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Shamrock Series Game Preview: Notre Dame vs. Army

One Foot Down previews the match-up between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Army Black Knights

NCAA Football: Air Force at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Three games.

That’s all that remains in this nightmare season for Brian Kelly and the 3-6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team.

The final two games are against top-20 opponents Virginia Tech and USC, and so the Irish certainly are hoping to take home a W against the 5-4 Army Black Knights on Saturday in San Antonio and put themselves in position to play for an upset and a possible bowl invitation at 5-7 (or, in a pipe dream, 6-6).

The Black Knights, meanwhile, are hoping to pull an upset against a team they haven’t beaten since 1958, when Army defeated ND in a thrilling 14-2 game in South Bend.

Army, of course, comes into this game sporting the same basic offense as Navy, who toppled the hapless Irish 28-27 in Jacksonville last weekend. So how will Notre Dame match up with such an offensive style a second time in as many weeks?

Let’s investigate.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Army Defense

Army’s defense enters this game 6th in total defense, allowing just 286 yards per game (6th in pass defense and 23rd in run defense). Scoring-wise, their 18.1 points allowed per-game average has them sitting 13th in the nation. Needless to say, the Army Black Knights defense is the best defense ND has had to face, on paper.

‘On paper’ is the key phrase there, as Army’s opponents this season are as follows: Temple, Rice, UTEP, Buffalo, Duke, Lafayette (FCS), North Texas, Wake Forest, and Air Force.

The Black Knights have a good defense, without a doubt. But the best scoring offense they’ve faced is Air Force. Notre Dame’s offense has been nothing close to stellar this year, but they absolutely have the talent and tools to move the ball on Army.

The Black Knights will certainly try to shut down the ND run game as so many other opponents have done this season, and the two X-factors in that regard are Army linebackers Jeremy Timpf (72 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 FF) and Andrew King (71 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 FF). These two guys are machines and lead the third place guy on the team in tackles by 31 and 30, respectively.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame offensive line has the heft to get a push on a much smaller Army defensive front, but we already saw last week how the Irish can struggle running the ball on even the smallest defensive front. Thus, considering Army’s success bottling up the run this season, I expect ND RBs Josh Adams (583 yards, 5.3 ypc, 2 TD), Tarean Folston (215 yards, 1 TD), and Dexter Williams (199 yards, 5.7 ypc, 3 TD) to have modest days on the ground. QB DeShone Kizer (368 rushing yards, 7 rushing TD) may make some plays with his feet, but for the most part that will probably come from scrambling on passing plays.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Navy Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Also, let’s take a second to consider that I just wrote that essentially, Army’s defense is going to shut down the Notre Dame running game. That just sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, but I honestly believe it at this point.

ND’s potential offensive success will thus need to come through the air, as Kizer (2,261 yards, 60.4% completion, 19 TD, 7 INT) will need to tighten the screws on his sloppy play recently and find WRs Equanimeous St. Brown (42 receptions, 745 yards, 8 TD), Torii Hunter Jr. (38 receptions, 521 yards, 3 TD), and Kevin Stepherson (16 receptions, 335 yards, 3 TD) for big gains through the air.

Army’s defense is top-25 in terms of stopping the pass, but they also haven’t faced a QB or WR corps as talented as ND’s. Nevertheless, look for Rhyan England, Xavier Moss, Marcus Hyatt, and Elijah Riley to be putting in a lot of work chasing the Irish receivers all over the field. Considering their playmaking ability (4 INT, 12 pass break-ups, 1 FF), Kizer certainly will need to be sharp.

That’s especially critical if Army’s offense is as successful as Navy’s in controlling time of possession and limiting ND’s offensive possessions.

Also, look out for LBs Alex Aukerman and Kenneth Brinson and DL John Voit (pictured below) on the pass rush, as their combined 11 sacks and 22 tackles for loss should absolutely make Kizer nervous as he drops back to pass.

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Army Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

Another week, another triple option defense for ND to try to figure out. This time, Notre Dame will face the 2nd-best rushing team in the country, as Army averages 320.1 yards per game on the ground. The Irish gave up 320 yards rushing to Navy last weekend, so expect more of the same this Saturday as the ND defense struggles to get 3rd down stops and Army continues where Navy left off, picking up 4 or 5 yards per play and eating up the clock.

RB Andy Davidson (707 yards, 5.4 ypc, 7 TD) and QB Ahmad Bradshaw (602 yards, 5 TD) will be leading that Black Knights running effort, and will have plenty of help from RB/WR Jordan Asberry (255 yards, 3 TD), RB Darnell Woolfolk (251 yards, 6 TD), RB Kell Walker (212 yards, 1 TD), and RB Tyler Campbell (200 yards, 1 TD). All of those guys average at least 4 yards per carry, and the combination of Asberry, Walker, and Campbell includes players that all average 6 yards or more per rush.

The Notre Dame defense will be deploying the same group of linebackers, safeties, and corners to bring down the Army ball carriers as they did against Navy, and so the play of LBs Nyles Morgan (11 tackles against Navy), Greer Martini (11 tackles against Navy), and James Onwualu (8 tackles against Navy), along with that of safety Drue Tranquill (4 tackles against Navy), DL Isaac Rochell (7 tackles against Navy), and cornerbacks Cole Luke, Julian Love (8 tackles against Navy), and Donte Vaughn (7 tackles against Navy), will be critical in corralling Army players and attempting to force punts instead of allowing for long scoring drives.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Navy Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Love and Tranquill suffered concussions against Navy last weekend, but were cleared this week to play, which is huge considering their abilities to make tackles in space.

If the Irish can bottle up the run a bit and force some 3rd down passing situations, they will likely win the game. Navy’s QB Will Worth was a capable passer, always threatening to pass over the top if ND loaded the box too much. However, Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw is not quite the same threat. He’s thrown for just 565 yards at a 42.9% clip this season, and has a TD-INT ratio of 3-8.

If Bradshaw is forced to throw, though, he will be looking for the likes of Edgar (Allan) Poe (12 receptions, 245 yards, 2 TD), Christian Poe (9 receptions, 124 yards, Edgar’s less-talented-at-writing-short-stories brother), Jeff Ejekam (9 receptions, 117 yards, 1 TD), and Jordan Asberry (4 receptions, 90 yards, 1 TD). The ND DBs are likely up for the task, as the freshman CBs Love, Vaughn, and Troy Pride Jr. have looked very good so far this season, and along with Cole Luke should be able to blanket Army’s little-used receivers.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Navy Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

This is the first time I’ve brought up special teams in a game preview, but I just wanted to point out a little tidbit of information that Jake Schmied of Underdog Dynasty told me the other day.

Army’s starting kicker for this game will be Blake Wilson, a junior and former backup who took over the job after incumbent starter Mitchell Howard injured himself in September against Buffalo. Wilson has been okay in his stead, making 3/6 field goals, but he has also missed two PATs, including one that hit the bottom of the goal post against Air Force. With Jarron Jones’ proclivity for blocking extra points, that’s definitely something to note.

While we’re here, our boy Justin Yoon has hit 11/14 field goals on the season, including 7 in a row. I probably just jinxed him, but yeah, the little dude can kick.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction

Army appears to be better than they normally are, and considering how poorly ND has played (and especially against the triple option), the Irish will probably struggle to put Army away, at least early in the game. The Black Knights have the blueprint on how to beat Notre Dame with the triple option, and will likely eat clock and drive for touchdowns at least a few times in this one.

However, the Fighting Irish are now playing the triple option for the second straight week, meaning they’ve had two weeks of practicing to beat it heading into this game. I think the defense will look marginally better and get a couple more stops than they did against Navy, giving Kizer and co. the ball more and allowing for ND to ultimately pull this one out, although it will likely be way too close considering the talent disparity between the two teams.

Notre Dame 34, Army 26

Here’s to hoping that Notre Dame doesn’t completely embarrass themselves and add another terrible opponent to the list of terrible opponents that Brian Kelly’s teams never should have lost to (Tulsa, South Florida, Duke, Northwestern, Navy, etc.)!

Go Irish.