$400M worth of changes to a football stadium, seemingly countless new coaching hires, and the culmination of millions of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fans’ angst over a painfully embarrassing 4-8 record in 2016 all converge to make for a very interesting season opener this Saturday in South Bend.
Notre Dame plays host to the Temple Owls in the first game of the year for both teams at 3:30 PM ET, hoping to both erase all the bad juju spawned by last year’s travesty and move forward as a program in Brian Kelly’s 8th year at the helm.
The Owls, meanwhile, enter this game with a brand spankin’ new head coach (Geoff Collins, previously defensive coordinator at Florida and Mississippi State) and lots of questions at key positions like quarterback and defensive line, but with fresh memories of their near victory against ND in 2015 to pair with all the bulletin board material that comes with being 17-point underdogs (although, to be fair, the Owls have given the Irish the majority of this game’s bulletin board material).
So, what should we expect in watching a team coming off an awful season but with more talent than their opponent, facing off against a team coming off consecutive 10-win seasons but with numerous unknowns and holes to fill?
Let’s talk about it.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Temple Defense
This is certainly going to be the most anticipated matchup of the day — Temple’s staple under former coach Matt Rhule (who left the program this offseason to take the head job at Baylor) was tough, staunch defense, and the Irish offense has plenty of offensive talent on paper, but is breaking in a new QB.
Notre Dame’s new starting signal caller is Brandon Wimbush, a junior (redshirt sophomore in eligibility) who came into the program as a super-hyped prospect with all the physical tools — he’s fast, has a laser-rocket arm, and is a very intelligent kid. What he’s lacking, though, is game experience, as he served as the emergency backup in 2015 to DeShone Kizer after Malik Zaire went down, and then redshirted in 2016. The only real worthwhile highlight we’ve gotten from him is this (I recommend watching with the volume muted):
However, lack of experience aside, Wimbush looks like he can be a very effective QB, especially in new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s run-pass option offense, considering Wimbush’s speed and athleticism. He’s got plenty of weapons around him as well, and any discussion of those weapons has to begin with junior WR Equanimeous St. Brown, who led the team in 2016 to the tune of 58 catches for 961 yards and 9 touchdowns.
St. Brown is a fast, long, sure-handed receiver who runs impeccable routes and always seems to find a way to create separation. He’ll likely be covered by Temple’s Artrel Foster, who had 34 tackles a season ago.
If St. Brown gets past the likes of Foster or whoever else may guard him, he will have to try to beat a couple of fantastic safeties in Sean Chandlar and Delvon Randall, who combined for 6 interceptions and 116 tackles (9.5 TFL) last season. Transfer Mike Jones from North Carolina Central brings plenty of talent to the Temple DBs as well, giving the group a formidable crew with which to try to shut down St. Brown and Wimbush.
Luckily for Wimbush (and St. Brown), there are plenty of other talented receivers for Notre Dame to employ in the passing game. Graduate transfers Cameron Smith (Arizona State) and Freddy Canteen (Michigan) provide the Irish with two veteran receivers with talent, and a glut of big-bodied targets (Alizé Mack and Durham Smythe at TE, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool at WR) provide Wimbush with plenty of security blankets as he goes through his progressions. Add in small, shifty slot guys like Chris Finke and CJ Sanders and it becomes obvious Wimbush will not lack for targets.
However, all those 8 non-Equanimeous guys I just named combined for just 66 catches and 881 yards a year ago, so Wimbush will need a couple of them to step up their games (which seems likely considering the raw talent in play with them).
Sophomore Kevin Stepherson would have been the smart choice at the end of last season to be the Robin to St. Brown’s Batman (considering his 25-catch, 462-yard, 5-touchdown rookie campaign), but every indication is that he’s fallen into Brian Kelly’s doghouse and may even be suspended for the beginning of the season, if not just buried on the depth chart.
Wimbush will also likely have a lot of time to throw, as Temple is replacing a ton of talent (and 22 sacks) on the defense line this season. Michael Dogbe and Freddie Booth-Lloyd will be looked to by the Owls to help fill the shoes left behind by guys like Haason Reddick, who has since moved on to the NFL. However, there’s lots of unproven talent at d-line and linebacker (all three LB positions are filled by new and inexperienced players like MLB Shaun Bradley), which will likely make things easier on the ND offensive line and running game.
The Irish boast a great offensive line on paper, with pre-season All-American guys like G Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey looking to pave the way for ND starting RB Josh Adams, who’s accumulated 1,768 yards (6.4 ypc) and 11 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The junior’s breakaway speed could prove fatal to an Owls defense without much experience at the point of attack, and his backfield-mates Dexter Williams (200 yards, 5.1 ypc, 3 TD in ‘16) and Tony Jones Jr. (along with Wimbush himself) should form an absolutely scary rushing attack if utilized correctly by Long. Considering Wimbush’s level of experience, it remains likely that the running game will be relied heavily upon against a team the Irish should be able to push around up front.
Overall, look for ND to lean more on Adams and Williams running behind the very experienced Irish line, limiting Wimbush’s passing to shorter and more probably-successful plays that will give him confidence, get him into a rhythm, etc. I expect the Temple defense to do fairly well against the pass considering their talent in the secondary and the new QB, but the ND running attack will be enough to break open a sizable lead and set up Wimbush for some nice play-action opportunities.
Temple Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The other big question surrounding this game is who Temple will start at QB. The Owls have not yet named a starter, and coach Geoff Collins has even made it sound like there will be multiple QBs under center on Saturday (ND fans all involuntarily retch at the thought of Brian Kelly’s similar strategy heading into last year’s opener at Texas)
The four guys wrestling over the starting job include redshirt junior Frank Nutile, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo, and true freshman Todd Centeio, who many think looked most impressive during the spring game with his dual-threat capabilities. Marchi is the only one who played in a game for Temple last season, but Nutile did get some reps in 2015.
Whoever ends up starting and/or playing will quickly realize that the ND defense is likely improved under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, but that they still will get very little push up front, and almost no penetration into the backfield on passing downs.
Sophomore Daelin Hayes is a guy on the ND defense to watch out for, as his athleticism and speed are off the charts for a defensive end, and he’s been one of the defensive players many have talked about in terms of breaking out this season. He could be the one to really push forward and improve the team’s pass rush, and hopefully inspire fellow d-linemen like Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Jerry “No Longer Terry Jillery” Tillery to do a better job at the point of attack as well.
This group is clearly one of the team’s weakest units, considering true freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish both made the two-deep over juniors Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway. I wouldn’t put a lot of money on the ND defensive line looking particularly sharp or getting lots of pressure on Saturday.
If the QB does have time to throw, as is the current norm for a team playing against ND, then he will have lots of weapons to toss the rock to on Saturday. The team’s top four receivers all return, as Ventell Bryant (54 receptions, 895 yards, 4 TD in ‘16), Keith Kirkwood (42 receptions, 648 yards, 4 TD) , Adonis Jennings (27 receptions, 474 yards, 4 TD), and Brodrick Yancy (24 receptions, 284 yards, 2 TD) are all back.
Meanwhile, in the backfield, Temple lost its all-everything RB Jahad Thomas to the NFL, but the man who stepped up throughout last season in a backup role will now stand as starter and as likely the best player on the Owls offense.
Ryquell Armstead (919 yards, 5.9 ypc, 14 TD in 2016) is every bit as dangerous as Thomas was, and should see a lot of action behind a very experienced offensive line as coach Geoff Collins will not want to risk too much by leaning too heavily on his collection of QBs.
Stopping Armstead and the Temple rushing attack should be an interesting task for ND, as the defensive line is what I just described above, but the starting linebackers of Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, and Drue Tranquill will provide a smart, aggressive, extremely experienced second line of defense against any runs coming their way.
Morgan especially has been the talk of Irish camp, as the talented senior (team-leading totals of 90 tackles and 4 sacks in 2016) has emerged as not only the best player on the defense, but also as a captain and leader in the middle.
Martini (55 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks) will be as solid as ever and rarely out of position, and Tranquill (79 tackles), who has been a run-focused safety his first three seasons, is now able to really do what he does best and not worry about defending the pass as much as the starting Rover linebacker in Elko’s unit.
Meanwhile, Irish fans should certainly be worried about stopping that group of receivers headlined by Bryant, Kirkwood, and Jennings, especially considering the lack of experienced players at safety and the unproven status of the guys starting at CB.
Look for sophomore Julian Love and senior Nick Watkins to hold down the fort pretty well at the corner spots, but the help over the top from Jalen Elliott and Nick Coleman (moved from CB to S this year) could be suspect, and might be where Temple surprises ND for big gains deep.
The Irish have struggled in recruiting the safety position the last few years, and it shows in the lack of depth there and in the inexperience and mental mistakes that will likely become evident as the game goes on on Saturday. Love’s and Watkins’ coverage, as well as nickelback Shaun Crawford’s and backup CB Donte Vaughn’s, will be crucial on Saturday in limiting the damage that could stem from Temple’s QBs attacking the Irish safeties.
Overall in this offense-defense matchup, I expect a select few ND players to do their jobs extremely well, including Morgan, Martini, and Tranquill at linebacker and Love/Watkins/Shaun Crawford/Donte Vaughn at corner, as they all possess the talent and wherewithal to blanket Temple receivers all day. The defensive line for ND will certainly give up some yardage to Ryquell Armstead on the ground, and Temple’s receivers will be too talented to be completely shut down by the young Irish secondary, so I see Temple putting up some points but being unable to keep up with ND’s offense in the end.
There’s not much to say here, as ND’s special teams will hopefully be improved (thanks to new ST Coordinator Brian Polian) from where they’ve been the past few years, but will still likely not be a unit that necessarily makes the difference for the Irish.
Kicker Justin Yoon is now a junior who could really have a fine season if he stays healthy, and CJ Sanders at kick returner will likely have a shot to run a kick or two back, considering his shiftiness and speed.
Chris Finke will return punts and will be a reliable, if not slightly boring, choice there. Tyler Newsome at punter will be good-not-great and probably won’t get too much action against Temple.
On Temple’s side of things, senior kicker Austin Jones is fantastic. In 2015 he made 44 of 45 extra points and hit on 23 of 28 field goals, including going 15-of-18 from 30-39 yards out and 4-of-5 from 40-49 yards. He followed that up by going 23-for-23 on extra points last season and making 10 of 12 field goals, going 5-for-5 from 30-39 yards and 2-for-3 from 40-49. He only was able to kick in the first 6 games last season.
Isaiah Wright and Sean Chandler will factor into the special teams equation by returning kickoffs and punts, but neither has shown the kind of proven big-play ability that Sanders has for the Irish.
In conclusion, I think Temple gives the Irish a scare for a couple quarters with a strong rushing attack and a few big plays over the top, but ultimately the Irish’s offensive talent advantage allows them to pull away, despite mixed reviews on a defense that still appears to be under the spell of Brian VanGorder.
Notre Dame 41, Temple 28
Game MVP: Monty VanGorder, field goal holder, Notre Dame (OBVIOUSLY)...or maybe Josh Adams, who runs for ~150 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Quenton Nelson paves the way