Junior receiver Braden Lenzy is in more of a gray area after a hamstring therapy treatment a few weeks ago. Kelly said Lenzy will move toward a full practice load from reduced work this week . If that goes well, then the speedster may yet receive “the green light” by Friday.
Playing on Black Friday (3:30 ET; ABC) might bother a traditionalist, but with the idle week beforehand, Kelly has no trouble playing early this week, particularly this late in the season when some of practice is lighter, anyway.
“At this part of the year, you can pull back in terms of what you’re doing,” Kelly said. “… Coming off the bye week, we were able to get a couple extra practice days for North Carolina so it doesn’t affect us at all relative to our preparation.”
One could argue having this “short” week after an idle week will set up next week as a “long” one, as well. If absolutely nothing else, it will allow the Irish to celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday.
But as something else, the literal off week and the coming elongated week both will help Notre Dame’s mental resolve, tested during the previous six straight weeks of games in a year in which six weeks as often as not feels like six months.
“It was better for us relative for the mental more than the physical,” Kelly said. “Surely it allowed us to get some guys back that were banged up a little bit, the ability to get in the training room and feel great, but we were in finals and the mental rest certainly helped us.”
During the idle week, Kelly and his staff kept the roster in town for obvious reasons that have been too complex for programs across the country to grasp, thus playing an avoidable role in the continuing rash of canceled games.
“We wanted to maintain our bubble,” Kelly said. “Guys were here, we stayed in our modified quarantine.”
A full round of Saturday testing came back negative for the Irish, boding well for this closing month, particularly since campus is now absent the vast majority of the student body.
“Once you step outside this environment that we’ve created, you open yourself up to the uncertainty,” Kelly said. “Our guys understand that and they know that this is what they signed up for. It’s not easy, but they’re committed to it. They’ve gone this far. There’s no turning back right now.
“They know the next few weeks are certainly going to be similar. That’s why Thanksgiving looks a little different, but they’re prepared for that.”
Even as it crams a football season into a pandemic, Notre Dame understands it is smart to cut down on holiday travel.
You should, too.