The 2-3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will be entering a hurricane-threatened road game against the 3-1 North Carolina State Wolfpack on Saturday. The two teams have had very different seasons to-date, but as ND continues to right the ship after starting 1-3 on the year, the Irish hope their talent advantage will be enough to defeat NC State’s sound, statistically-impressive team.
Let’s take a look at the match-ups and try to figure out how this game will go, because that’s never ever ever ever a fool’s errand, for sure.
Notre Dame Offense vs. NC State Defense
The Fighting Irish offense has been strong all season, but last Saturday the unit really stepped up and played at the level most expect from a group with so much talent. ND put up 50 points and 654 total yards and finally dominated a bad defense like they were supposed to do.
The group looks to bring that momentum and confidence into a tough road test against a defense that, statistically, has been pretty stout so far this year. NC State ranks 20th in total defense (322 yards allowed per game) and 36th in scoring at 21.3 points allowed. Granted, the Wolfpack have played no one of note up to this point in the season, having beaten William & Mary, Old Dominion, and Wake Forest, and actually losing to a 2-3 East Carolina team 33-30. It’s safe to say that the Notre Dame offense will be the most talented, dangerous, and competent offense they will have faced.
That does not bode well for NC State’s pass defense, which ranks 61st in the country and will have to be without starting safety Shawn Boone (19 tackles, 1 forced fumble) for the first half, as he will have to serve the mandatory suspension for a targeting penalty he received in the second half of the Wolfpack’s win against Wake Forest.
So, this already pedestrian unit of head coach Dave Doeren’s defense, now missing a starter, will be forced to take on DeShone Kizer and co. fresh off that explosive performance against Syracuse.
Kizer put up video game numbers during that game, going 23/35 while throwing for 471 yards, 3 TD, and 1 INT. No doubt he will look to continue to connect with ND’s leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who had a monstrous 4 receptions for 182 yards and 2 TD last weekend. St. Brown now sits at 25 catches for 541 yards and 6 TD on the season.
The Wolfpack won’t be able to only key on St. Brown, though, as Kizer has other receivers extremely capable of making big plays. CJ Sanders (17 receptions, 254 yards, 2 TD) and Kevin Stepherson (9 receptions, 203 yards, 3 TD) are constant home run threats, while sure-handed receivers like Torii Hunter Jr. (19 receptions, 271 yards, 1 TD) provide Kizer with reliable targets for moving the chains and keeping drives alive.
NC State’s secondary is led by safety Josh Jones (team-leading 36 tackles, 2 passes broken up), corners Jack Tocho (13 tackles, 4 passes broken up) and Mike Stevens (14 tackles), and nickelback Dravious Wright (15 tackles, 1 forced fumble). Jones will need to have a big game, especially considering Boone’s one-half absence.
The Wolfpack pass rush will also need to make some plays against a very good pass-blocking ND offensive line, as some pressure on Kizer could help force him to make a bad throw or two, potentially leading to turnovers.
Sophomore DL Darian Roseboro will be the man leading the way in that regard, as he has 3 sacks and 2 QB hurries already on the season. Defensive linemen Kentavius Street, Bradley Chubb, and Justin Jones will help round out the front of the NC State defense, as those three have combined for another 5 sacks and 6 QB hurries.
Considering this will be the best group of receivers the Wolfpack secondary has seen, though, along with the ND line’s pass blocking prowess, expect the Irish to be able to move the ball through the air with relative ease, even if a decent pass rush makes Kizer scramble a bit.
The running game could be a different story for the Irish, though, as the NC State front seven has helped establish the 12th-ranked run defense in the country in Raleigh. The aforementioned defensive linemen are key in getting a strong push up front, but the guys who really stuff the run are linebackers Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez. Moore is second on the team in tackles with 26, and Fernandez has chipped in 21 of his own to form a solid core in the middle of sure-tackling, hard-hitting athletes.
Also, they seem like very nice guys and good friends, so that’s something as well.
The ND offensive line has struggled to move the ball well on the ground, as the team was more or less shut down by MSU and Duke and even against Syracuse was not nearly as dominant as they should have been, rushing for 183 yards.
RG Colin McGovern will be back as a starter after Hunter Bivin filled in for him last weekend, and LT Mike McGlinchey announced this week that he currently plans on coming back for his 5th-year senior season (he’s projected as a first round NFL Draft pick currently), which has to make the whole unit pretty excited.
So, hopefully the line is back at full strength and motivated to up their game and begin plowing over defenses, as running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams continue to run hard and stand a constant threat to break loose for a big run, as Williams was able to do last week.
Overall, the NC State defense will likely struggle a bit in facing its first true offensive challenge. Kizer should be able to find his receivers easily for big gains, and if the offensive line can get a good push up front for the running backs, the Irish stand to score a lot of points.
NC State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Per usual, the other side of the ball is what should worry Irish fans. The Notre Dame defense under new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson was marginally better against Syracuse, especially in the second half, giving up only 6 points. The first half looked like the same old VanGorder defense, though, with missed tackles and an absolutely abhorrent secondary. The halftime adjustments the unit made will hopefully continue to carry over as ND plays a Wolfpack offense that, although not as dangerous as ND’s, still has plenty of weapons with which it can beat opponents.
QB Ryan Finley runs the show, and although he isn’t the physical specimen that NFL scouts are drooling over like Kizer, he makes smart decisions and is very efficient. He’s thrown for 1,014 yards, 9 TD, and no interceptions at a 72.4% completion rate, which is enough to get him the 12th-best passer rating in the country.
He spreads the ball around a good amount, but his leading receiver is Stephen Louis, a redshirt sophomore WR who has 13 catches for 328 yards (5th-ranked nationally in yards per catch at 25.2) and a touchdown. Louis is clearly a big-play threat that the Irish secondary will need to watch out for, and he will be aided by fellow receivers Bra’lon Cherry and Kelvin Harmon, who have combined for 18 catches, 256 yards, and 3 TD.
Jaylen Samuels is another player that looks dangerous in the passing game, especially considering his position, which is listed as “fullback.” Samuels is really a jack-of-all-trades player who NC State lines up all over the field, but Samuels is especially deadly catching the ball, as he has 20 receptions for 185 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air.
His heir-apparent, Thaddeus Moss (son of Randy), looks to be a talented next-man-in in that hybrid fullback/tight end role as well, showing some flashes of pass-catching ability in limited time this year.
The Irish defense has been abysmal defending the pass all season, clocking in at 105th in the country. There has been a shake-up in the depth chart, though, as freshman Julian Love, who’s seen significant playing time the past couple weeks, was named starter opposite Cole Luke for Saturday’s game.
His new back-up is fellow freshman Donte Vaughn, who has also looked great in his increased playing time of-late. To continue this youth trend in the secondary, freshman Troy Pride is now in the two-deep behind Luke, and along with freshman starter Devin Studstill at free safety and back-up safeties Jalen Elliott (freshman) and Nicco Fertitta (sophomore), makes for a very young and inexperienced, but also very athletic, secondary.
Despite the increase in athleticism, you should still expect Finley and his receiving corps to make some plays as the young guys continue to learn and gain experience. There may not be as many big plays as Amba Etta-Tawo of Syracuse was able to convert on last week, but Finley is talented and efficient enough to move the ball on the ND secondary.
One key match-up to watch will be Samuels against LBs James Onwualu or Nyles Morgan or Te’von Coney, as those three will likely have to handle coverage of the big, versatile receiver and if Samuels is able to beat them, he’s in for a big day.
On the ground, the Irish have looked slightly better, sitting at 89th in the country. They’ll have their work cut out for them against NC State running back Matthew Dayes, who has run for 437 yards and 3 TD while averaging 5.8 yards per carry so far this season.
A good push up front from Jerry Tillery, Jarron Jones, and Isaac Rochell will be key in setting up Morgan, Onwualu, and Coney to bring Dayes down before he gets out into space. Expect Dayes to have some success, though, as the Irish have not shown the consistent ability to get stops against talented running backs this year.
My Prediction That Will Definitely Not Be Completely Wrong
NC State is a much better team than Syracuse, and ND struggled in the first half against the Orange. Throw in some potential bad weather due to Hurricane Matthew, and we could see some drops on both sides in the passing game, meaning the running game of each team becomes much more important. NC State would win that battle.
However, with all of that being said, NC State hasn’t seen a team like ND yet this season, and DeShone Kizer proved against Clemson last year that monsoon conditions can’t stop him from slinging the ball around effectively. As the defense continues to get younger and improve bit-by-bit, I think they’ll get a few key stops and the offense will score plenty of points, enabling the Irish to come out of this one with a one-score win.
Notre Dame 41, NC State 33
Everyone going to the game - try to stay dry/safe! And to everyone watching from a dry couch like I will be, enjoy your beer!