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Notre Dame Football: Miami Hurricanes Preview

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Notre Dame and Miami are playing a somewhat important game tomorrow

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Can you feel it — that electric, nerve-wracking, anxious energy?

I know I do. I felt different versions of it just weeks ago.

Before the USC game, I was extremely unsure, but excited and driven by a white-hot, burning hatred of the Trojans.

Before the NC State game, I was a little more collected and confident, but still nervous, knowing the Wolfpack were a good team and that I shouldn’t be taking them lightly.

Now, all those emotions are flooding back stronger than ever. The 8-1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is ranked #3 in the country less than a year removed from losing 8 of 12 games in 2016, and now will travel down to southern Florida in November to take on a 7th-ranked Miami Hurricanes team and fanbase that are undefeated, exceedingly cocky, and chock full of fantastic athletes.

Okay, two of those three things I said really just describe the team, not the fans, but you get my overall point — there are certainly reasons to be at least a little nervous, even if you just feel nervous about not feeling nervous about the game.

The last few meetings between these two programs have gone the Fighting Irish’s way, with ND dominating the Hurricanes in the 2010 Sun Bowl and 2012 regular season, and then even scraping by with one of their 4 victories last year against a hapless Miami squad.

One of my good friends, John Macke, even pointed out to me that the last time Miami beat Notre Dame, Yugoslavia was still a country and David Robinson was Rookie of the Year in the NBA. Makes you think.

This Miami team is different from those Miami teams, though. The coaching is better under second-year coach Mark Richt, the talent is starting to develop and come together, and they’ve got a “Turnover Chain,” which can only be considered an advantage, right?

To put it simply, the Hurricanes have a lot of young, hungry talent, and they have really begun to believe they can beat a Fighting Irish team who hasn’t played a game where they weren’t up by at least 20 points at some point since early September. That’s confidence right there, folks.

So, with all the talk on both sides about how the other side doesn’t stand a chance, how do the two squads actually match up? Let’s take a look and see if we can’t figure out who’s gonna win this thing and take a huge step closer to making the College Football Playoff.

Miami Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The strength of this Miami team is certainly the defense, but the offense in Coral Gables has plenty of talent readily available to make plays.

The most critical member of the Miami offense is QB Malik Rosier, a first year starter who has all the tools and who has shown flashes of brilliance, but who has also been very inconsistent. Rosier has thrown for 2,273 yards on the year so far, completing 56.2% of his throws while accumulating 19 TDs and 7 INT. If he’s able to get into a groove early, it could be a long game for the Fighting Irish defense, as Rosier’s performances are usually streaky and feed off of momentum and confidence-gaining early on (like most young quarterbacks).

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Thus, it will be absolutely crucial for the Notre Dame front seven to put pressure on Rosier. As a young QB, he’s shown the ability to get rattled and fall into a funk if things aren’t going smoothly, and so guys like Daelin Hayes (25 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 QBH), Julian Okwara (1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 QBH, 1 FF), and Khalid Kareem (14 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 QBH) need to have huge days getting into the backfield to wreak havoc and force mistakes by Miami’s QB.

DT Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 8 QBH, 1 FF) and DL Jay Hayes (21 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 QBH) will need to get a good push up the middle as well, and it should be interesting to see how much heat Mike Elko brings from guys at the second level of the defense, like Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill.

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

If Rosier is able to sit in the pocket and get through his progressions, he certainly has plenty of exceptional athletes to throw the ball to on Saturday night. The Miami receiving corps is led by senior WR Braxton Berrios, who is a tough, quick playmaker who runs exceptional routes and is as reliable as they come. He’s got 36 catches for 474 yards and 7 TDs this season, so Rosier will certainly look to him as a security blanket if things go haywire. Plus, he likes to do the “hold me back” move, so you know he’s a super tough guy ready to run over people.

TE Christopher Herndon IV is another very important target for Rosier, as he gives him a big, athletic receiver with good hands who can be a mismatch for the linebackers or safeties who will be forced to cover him. Herndon has 32 receptions for 392 yards and 4 TDs on the season, and should be a key focus by Elko’s secondary and linebackers when Rosier drops back to throw.

After Berrios and Herndon, the Hurricanes receivers don’t get any less talented, but are just a little younger and greener. Ahmmon Richards has really come into his own over the last few weeks, and has 17 catches for 341 yards and a TD on the year. Jeff Thomas adds another game-breaking component to the offense with his 11 catches for 249 yards and 2 TDs, and Darrell Langham is a guy who has been somewhat uninvolved for most of the year, save for 2 HUGE catches against Florida State and Georgia Tech (10 receptions, 207 yards, 2 TDs this season).

The Hurricanes won’t be able to throw at-will out there on Saturday evening, though, as Notre Dame’s secondary, although not elite, has been incredibly strong this season against some pretty good passing attacks (Sam Darnold and USC, Ryan Finley and NC State, John Wolford and Wake Forest).

The group is led by sophomore corner Julian Love, who has been playing at an All-American level this year (37 tackles, 14 PBU, 3 INT — 2 for TDs and the 3rd just barely not a TD). Love is 3rd in the country in passes defended, 4th in pass breakups, and 1st in interception return yardage.

He’s matched on the other side of the field by senior Nick Watkins (24 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PBU), who has been a great cover corner this year but also has “manageable knee tendonitis” and thus might have to be spelled by sophomore Troy Pride Jr., who struggled a bit against Wake Forest last weekend.

Nickelback Shaun Crawford has been quiet in recent games after exploding in the first half of the season in terms of forcing turnovers. The junior is due to add to his impressive do-a-bit-of-everything stat line (22 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF), so watch out for him being a beneficiary of some solid QB pressure from Hayes, Okwara, etc.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

One concern Irish fans might still have is how the ND secondary defends the deep ball. They haven’t been tested deep too much this season, but have shown a few lapses against fast receivers who were able to get behind the defense or burn DBs on double moves. Miami has plenty of receivers with the physical tools and route running abilities to beat ND deep, so the ability of safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott to help over the top will be huge, and the cornerbacks’ attempts at knocking the ball away will need to be well-timed to prevent big passing plays for the Hurricanes.

If ND is able to contain Miami’s receivers or if Rosier struggles passing the ball, the Hurricanes do have a decent running offense as well to help them out. Starting RB Travis Homer took over after Mark Walton went down against Florida State, and has been a very effective runner, picking up 612 yards at a 6.4 yards-per-carry clip while scoring 6 touchdowns.

He will be spelled by DeeJay Dallas, who has gotten extremely limited action so far this season (7 carries for 32 yards). Malik Rosier is a very good runner himself, having picked up 295 yards and 3 TDs on the ground.

The performance of the Notre Dame linebackers will be as important as ever, as the 4 leading tacklers all reside in that group (Te’von Coney, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill, and Greer Martini have combined for 238 tackles, 22 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT, and 5 FF). They will need to take good angles of pursuit to contain a home run threat like Homer (see what I did there), and will always need to account for Rosier’s legs, especially in scramble situations on passing downs.

Overall, I think the Fighting Irish defense will win this battle tomorrow, but I do not expect it to be a clean or easy effort. Miami will break off some big plays, especially early on, and the inconsistent Miami offense will be able to keep pace with the ND offense well into the third quarter. I think the Irish defense will finally get a big takeaway in the 4th quarter, and the offense will capitalize to put the game out of reach for the Hurricanes.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Miami Defense

The Miami offense vs. Notre Dame defense matchup should be interesting, but the clash that everyone has been talking about has been the two teams’ biggest strengths facing off, when the nearly unstoppable Notre Dame offense will take on an extremely fast, talented, and aggressive Hurricane defense.

The Hurricanes defense comes in ranked 43rd in the country in total defense (35th in passing, 67th in rushing), but if you delve a little deeper, this is a very productive and dangerous defensive team.

NCAA Football: Miami at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at more advanced statistics like Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings or ESPN’s defensive efficiency metrics, the Hurricanes are 27th and 15th in the country, respectively. Miami is 2nd in the country in tackles for loss per game (they were first with 8.8 per game until Northern Illinois surpassed them during their 63-17 win over Ball State last night) and 5th in sacks per game (3.5 per game). They’re 12th in scoring defense, only surrendering 17.6 points per game. They rank 3rd in passing efficiency defense and are 4th in the country in turnover margin.

Needless to say, this is a very good defensive team, and statistically the Hurricanes will provide an NC State-level obstacle. However, unluckily for Miami, the Notre Dame offense itself has been an absolute juggernaut since the egg they laid against Georgia’s elite defense.

The Irish are 5th in the country in ESPN’s offensive efficiency metric, 6th in the S&P+ rankings, 13th in total offense, 5th in rushing offense, and 7th in scoring offense. Essentially, no matter how you want to slice the data, the Notre Dame offense is elite in every sense of the word — except in passing, where ND is 109th in the country in passing offense.

So, what the aggressive, chances-taking Miami defense will look to do under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is take away the Notre Dame running game, contain Brandon Wimbush to the pocket, put pressure on him, and make him win the game with his arm. All of that sounds really good, except for one problem — no team, save for Georgia, has come even remotely close to shutting down the Notre Dame running game.

The Irish have rushed for at least 200 yards in 7 of 9 games, and have run for at least 180 in 8 of 9. Just Georgia was able to completely shut down the running game, allowing just 55 yards to the Irish. Otherwise, Notre Dame’s offensive line, led by All-Americans Quenton “Destroyer of Worlds” Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, have been absolutely wrecking opposing defenses, opening up truck-sized running lanes for Josh Adams to run through on his way to 1,191 yards (8.7 per carry) and 9 TDs on the season.

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

Adams was held out for most of the Wake Forest game last weekend, but Brian Kelly has assured everyone that he’s 100% healthy and ready to go this week, which is huge news for the ND offense. However, even if he couldn’t go or was limited, the Irish have plenty of other weapons ready to carry the ball behind that ridiculously strong offensive line.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh has run for 367 yards and 5 TDs at a 5.7 yards-per-carry clip this season, fellow sophomore Tony Jones Jr. has been nearly as productive (198 yards, 5.4 ypc, 3 TD), and backup Dexter Williams has been electric when healthy (280 yards on 9 ypc and 4 TDs), but will not be 100% for this one as he continues to deal with a quadriceps contusion.

There’s also the matter of Brandon Wimbush, who will not only be carrying the ball on formal plays designed for him, but also using his legs to scramble and keep the chains moving on passing downs. Wimbush has run for 639 yards and 13 TDs (an ND QB record) on the year, and due to Miami’s aggressive defense, he could easily have a big day taking off upfield or to the corner when Miami defenders over-pursue and lose contain on him.

The Miami defense certainly knows all this though, and Diaz will likely have his defense stacking the box in preparation to stuff the run. This effort will start with that Hurricanes defensive line that is so good at getting penetration and bringing down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.

That group is led by RJ McIntosh (older brother of ND’s Deon) and Kendrick Norton, who have combined for 52 tackles, 12 TFL, and 4 sacks. Toss in Joe Jackson (38 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks), Chad Thomas (7 TFL, 3 sacks), and Trent Harris (23 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4 sacks) and it’s a formidable, aggressive, powerful front line for the Hurricanes.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, one of their most stout run-stoppers, DL Demetrius Jackson, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Virginia Tech. Jackson had 7.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks on the season, and the rest of the DL will certainly need to step up their collective game to make up for his absence against an offensive front like Notre Dame’s.

The defensive line will get additional help in that regard from the Miami linebackers, who are fast and athletic as well, and will be running sideline to sideline to try to bring down Adams, McIntosh, Jones, and Wimbush.

The group’s best player is unquestionably Shaquille Quarterman, who has 47 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 TFL on the year. Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud (combined 64 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are also solid playmakers.

It remains to be seen how these guys will deal with a behemoth like Quenton Nelson pulling and attempting to pancake them, but these linebackers are very good at what they do and could cause some major issues getting into the backfield on Saturday.

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

Looking at the Miami front seven, they could cause some major issues early on, getting into the backfield and blowing up runs before they start, just as NC State was able to do in the first half a few weeks ago. However, as the game progresses and the Notre Dame offensive line continues to attack, I expect the Miami defensive front to wear down and break down by the 4th quarter, allowing for a couple long, devastating drives by the Irish late in the game.

However, if the Hurricanes have a lot of success stopping the run, even just early on, ND QB Brandon Wimbush may be forced to throw more than Irish fans would like, just due to 3rd-and-long situations that require it. Wimbush has been very inconsistent in the limited amount of passing he’s been asked to do, throwing for 1,287 yards at a 51.3% completion rate. The good news for Irish fans is that Wimbush has been good about taking care of the ball, throwing 11 TDs to only 2 INTs.

The bad news is that this Miami defense has that “Turnover Chain” for a reason, and the Hurricanes secondary has been pretty impressive in forcing turnovers through the air. Part of this is thanks to the pressure that guys like McIntosh, Norton, Jackson, Thomas, and Harris are able to get on QBs, but the other part has been how well the Miami secondary has played.

The Hurricanes DBs are led by S Jaquan Johnson, who leads the team in tackles with 58, and who also has picked off a pair of passes, broken up 3 more, and forced a fumble. He’s joined at safety by Sheldrick Redwine, a veteran DB who has a couple interceptions and 4 pass break-ups himself.

The Miami corners have been incredibly impressive this season as well, blanketing receivers and coming up with plenty of big plays of their own. Malek Young and Michael Jackson have combined for 56 tackles, 5 INTs, 12 pass break-ups, and 5 TFL. Toss in DBs Dee Delaney and Trajan Bandy and there is a lot of talent and playmaking ability at the back of the Miami defense, and they will all be hungry to be on the receiving end of an errant Wimbush pass so they can wear that Turnover Chain.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

That crew will be tasked with containing the Notre Dame receivers on Saturday night, and that means trying to contain 6’4” WR Chase Claypool, who has emerged as Notre Dame’s most dangerous receiver in recent weeks. He had a huge game against Wake Forest (9 catches, 180 yards, a TD) and now leads the team in receptions (24) and yards (354). His size and speed will present plenty of issues for the Miami secondary, and that matchup should be fun to watch, as Claypool has a penchant for getting open deep.

Equanimeous St. Brown (22 rec, 289 yards, 3 TD) and Kevin Stepherson (8 rec, 101 yards, 2 TD) will be the other wide receivers Miami will need to worry about, and Stepherson especially could take the top off the defense a couple times early on as Chip Long hopes to soften the Miami defense up to allow for better running.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

TE Alizé Mack will be back this weekend after missing Wake Forest due to concussions, and fellow TE Durham Smythe will hope to continue his recent fantastic play. Considering the pressure and speed of the Miami defense, it could be critical that those two huge targets have good games and provide Wimbush with the safety valve options he will want as Hurricanes defenders come hurtling toward him.

Overall, I think the Miami defense will be a faster version of NC State (but a little less stout against the run) and will certainly make some big plays early in the game. I even think they get a turnover or two in the first half, and the Turnover Chain will be shown at least 10 times during those first two quarters.

However, I’ve seen enough of the ND offense this season to know that this offensive line and stable of running backs and Wimbush will continue to pound the ball until the defense just can’t withstand the attack anymore, and the floodgates will begin to open late in the 3rd and early in the 4th.

Prediction

The Miami defense is stingy, so my final score below might be considered extremely aggressive. However, knowing that this is a very aggressive Hurricanes defense that will certainly be taking some chances in order to try to force turnovers, and knowing how demoralizingly strong the Notre Dame offense is once it’s had a couple quarters to wear away at a defense, I think the Irish fire on all cylinders in the second half and just explode for lots of points.

The Notre Dame defense will play a steady game, but will not be able to disrupt Malik Rosier as much as Irish fans would like or expect. Braxton Berrios and Ahmmon Richards and Christopher Herndon IV will make some plays that keep the game close or even have Miami winning at the half, but will ultimately be shut down as the Irish defense makes a few clutch stops in crunch time that allow the offense to capitalize and put this one away.

Notre Dame 42, Miami 30

One final note: This score prediction was something I really talked myself into, as I got scared of my truest of opinions about how this game will go, and didn’t know as much about the Miami defense and how good it’s been as I do now.

However, in my heart of hearts, I look at Miami’s opponents this year and know that their stats, although impressive, are still somewhat a product of their extremely soft schedule, and so I’m skeptical they will completely hold up against a very proven elite entity in the Notre Dame offense. To put it simply, I think this one could end with Notre Dame winning by 3+ scores if the offensive line comes out snatching people’s souls.

No matter what happens on Saturday, I implore Irish fans to remember what has become my rallying cry with all my friends as we’ve watched this Notre Dame team dismantle one opponent after another: It doesn’t have to be close.

There’s no rule saying Notre Dame has to play a close, exciting, nailbiter-of-a-game with Miami, and no rule that says the Hurricanes’ elite defense will continue to look elite on Saturday night.

Here’s to hoping, wishing, and maaaaaaybe even knowing that it doesn’t have to be, and might not be, close on Saturday.

Beat Miami, folks. Go Irish.