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Notre Dame Football: NC State Wolfpack Game Preview

Your #9 Fighting Irish host another top-15 opponent tomorrow, the 14th-ranked NC State Wolfpack. Will their stout run defense and efficient offense finally spell doom for this red-hot Notre Dame football team?

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Well people, we’re about to hit the home stretch of the college football season, and...what’s that, Irish fans? Is that...the feeling of being...excited? And...hopeful for the team? Whaaat??? Wasn’t it just a year ago that the Fighting Irish were 2-5 (!!!) and preparing to play a down-on-its-luck-also Miami Hurricanes squad?

What a difference a year makes.

Well, a year, along with plenty of new coaches and cultural changes and yoga lessons.

After all that, your Notre Dame Fighting Irish currently sit at 6-1 and are ranked 9th in the country after systematically dismantling the USC Trojans last weekend (just an update for ya, in case you’re a Notre Dame fan who has been living under a rock without access to cable or the Internet or print newspapers or even other people).

However, despite the huge win over a highly-ranked rival just 6 days ago and all the College Football Playoff hype that came with it, ND cannot pause to catch its collective breath, as the team now has to face another very tough test tomorrow, hosting the #14 North Carolina State Wolfpack at 3:30 PM ET.

The Wolfpack enter the game at 6-1 and leading the ACC’s Atlantic Division, with the sole loss being a season-opening 35-28 defeat at the hands of South Carolina. Now, after having rattled off 6 straight wins that included victories over Florida State (ranked 12th at the time) and over reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals, the Wolfpack hope to toss their (“its”? is Wolfpack singular or plural??) own hat(s) into the ring for the College Football Playoff discussion.

So, in preparation for another top-15 matchup in South Bend, let’s see how the two teams match up, and learn a heckuva lot more about Dave Doeren’s NC State team, who have flown well under the radar for most of the season.

NC State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

A lot of the talk about NC State’s strengths has centered around the Wolfpack’s fantastic defensive front, and we will absolutely get to that. But what no one seems to be talking about is how balanced, efficient, and talented the NC State offense has been this season.

The Wolfpack rank 24th in total offense nationally and 31st in scoring, and are led by junior QB Ryan Finley, who has been fantastic at the helm of this unit. Finley is 24th in the country in passer efficiency rating and 7th in completion percentage, connecting on a whopping 69.4% of his passes. That efficiency rating is built upon the fact that Finley has tossed 11 TDs and accumulated 1,968 yards through the air without throwing a single interception. Hell, the Wolfpack offense has only turned the ball over 3 times all year — Doeren’s squad THRIVES on taking care of the ball.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Something will have to give in this regard, though, as Notre Dame is 4th in the country in turnover margin, having forced 10 more turnovers than they’ve coughed up this season (17 total turnovers forced — 7 INT and 8 FF).

Guys like ND CB Shaun Crawford (2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1.5 sacks, 4 PBU) have gotta be licking their chops thinking about a QB who hasn’t really made any huge mistakes this season (so he’s due, right??), and that Irish defensive front of Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes, Jay Hayes, Julian Okwara, Jonathan Bonner, and Khalid Kareem is certainly hoping to continue getting lots of pressure on the opposing QB.

Finley will have a ton of weapons to rely on though, and a couple of them could be huge in terms of being safety valves if ND brings the heat — RB Nyheim Hines and TE/H-Back/Offensive Factotum Jaylen Samuels.

Hines is a 5’9” back with all SORTS of speed (the dude runs track) but also with surprising power for a guy his size, and is a constant threat to break one if he gets daylight.

He has 648 yards and 6 TDs on the season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The Notre Dame defense has been very good at bottling up some really good running backs this season (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel of Georgia, all the MSU running backs, Ronald Jones of USC), and they rank 30th overall in rushing defense, so it should be interesting to see how effective Hines is able to be.

Samuels, meanwhile, is a do-it-all player who will be lined up all over the place to try to create mismatches, and so guys like ND Rover Drue Tranquill (41 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT) and LBs Nyles Morgan (51 tackles, 5 TFL), Greer Martini (39 tackles, 2 FF, 1 INT), and Te’von Coney (53 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks) will need to bring their A-game in coverage alongside their sure-tackling abilities in order to bring down Wolfpack ball carriers like Hines.

Samuels leads the team in receptions with 54, and has accumulated 453 yards and 3 TDs in the process. Safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott may be asked to cover him too, or even guys like Crawford, depending on the situation. Needless to say, Samuels will need to be accounted for by Mike Elko’s defense no matter where he lines up, and will probably match up with several different Irish players.

Hines and Samuels aren’t the only options Finley has to turn to, though, as there’s still Kelvin Harmon, who leads the team in receiving with 547 yards on 36 catches (also he has scored twice this season). Add in another 51 receptions, 661 yards, and 5 TDs from WRs Stephen Louis and Jakobi Meyers combined, and the Wolfpack have some serious firepower to work with, meaning Nick Watkins (6 PBU, 1 INT), Julian Love (8 PBU, 1 INT/TD), Crawford, and the rest of the secondary will definitely need to bring it.

The Irish secondary has played well and not given up many big plays this year, but the group is still 85th in the country in passing defense, meaning there’s an opportunity for Finley to pick them apart if he has the time to do so.

The ND defensive line stands a good chance of not allowing that to happen, as the group has been great about getting penetration into the backfield and forcing guys like Georgia’s Jake Fromm, MSU’s Brian Lewerke, and USC’s Sam Darnold to make mistakes throwing the ball.

Tillery will lead the way in this regard, as the 6’6” DT from Shreveport has been fantastic at collapsing the middle of the offensive line, collecting 31 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7 QB hurries so far this year.

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

That kind of push means more help is needed in the middle, and guys on the outside like Daelin Hayes (3 sacks), Julian Okwara (5 QB hurries, 1.5 sacks, 1 tipped pass that he picked off), and Khalid Kareem (3 sacks — 2 of them coming against USC last weekend) are given more one-on-one opportunities that they can win with speed and athleticism.

NC State’s offense as a whole is averaging 35.4 points per game, which is good for 31st in the country. However, the Notre Dame defense has been as solid as they come this year, as Elko has turned the group around completely, building them into the #12 scoring defense (16.4 points per game), #7 defense in terms of defensive efficiency, #9 in 4th down conversion defense (only allowed 3 conversions on 11 attempts), and #18 in red zone defense (6 of 23 opponent drives in the red zone have ended with 0 points scored).

I think the NC State offense will be able to make some plays early, as Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines will have fresh legs and some of the Wolfpack receivers could manage to get behind the ND safeties on a couple early shots downfield.

However, as the game wears on, I think Elko’s defense begins to get into a groove in terms of wreaking havoc and forcing NC State mistakes, and by the end of the game the Irish defense will walk away from the game again having bested their opponent.

ND Offense vs. NC State Defense

Okay, now that we’ve covered the more underrated matchup of the weekend, let’s get down to business and talk about the main event — the Notre Dame running game against the NC State rush defense.

The media haven’t been able to stop talking about the Notre Dame running game this week after what it accomplished against USC, and rightfully so. The Irish ran for 377 total yards against the Trojans, including 191 from Heisman candidate RB Josh Adams and another 106 yards from Brandon Wimbush, who is easily one of the best running quarterbacks in the country.

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

Overall, the Irish running game has been absolutely dominant this season, ranked 6th in total rushing offense and 2nd in the country in yards per carry, picking up an average of 7.1 yards on every rush. They’ve run for more than 300 yards in 5 of their 7 games this season.

However, the two defenses who held the Irish under that total — and who actually held them to 182 and 55 yards of total rushing, respectively? Michigan State and Georgia, who both just so happen to be top-10 rushing defenses.

Guess who else has a top-10 rushing defense.

If you guessed the NC State Wolfpack, because, “no duh Pat, that’s the other team this article is about,” then you’d be exactly right!

The Wolfpack pose a massive test for the Notre Dame offensive line and backfield, as they’ve held opponents to an average of 91 rushing yards per game and rank 6th in the country because of that.

This success against the ground game has been led by Bradley Chubb and the rest of the defensive line, consisting of a bunch of athletic, big-bodied individuals who specialize in snuffing out runs and getting to the QB.

Chubb is the best of the bunch — a future 1st Round NFL Draft pick who stands at 6’4” and 275 pounds as a senior — and he has been fantastic this year, considering his stat line of 7 sacks (9th in the country), 13 TFL, 7 QB hurries, and 37 tackles overall.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Chubb isn’t the only guy to fear in that front seven, though. Other big-time contributors to that #6 national ranking in rush defense include DL like BJ Hill (24 tackles, 1 sack), Justin Jones (19 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL), Eurndraus Bryant (2 sacks), and Darian Roseboro (22 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 6 TFL).

The Wolfpack linebackers are strong as well, with guys like Jerod Fernandez (team-high 56 tackles), Germaine Pratt (33 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT), and Airius Moore (32 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU) possessing enough athleticism and physicality to stuff the run and also make some plays defending the pass.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

That group won’t find it easy to dominate the Irish though, considering the ND offensive line’s current level of play, led by All-American candidates LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey.

Nelson especially has been sensational this season (READ THIS ARTICLE TO SEE LOTS OF GREAT GIFS OF HIM EATING PEOPLE’S SOULS), and the rest of the unit has followed his lead in opening up huge lanes for Josh Adams to take en route to his 8 TDs and 967 yards at a 9.2 yards-per-carry clip.

What Adams has been able to do behind that line is sensational, as he is 2nd in the country in yards per carry, has more rushing yards against ranked foes than any FBS running back, is 6th in the nation in rush yards per game (138), and ranks 1st in the country in runs of 60+ yards (6) and 70+ yards (3).

Oh, and the man has been able to accomplish this all while only getting 9 4th-quarter carries this season due to blowouts, and has missed multiple quarters due to said blowouts and due to an injury he had earlier in the year. Josh Adams is just an absolute beast, plain and simple.

Along with Adams, Wimbush has been unbelievable running the ball as well, picking up 508 yards and 10 TD (already tied with DeShone Kizer’s 2015 ND record for QBs) while running for 6.2 yards per carry himself. Toss in backup running back production from Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr., and Deon McIntosh (594 yards, 6.5 ypc, 10 TD), and it’s no wonder that the Irish have just been laying waste to the competition.

However, as stated earlier, NC State’s defensive front is on a level more similar to Georgia and MSU than anyone else the Irish have played, so there’s definitely a chance that ND struggles to establish the level of success running the ball that they’ve become accustomed to.

If that’s the case, the game could come down to the Notre Dame passing offense (ranked 118th in the country) against the NC State passing defense (ranked 122nd in the country), which is kind of hilarious and sounds like a fun way to decide a very important game.

The Wolfpack secondary is anchored by Jonathan Alston (32 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PBU) and Shawn Boone (30 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), and they’re joined by Nick McCloud (5 PBU) and Jarius Morehead (4 PBU). Those four lead a secondary group that has not been good this season, and thus Chip Long has to be thinking about how he can get some production out of his passing game in order to take some of the pressure off the running game.

QB Brandon Wimbush has been incredibly inconsistent in his first 7 career starts this year, throwing for 903 yards, 8 TD, and 2 INT and completing just 51% of his passes. Irish fans have seen Wimbush make some terrible throws, but also drop in some beauties, like the two TDs he threw to open a 14-0 lead against USC last weekend.

One reason for optimism in regards to the ND aerial attack has to be the return of sophomore WR Kevin Stepherson. Stepherson had a fantastic freshman year in 2016 (one of the lone bright spots during that abomination of a season), but was suspended for the first four games of 2017 for unidentified reasons. Now, though, Stepherson is back, and after having spent a couple games getting back up to speed, we saw him take a couple jet sweeps for first downs and catch that beautiful back-shoulder throw from Wimbush for a touchdown last Saturday night. He finished the game with 4 catches for 55 yards and said TD.

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

His return should alleviate the focus and pressure that opposing secondaries have been putting on WR Equanimeous St. Brown, who is easily the team’s best receiver, but who has not been able to get it going this year (18 receptions, 240 yards, 3 TD).

Between St. Brown and Stepherson, Wimbush will have two legitimate deep threats to throw to in case Long wants to open things up and try to force the Wolfpack defense to back off the line of scrimmage a bit. If they’re able to connect for one or two big plays through the air, I think the Irish can really get into a groove and control the game from there. That’s a big IF, though.

Other receivers that have finally begun to play to their potential include Chase Claypool (13 catches, 157 yards, 1 TD) and TE Durham Smythe (7 catches, 130 yards), and TE Alizé Mack is beginning to make a few plays (17 catches, 154 yards), even if he still seems a little rusty from his year away.

If Wimbush is asked to make plays with his arm, don’t be surprised if the Irish turn the ball over once or twice. Like the Irish, the Wolfpack defense has been great at forcing turnovers this season, with NC State tied for 10th in the country in turnover margin at +8. Of course, Wimbush has been known to drop back to pass and then take off for big chunks of yardage with impressive scrambles into the open field, so don’t discount how big that could be in terms of disrupting what the NC State defense will be trying to do.

The Wolfpack, meanwhile, will use all the pass rushing talent they have at their disposal and try to mirror what Georgia did, putting massive pressure on Wimbush and limiting his ability to scramble. Georgia’s defense had more speed and athleticism that made that possible, but NC State’s front seven is absolutely capable of something similar.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, I think the ND offense will struggle in the early going. The NC State defense will be fresh, and for the first time since Georgia, the 11th-best scoring offense of the Irish will come up short on more than a few possessions, and maybe even turn the ball over once or twice.

However, as the game moves on, I think Nelson, McGlinchey, and the rest of the ND line will outlast the NC State front and wear them down — as will the lowered shoulders of Adams, Wimbush, and Tony Jones Jr. All this, plus some well-timed big passes from Wimbush, will lead to a few consecutive scoring drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters — the Irish are 14th in red zone offense and I think they will continue to have that kind of success tomorrow once they get there — that allow the Irish to pull away late.

Special Teams!!!!!?!?!!!!

Per usual, I don’t have too much to say here. Nyheim Hines is a DANGEROUS kick returner, having returned a couple kicks and a punt for TDs in his career at NC State. This is certainly a concern, considering the ND kickoff coverage team looks every time like it’s about to surrender a return touchdown.

Besides Hines’ speed, the only other thing to know about the Wolfpack on special teams is that they are NOT great in the realm of kicking field goals. NC State’s kicker, Carson Wise, is just 6/11 on the season, especially struggling from 30-39 yards out (2/6). I wouldn’t put too much stock in those stats, but multiple NC State fans have now told me it’s been a problem for them, so it’s something to remember if the Wolfpack need a big field goal late in the game.

Prediction Time

This will be the toughest game Notre Dame has had to play since Georgia (which is not saying too much, but still). NC State has the exact strengths you would want an opponent of Notre Dame to have, if you were rooting for the ND opponent. Their run defense is elite and led by NFL-caliber linemen, their offense takes care of the ball, and they have playmakers and speed at various key positions, especially on offense.

All of that will combine to absolutely throw Notre Dame off its game in the first half. I foresee multiple three-and-outs because of no room to run and pressure on the QB, and I foresee the ND defense having trouble with Jaylen Samuels through the air and Nyheim Hines on a variety of creative runs drawn up by NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz (AMAZING NAME ALERT).

However, I think by the 3rd quarter, Elko’s will have it figured out and have his players making plays and forcing a couple turnovers, and Long’s offense will have opened up and begun to really move the ball as the NC State defense just gets hit in the mouth again and again by the Notre Dame rushing attack.

Notre Dame pulls away in the 4th quarter, and the Irish win a hard-fought game over a fantastic opponent, 37-24.