Well everybody, just as we predicted before the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are ranked #3 heading into the second weekend in November and will be facing the #7 and undefeated Miami Hurricanes in a College GameDay game with huge College Football Playoff implications.
To prepare for the easily the most exciting revival of Catholics vs. Convicts (because God knows the 2010 Sun Bowl, 2012 Soldier Field Shellacking, and 2016 Garbage Game weren’t exactly worthy of being compared to the ~1988 version of the rivalry), I spoke to some people over at State of the U, SB Nation’s Miami Hurricanes site.
Managing editor Cam Underwood and editor Justin Dottavio were kind enough to answer all my questions about Mark Richt, the Hurricanes’ passing game, how dangerous the defense is, Legends of the Hidden Temple hypotheticals (of course), the Miami “Turnover Chain,” and more.
Folks, they gave me some INCREDIBLE detail here, so be sure to read through everything they’ve shared in order to learn everything you need to know about this Miami team. Additionally, get excited for an absolutely monstrous weekend of college football, considering this top-10 matchup and all of the other huge games that will be filling our schedules on Saturday.
1. After a 9-4 first season that included a bowl victory, and now this 8-0 start in Year 2, are Hurricanes fans all-in on Mark Richt as the answer to the question, "Who's the right coach to lead this program back to the top?"
Cam Underwood: AB-SO-LUTELY. Richt has come back to his alma mater and been rejuvenated (he was famously a CEO type coach in the back end of his tenure at Georgia, but is more hands on now). Richt has built one of the best assistant coaching staffs in America, highlighted by Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz and Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski, the best DL coach in America, in my opinion. He's recruiting to an elite level, has connected with the South Florida community, and has the Canes at 8-0 and 7th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Now, that's not to say that everything is perfect. Richt has been hit or miss as a playcaller. Injuries have taken a toll. The top end talent is Miami-caliber, but there's still a lack of depth from what would be ideal. And, there could be upgrades made among the assistant coaching group, in a perfect wold.
But, if you ask any Miami fan if Mark Richt is the guy, ESPECIALLY after what we saw from Larry Coker, Randy Shannon, and Al Friggin' Golden? The answer is unquestionably "yes."
Justin Dottavio: Every fan base has bad fans but the rational ones that have some fun in their lives enjoy Mark Richt. I ran into a UGA fan in Savannah in my 'Canes hoodie and they told me they missed Coach Richt as their coach. They're currently ranked 1-3 so that's saying a lot. Recruiting is up, the team looks more disciplined and better put together. Obviously 8-0 says a lot.
2. Did most Hurricanes fans feel this was a team that could compete for the College Football Playoff at the beginning of the year? If not, when did everyone really start to believe — did it take until Saturday's big win over Virginia Tech?
Cam: No, the consensus thought was not that this was a CFP contending team this year. Yeah, the schedule set up well for double digit wins, but even when that had been the case in the past, Miami lost games they shouldn't have, and everybody knows about the post-FSU loss collapses over the past 7 years, too. And, as I alluded to in the first answer, Miami's depth isn't really championship caliber yet.
We all know the moment that things started to turn: when Darrell Langham moss'd Tarvarus McFadden for the game-winning TD at Florida State.
That showed that this Miami team had a different makeup, a different ability to overcome circumstances and win close games that hasn't been seen around these parts in more than a decade.
With every win after that -- Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina -- the positive vibes grew. Yes, the Virginia Tech win was the biggest step towards the goals of winning the Coastal and making the CFP, but the win at Florida State is where most Canes fans started to see this team in a new light.
Justin: The fan opinions I've read mostly felt 9-10 wins, which was reasonable. New QB, questions at DB and OL, RB depth. I think beating VT convincingly changed perception.
3. Malik Rosier has been pretty darn good as a first year starter. What does he do well, and what glaring weaknesses does he have, if any, that you're afraid the Notre Dame defense might be able to exploit?
Cam: Rosier has been good......at times. When he's on, he's a threat in the run game (he's on track for more yards rushing than any Miami QB in like 40 years), an accurate passer who makes good reads, uses his plus arm strength to fit balls in tight windows, and completes big throws to a variety of talented Miami skill players.
But, when he's bad, he's terrible. Rosier can get out of whack, which usually means he's missing targets, missing reads, and throwing interceptions. Rosier is also only 6'1", so height and length along the DL can cause some issues, but that's just part of playing QB, I guess.
Rosier has been hot or cold this season, with nothing in between. If he's hot, he's NBA Jam-level on fire, and there's nothing you can do to stop him. If he's cold, however, you get things like a 4/16 1st half at FSU or similar. Rosier is consistently inconsistent, with highs that are incredible and lows that are deplorable.
Justin: Obviously he plays with a confidence many others don't. That's backed up by his ability to win in the 4th quarter. He plays unafraid. Notre Dame will roll coverage from 2 high down to 1 high hoping he can't make an adjustment post-snap. He's been fine pre-snap but post-snap there are flaws because he only has 9 or so games of starting experience.
4. The Hurricanes have a talented back in Travis Homer, and Rosier himself is capable of making some plays with his feet. How do you see those guys doing against the Notre Dame front seven, and how good/healthy is the Miami offensive line?
Cam: Homer is very talented, a 4-star recruit in 2016, and has been the workhorse over the last few games with Mark Walton gone for the year. He's tough and runs bigger than his 5'11" 195lb size, but has the speed to score from anywhere on the field, as evidenced by his 64 yard TD vs Virginia Tech last Saturday.
As previously stated, Rosier is having a record-setting season for a Miami QB running the ball, so he is a factor in the zone read and QB run games.
Miami's Offensive Line has been one of the worst units on the team for years, but OL coach Stacy Searels and the guys on that unit have done a great job to increase the productivity and consistency of that group. The only injury along the OL was Freshman RG Navaughn Donaldson (ankle), but he returned last week, and the line was better for it. They are healthy heading into this week's game.
Miami seldom dominates against top rush defenses, but the Canes will have to hold their own this week. Travis Homer and new backup RB DeeJay Dallas, a multi-talented athlete who is a natural with the ball in his hands as a runner or receiver, along with Rosier will have to find space and make plays. It doesn't have to be a 64 yard TD like Homer had last week (although I'll take that), but consistently getting 4, 5, 8 yards a carry will go a long way. Miami's OL rotates bad plays (LT Kc McDermott usually has a play he forgets to block a defender, LG Trevor Darling false starts, etc.), but if those are at a minimum, Miami will be in a much better place in Saturday's game.
Justin: Homer has looked good but Deejay Dallas will have to spell him in order for him to stay effective. The offensive line is improved from a year ago and can handle the size of ND's D-Line better.
5. Passing-wise, Rosier has quite a few targets to throw to -- specifically senior Braxton Berrios and Mr. Clutch, Darrell Langham. Walk me through what each key receiver brings to the table, and how you think they match up against ND's secondary, especially starting corners Julian Love and Nick Watkins.
Cam: Miami's skill players are among the most talented in America. The best player at WR is Ahmmon Richards. He's an elite player, with height, speed, and skill. He broke Michael Irvin's Freshman receiving record last year, and had 3 catches for 51 yards vs ND last year. He also hurdled a dude on an end around, which is pretty cool, too. Richards is an all-around threat, able to work the short game on slants and stops, or take fly routes and posts over the top of the defense. Richards has had to miss time with a hamstring injury and had a few concentration issues (drops) when he's been on the field. Some people call his stat regression a sophomore slump, but even in the face of 5 games played and nearly 10 dropped balls this season, Richards is by far Miami's best receiver, and the Canes will continue to find ways to get him on track and throw him the ball often.
Berrios is a great slot receiver who is finally being used appropriately. He is a technician in his routes, and has great hands. Berrios leads the Canes with 36 catches and 7 TDs, and can do it all. He's a smaller receiver at 5'9", but he uses good athleticism to go up and make tough catches when needed (but that's not the best part of his game, at all).
Langham is an interesting player. He's got great size at 6'4" 220lbs, and obviously made game-winning catches against FSU and Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks. But, apart from that, he's been pretty quiet this season. That is a product of him playing the same position as Richards, but many people (myself included) think Miami should work to get Richards and Langham on the field together. Even if he's not playing much, Langham can have an impact on the game when called upon. He played just 2 snaps vs FSU, which both came on the last drive and included the game-winning TD.
Freshman speedster Jeff Thomas has really come into his own recently. He's an electric athlete with speed to burn (if you watched last year's Under Armour All-American game, you know what I'm talking about). Thomas is now playing outside after starting the year playing mostly in the slot, and his speed and ability have been a boon for Miami's passing game. He's only 5'10" but he can go get the ball anywhere. Blink and you'll miss him so keep an eye on #4.
The biggest weapon for Miami in the passing game is Tight End Christopher Herndon IV. Finally out of David Njoku's shadow, the senior from Norcross, GA is proving to be an all-around threat for Miami as a blocker but moreso as a receiver. Herndon is big at 6'4" 252lbs but runs like a much smaller man. Herndon IV is used all over the offense as an H-Back, TE, and slot receiver. Miami will throw him seam routes, drag routes, and even bubble screens. Herndon IV is too athletic for most linebackers and too big for most safeties. With 32 catches and 4 TDs, he's Miami's 2nd leading receiver and that's a name you should know.
To the last part of your question, I honestly don't know much about Notre Dame's cornerbacks, and I don't need to. I am confident in the abilities of Miami's skill players to win 1v1 matchups to get open. I feel this way every week. I'm not saying Miami is going to throw for 500 yards and 8 TDs, but few teams in America have the kind of skill talent that Miami does. If the OL does their job to give Rosier time, and Rosier is on time and on target with his passes, I'm fully confident in Miami's ability to throw the ball in most situations, regardless of opponent. ALSO, with Miami's CBs playing to an All-American level, Miami is seeing great coverage in practice, so even if ND's cornerbacks play to an elite level, it won't be anything that Miami hasn't seen before.
Justin: Berrios runs good routes, doesn't drop the football, and finds a way to come through in the clutch. Langham made a few clutch catches but he's not so much a consistent threat. Herndon, the tight end, has to be utilized more. He's another clutch player that turns 5 yarders into long touchdowns. Jeff Thomas and Richards are the deep threats with inconsistency issues.
6. How worried are you about the Hurricanes defense being just 67th in the country against the run, facing this Irish offensive line, Josh Adams, and Brandon Wimbush?
Cam: Notre Dame's run game is very good, and that is concerning to be sure. Josh Adams is a horse. And while he might not be the best thrower Miami will face this year, Wimbush can impact games with his legs, as has been seen repeatedly this season.
Miami stepping up to the challenge of stopping, or containing, ND's run game starts with the defensive line. Miami goes a legit 10 deep along the DL, and that group will need to bring their best performance on Saturday. DTs RJ McIntosh (his brother Deon plays RB for ND) and Kendrick Norton lead the way, with DEs Joe Jackson and Chad Thomas also adding in.
Miami will miss versatile DE Demetrius Jackson, who injured a knee vs. Virginia Tech and will miss the rest of the year. DJax was one of Miami's best run defenders along the DL, but there are others to replace him on the 2nd team DL.
Against a team like ND, everybody has to own the task of stopping the run game. Linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud have had issues with their run fits this season, and that is something to watch. Miami can, at times, over pursue, which opens up cutback lanes for RBs and QBs alike. To be successful, Miami will need to have those errors fixed.
While Miami may be 67th in raw yards allowed rushing, that's skewed because we already played Georgia Tech. The Canes are allowing 3.92 yards per carry, which is much better than the raw number would lead on. Also, Miami did a great job to hold GT and VT below their season averages on rush yards, so big performances have come in big games for the run defense.
Justin: The Miami defense is 27th in the S&P+ and that's the data I use in my posts on SBNation. They'll be just fine against Wimbush and Adams on the ground if they focus on stopping that and the RPO and forcing Wimbush to beat them with his arm. The back 7 comes away with picks so that'll be a positive for Miami. The Canes are back to getting multiple turnovers a game.
7. Wimbush showed he can make some throws in the past few weeks, but also remains somewhat inconsistent with his accuracy. How do you see the Miami secondary holding up against the bad-to-mediocre passing attack ND has shown so far this season?
Cam: After losing 4 players to graduation and the NFL, Miami's secondary was a big question mark heading into this season. However, the Canes secondary has been flat out DOMINANT this year, with a variety of players progressing and showcasing elite level talent and performances.
CBs Malek Young and Michael Jackson (yes, seriously) are 2 of the best cover guys in America. Grad Transfer Dee Delaney and freshman Trajan Bandy also seeing time at CB and Nickel, respectively, have added depth and talent to Miami's secondary. Safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine have been steady, with Johnson leading the team in tackles and providing solid coverage and range as well.
To this point of the season, Miami is allowing just 5.5 yards per pass, 4th best in America. Miami is allowing an opponent passer rating 98.34, 3rd best in America. Miami has 13 interceptions, tied for 7th best in America. Elite by any metric, and a point of strength on one of the best defenses in the country.
Miami has shut down Syracuse's passing game, held Duke well below their average, stifled VT all day long, and have been pretty great all year long. There were blown coverages early in the year, and backup S Robert Knowles is a liability in pass coverage, but that's the exception, not the rule. Miami will try to take away ND's run game and make the Irish win via the pass. Based on prior game evidence, this should favor Miami, but that is also dependent on Miami actually taking away the ND run game, a task that is easier said than done.
Justin: Miami will force ND to throw medium to deep and that's where they will give up big plays but also create turnovers and sacks.
8. Give me the X-factors on offense, defense, and special teams for the Hurricanes. Which players' performances will be absolutely critical for Miami to win this game?
Cam: I'll keep this short:
Offense: QB Malik Rosier and TE Christopher Herndon IV
Defense: DT RJ McIntosh and LB Shaq Quarterman
Special Teams: K Michael Badgley
Justin: On offense - Rosier protecting the football and Richards bouncing back. On defense - Malek Young needs a big game. In the kicking game - can't afford Feagles to shank any against ND.
9. Notre Dame has Equanimeous St. Brown and Greer Martini. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Miami roster?
Cam: I already mentioned him but we have a CB named Michael Jackson. We have a Malik (Rosier) and a Malek (Young). They wear the same number, too! We have a Romeo (Finley) but no Juliet. We have a Casey.....except it's spelled Kc (yes, with the lower case ‘c’). There's Evidence (Njoku), N'kosi (Perry), and of course I have to mention Michael Irvin II.
Justin: Michael Jackson.
10. Dance-off between Brian Kelly and Mark Richt. What song does each coach dance to, and who wins?
Cam: Brian Kelly dances to “Moon River” (shoutout to Ty from the Solid Verbal) and has someone's grandma as his partner.
CMR dances to Turnover Chain, but doesn't really know what to do while the song plays.
CMR wins because, I mean, who wins a dance-off by dancing to “Moon River”?
Justin: Kelly has Enya from yoga class and Richt has that "Spirit in the Sky" song.
11. Follow-up to 10: same question, but karaoke instead of dance-off.
Cam: Brian Kelly sings the alphabet because he's boring and can't think of anything else to sing.
CMR sings “Livin' on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi because classics are always in style.
CMR wins bc the alphabet, really? Do better, Brian.
12. You have to pick 2 Hurricanes players to compete on the old Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. Who do you choose and why?
Cam: Braxton Berrios (finalist for Campbell Award aka Academic Heisman, so he'd have the mental puzzles on lock) and RJ McIntosh (size, speed, and athleticism so all the physical challenges would be a breeze). Boom. Done. Gimme the idol!!!!
Justin: Sheldrick Redwine because when he wins he'll flash that smile, and Travis Homer because a guy with those arms can't lose.
13. Complete this thought: Miami's "turnover chain" is _________ .
14. Give me a prediction. I need who wins, the score, and your reasoning why.
Cam: Miami can stress ND's defense. Miami can lock down ND's passing game. Miami will do enough to control the ND run game. Miami's special teams, especially K Michael Badgley, are among the best in America. Miami is ready for payback from last year's loss (about which I could speak at length, but I've already written nearly 2k words).
Notre Dame 23
Justin: Miami by 1 because defense.
15. Anything else Irish fans should know about the U's team, coaches, fans, traditions, etc.?
Cam: It's late and I'm tired so I'm gonna punt on this one. Notre Dame and their fans know who Miami is. They know our history and traditions. They might hate us, but they know us, I'm sure about that.
Justin: Convicts > Catholics.
I want to give a huge shout out to Cam and Justin for answering all my questions, and encourage all of you to follow them on Twitter (here and here), as well as to hit up State of the U at their site and on Twitter for all Miami Hurricanes updates and analysis leading up to Saturday’s big game.