I’m not sure if y’all have taken any time away from slugging Claws and eating various chicken sandwiches to notice, but this little thing I like to call “college football” has started up again.
Last weekend we saw some entertaining, wild games featuring the likes of the Florida Gators, Miami Hurricanes, Arizona Wildcats, and Hawaii Warriors, and then last night we saw a bunch more teams kick off their seasons, including our guy Brandon Wimbush and his UCF Knights pummeling Florida A&M by a score of 62 to 0.
And, of course, there will be plenty more action tonight, tomorrow, and even Sunday (Oklahoma Sooners vs. Houston Cougars could be an interesting game), considering the NFL will not kick off its season until September 5th.
And then, finally, at the absolute tail end of this holiday weekend, there’s this little-known football program called the Notre Dame Fighting Irish who will FINALLY get their season started, squaring off against the Louisville Cardinals on Labor Day evening down at Cardinal Stadium.
It’s going to be a bit torturous to have to wait until Monday night to watch our Irish in action, but it WILL serve as a nice cap to the holiday weekend instead of the usual mass of anxiety and dread that hits as we prepare to go back to work on Tuesday.
So, to tide you all over until Monday night, I figured I’d just go ahead and lay out all the basic information you’ll need to know about ND’s match-up with a Louisville team that was 2-10 last season but has completely changed its coaching staff and is hoping for a fresh start in 2019.
Let’s do this.
Louisville Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Cardinals offense last season was bad.
Not as bad as their defense, mind you (we will get to that later in this preview) — but Louisville finished the 2018 season ranked 102nd in the S&P+ offensive ratings, 122nd in points per game, and 109th in total offense (89th in passing, 102nd in rushing).
Compare that to Notre Dame’s defense, which closed last season ranked 10th in the S&P+ defensive ratings, 9th in points allowed per game, and 22nd in total defense (36th in passing, 33rd in rushing).
Seems like a bit of a mismatch, right?
Obviously, neither Louisville’s offense nor Notre Dame’s defense is the same as in 2018. Louisville lost its leading receiver, but otherwise returns just about every other key skill player, plus some key linemen like LT Mekhi Becton. The Irish, meanwhile, bring back a lot of talent (especially at defensive end and safety), but did lose All-American/NFL talent at DT, two LB positions, and CB.
So how do the 2019 versions of those two units match up?
Let’s start with aptly-named Louisville QB Jawon Pass, who was yanked around a bit last year by Bobby Petrino and his staff, never quite getting settled into the role as QB1. Still, Pass has some major arm-talent for Scott Satterfield’s offensive staff to work with, as the guy is a former 4-star recruit pursued by the likes of Alabama, Auburn, and even Notre Dame, and he flashed some potential — albeit with some major issues as well — last season to the tune of 1,960 yards, 54% completion, 8 TD, and 12 INT.
He does have some solid talent to throw to, starting with WR Dez Fitzpatrick, whose good-but-not-eye-popping stat line from 2018 (31 rec, 422 yds, 3 TD) was much more a product of a bad offense and system than it was a reflection of his ceiling.
Fitzpatrick is a 6’2”, 205-pound junior with great hands and an uncanny ability to find the end zone, and that showed much more in 2017 when he put up 699 yards and 9 touchdowns as a true freshman. He will be the big focus for Troy Pride Jr. (47 tackles, 10 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF in 2018) and Shaun Crawford, the two starting Irish corners who will be trying not to let it be obvious that ND lost an All-American corner in Julian Love from last year.
Other key Cardinals receivers to watch out for include Tutu Atwell (24 rec, 406 yds, 2 TD), Seth Dawkins (25 rec, 329 yds, 1 TD), Josh Johnson, Keion Wakefield, and TE Jordan Davis. Look for that pretty talented crew to try to make some big plays on Monday night to level the playing field a bit, but don’t expect much — with two senior captains at safety in Alohi Gilman (94 tackles, 5 PD, 2 INT, 2 FF) and Jalen Elliott (67 tackles, 7 PD, 4 INT, 1 FF) for Notre Dame, it seems highly unlikely the Cardinals will be able to get behind them very often for big gains through the air.
Also, toss in a freak athlete like true freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, who likely will see some time back there as well, and you have to think the ND safety position is in for a big day in terms of shutting things down deep and maybe even cleaning up with a couple interceptions.
At 6’4” and 238 pounds, Jawon Pass is a big guy, and thus although he’s not a bad runner, he certainly isn’t considered a dual-threat, make-you-miss kind of guy. That could be huge on Monday night for the Irish pass rush, which is easily one of the better ones in the country and features two potential All-Americans in captains Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.
If Okwara and Kareem can beat the Louisville tackles around the edge and get into Pass’s face, Jawon will have a hard time outrunning that rush — especially Okwara. The 6’4”, 247-pound senior is a long, fast, freak athlete who is currently projected to be drafted in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he will absolutely be a menace in Pass’s grill all night long. Last season, Okwara racked up a ridiculous 21 QB hurries and 8 sacks, but also flashed the athleticism to drop into occasional coverage, recording an interception in the 2018 season opener against Michigan.
Kareem has been oft-forgotten by the national media in talking about the Irish defense, but the senior has been a pretty destructive force himself over the past couple years, including 42 tackles and 4.5 sacks of his own last year to go along with 5 pass deflections and a forced fumble.
Add in Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji as the experienced and talented upperclassmen backups to those guys (56 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 FF combined in 2018), and the Louisville offensive line is going to have a tough day trying to keep their QB upright.
What Louisville will HAVE to do in order to succeed on Monday night, then, will be to run the ball up the gut. If there’s a weakness/unproven portion of this Irish defense, it’s certainly in the front seven where Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill, and Te’von Coney graduated and took with them 238 tackles, 15.5 sacks, 8 PD, and 3 FF.
Notre Dame’s replacements certainly have some promise, but it’s a tall order for anyone to expect the likes of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish to fully replace Tillery, or for Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (JOK) and Asmar Bilal (50 tackles last year) to be able to play on the same level as two of the best ND linebackers not named Smith and Te’o to play in South Bend in the last 20 years.
However, like I said, there’s some promise here — particularly with JOK, who has been drawing rave reviews as the Rover linebacker due to his fantastic blend of size, athleticism, and speed that’s allowing him to cover Chris Finke-esque guys over the middle, run sideline-to-sideline to track down ball carriers, and just be easily the most exciting linebacker on the 2019 squad.
With all that said, the Cardinals have a solid running back in Hassan Hall, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry last year while scampering 303 yards and 3 TD in a bit of a time share at the position.
If the Cardinals hope to move the ball effectively and keep themselves in this game, they will have to get a push in the middle and be able to advance the chains on the ground in that way, considering trying to take it outside would mean dealing with Okwara and Kareem and the likes of JOK coming around the corner trying to make plays.
However, look for ND defensive coordinator Clark Lea to work his magic, and expect the Irish defense to lock down the Cardinals for the most part in this one — Louisville is still probably a year or two away from even sniffing the level of offensive production we all marveled at during the Lamar Jackson years.
Offensive Cardinal to Watch
WR Dez Fitzpatrick
Louisville is going to need A LOT of big plays from this guy if they want to have a chance. Considering cornerback is not the most elite position on the ND defense, this also might be where the Cardinals have the best chance of straight up beating their ND counterparts.
Defensive Irish to Watch
DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and DT Kurt Hinish
Filling in for Jerry Tillery is an unfair request, but the Irish NEED these two to get a good push and not allow opposing running backs to get to the second level with ease and without the congestion of the offensive line breaking down in the middle. Furthermore, when guys like Okwara and Kareem come off the edge and force the QB up into the pocket, someone needs to be there ready to bring him down — Tillery was fantastic at that, and MTA/Hinish need to be able to replicate that kind of opportunistic positioning as much as possible.
Halftime Fun With Names!!!!!
Best Names in the Game
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Louisville LB Boosie Whitlow
- Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
- Louisville WR Tutu Atwell
- Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
- Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Louisville LB Monty Montgomery
- Louisville DL Ty Tyler
- Louisville QB Jawon Pass
- Louisville DB Telly Plummer
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- Louisville LB Quen Head
- Louisville DB Cornelius Sturghill
- Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
- Louisville DB Trenell Troutman
- Louisville LB Rodjay Burns
- Louisville PK Patrick Otter
- Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
- Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
- Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
- Louisville OL Jean-Luc Childs
- Louisville PK Blanton Creque
- Louisville LB Ramon Puryear
- Louisville DB Marlon Character
Notre Dame Offense vs. Louisville Defense
On the other side of the equation here, we have the Notre Dame offense lining up against a Louisville defense that, under different coaching last year, was absolutely horrific.
In 2018 under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (*all Notre Dame fans reading this collectively shudder and then vomit*), Louisville’s defense managed to be 128th of 130 FBS teams in points allowed per game (44.1?!!!!!), 99th in the S&P+ defensive ratings (only Power 5 teams rated worse? Georgia Tech, Illinois, and Oregon State), and 122nd in total defense — 127th in rush yds allowed, and 41st in passing yards allowed, which sounds pretty good until you realize teams just simply didn’t pass against the Cardinals, due to the 277 yards they were gaining on the ground, on average, against them.
With all that covered, let’s consider that coaching can make a world of difference. We all remember when a Brian VanGorder shit-show defense in 2016 got turned into a very good 2017 defense under Mike Elko, correct?
I don’t think we can expect the same transformation from Louisville just due to talent disparity compared to Notre Dame, but new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown, whom Scott Satterfield brought over from Appalachian State, oversaw a 2018 Mountaineers defense that finished 6th in the country in total defense (288 yds per game, which is just 11 more than what Louisville was surrendering on the ground alone last year), 5th in the country in passing defense, 4th in the country in scoring defense (15.5 points allowed per game), and 20th in S&P+. Add in a new 3-4 scheme that might be a better fit for some of the guys on the 2019 roster, and the Cardinals defense should be markedly improved from the 2018 disaster unit.
Louisville has some talent in the front seven, too — especially at linebacker, which is why the switch to the 3-4 helps in terms of getting more talent onto the field. The two biggest names to know in the middle of the Cardinals defense are C.J. Avery (56 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FF) and Dorian Etheridge (55 tackles, 4 PD), who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles in 2018. Those two, along with Rodjay Burns (37 tackles) and Boosie Whitlow (amazing name), make up a very solid, athletic, and fast linebacking corps for Bryan Brown. There’s not much depth behind them, but if those four stay healthy, the Louisville defense could maybe be halfway decent.
On the front line, defensive tackle G.G. Robinson (22 tackles, 2 sacks in 2018) is the name to know. The 6’4”, 295-pound behemoth has been playing at defensive tackle the past couple years, but will switch to nose tackle in the 3-4, which may just be a more natural spot for him.
CardinalStrong over at Card Chronicle said Robinson is “agile enough to fill both gaps and has enough push to take on the center, which is typically a lesser challenge than a guard or tackle,” so it sounds like he’s going to be the key to Louisville changing how stout the defensive front is against the run. If he’s able to get some push and open up opportunities for the tackling machines at linebacker to make some plays, running on this defense might not be as easy as we expect it to be.
Joining Robinson on the first line are guys like DL Jared Goldwire (25 tackles) and Derek Dorsey (22 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive ends Amonte Caban (50 tackles, 2 sacks) and Tabarius Peterson (49 tackles, 2 sacks). In terms of the pass rush coming after Book on Monday night, expect Caban, Peterson, and Burns to be the guys leading the charge there — Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey will be dealing with those guys trying to force Ian Book into some bad decisions all evening.
Looking at the above, I don’t want to give the impression that I anticipate Louisville’s defense will be something to be feared on Monday. No, I still think the Irish offense will be able to establish the run fairly easily, and that Book will get hit very few times, if at all. I just wanted to point out they have some talent on that side of the ball, and a new coordinator could really do wonders for those guys in terms of cleaning up the mess of last year.
The Notre Dame offense comes into this one a bit under-manned, mostly just because of the losses of starters TE Cole Kmet and WR Michael Young to broken collarbones in camp. That will certainly put some limitations on what Chip Long will want to do with the offense, but I also don’t think Long expects to use the full playbook against this Louisville team, anyway.
Furthermore, it’s not like the Irish come in without any other talent on offense. At running back, the two-headed monster of Jafar Armstrong (383 yds, 5.3 ypc, 7 TD) and Tony Jones Jr. (392 yds, 4.7 ypc, 3 TD) contains plenty of speed and power and pass-catching ability, and with 4 returning starters (Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Tommy Kraemer, Hainsey) plus a promising young center (Jarrett Patterson), I expect the Irish to be able to run the ball on this Louisville team, even if they have some talent in the front seven.
Banks and Kraemer especially will be great at creating some big holes for Armstrong and Jones Jr. to dip into and take off for big chunks of yards — those guys can really dominate if they put forth the effort to do so. It should also be fun to see true freshman back Kyren Williams see some potential action, as he impressed in camp, especially catching the ball out of the backfield.
In the passing game, the ever-reliable Book (2,628 yds, 68% completion, 19 TD, 7 INT) will look to improve upon his strong 2018 season and hopefully show some improvement in areas like throwing the deep ball. Helping him in that regard will be the return of WR Chase Claypool, who was fantastic in 2018 as second fiddle to Miles Boykin’s first fiddle (50 rec, 639 yds, 4 TD) and has been drawing comparisons to Michael Floyd over the offseason due to his incredible size (6’5”, 230), leaping ability, speed, and hands.
Tossing the ball deep with any sort of accuracy to Claypool and to sophomore speedster Lawrence Keys III — who slid into a starting role when Young went down — will be key to really opening up the offense for Chip Long. Sophomore Braden Lenzy could also really help there, considering he’s easily one of the fastest players on the team.
Then, of course, Book has his trusty man over the middle, Chris Finke. The former walk-on turned multi-year starter and captain had a sparkling 2018 season (49 rec, 571 yds, 2 TD) and had a penchant for scoring very important touchdowns, considering the plays he made to bookend the season against Michigan and at USC in order to get the Irish much-needed points against those hated opponents.
Look for Finke to continue to exploit linebackers and DBs underneath and on the outside, as well as to be the security blanket Book needs if there’s nothing there for Claypool, Keys, etc. TE Brock Wright will also serve a similar purpose in his relief of Kmet while he’s out as the #1 TE, as Wright is a reliable, strong pass catcher who doesn’t quite have the dynamic athleticism Kmet brings to the table. However, Wright is an excellent blocker and has very good hands, so he’ll be a nice, big, reliable target for Book at all times.
Finally, keep an eye out for sophomore TE Tommy Tremble, a guy coaches are extremely excited about in terms of his promise as a tight end who can really run and stretch the field. He’s still raw and has some issues with drops, but with Kmet out, he’ll likely see some time and could be a factor early in the season.
The Cardinals secondary wasn’t tested much last year due to the defense’s overall ability to stop the run, but names to watch include safety Khane Pass (brother of Jawon, had 54 tackles and 1 pass defended last year), safety TreSean Smith (36 tackles, 1 FF), and Cornelius Sturghill (32 tackles, 3 PD, 1 INT).
Sturghill and CB Marlon Character will likely have the honor of trying to cover Claypool and Finke throughout the game, so that should be interesting to see if they get absolutely abused by those talented seniors or if they can hold their own and make things difficult for Book.
Overall, I think the Irish have way too much talent, and Louisville is still way too fresh off one of the worst defensive seasons you can imagine a Power 5 team having, for the ND offense to struggle to move the ball or score points.
Maybe as ND shakes off the early rust the Cardinals are able to get some stops, but overall I think Ian Book will continue to be his hyper-efficient self, the running backs will wear down the thin depth at linebacker, and guys like Claypool and Finke will make a handful of big plays that lead to this one getting out of hand in the second half.
Defensive Cardinal to Watch
DL G.G. Robinson
If the Cardinals want to have any sort of shot in this one, they need strength and a push at the point of attack, and that starts with the man in the middle, Robinson. He HAS to bring his A-game for Louisville’s defense to have a chance of shutting down Ian Book and the boys.
Offensive Irish to Watch
RB Jafar Armstrong
Tony Jones Jr. is as solid and reliable as they come, so really I think Armstrong is the one the Irish need to show he’s taken the next step in the offseason. With the loss of Dexter Williams, ND needs a home run hitter at tailback, and the only possible one on this roster is Armstrong. He has the speed and the quickness and can catch the ball out of the backfield, so it will be interesting to see if he can put it all together (and stay healthy this year) to be the dynamic playmaker many think he can be.
I’ll let my good friend CardinalStrong speak for Louisville’s special teams with what he told me in my Q&A with him earlier this week:
I am the unofficial president of the Louisville special teams’ fan club. They call themselves ‘The Regulators’ due to the striking resemblance of kicker Blanton Creque to rapper Warren G, and punter Mason King to rapper Dr. Dre. Uncanny really.
The truth of the matter is both of these guys have a knack for putting a beautiful foot (easy, Rex Ryan) on the ball. Mason King will likely end his career with the longest punt average in Louisville history (42yd+/att), and Blanton will likely go down as the most accurate field goal kicker in the history of the program (84%). They good.
Throw in a long snapper so good they gave him a scholarship (Hall) and a punt returner in Rodjay Burns who took one to the house last year and averaged 15.15yds/ret, good enough for third nationally. This unit has the talent to impact games for sure, they just have to be put in a position to do so.
Meanwhile, we all know the situation for ND — the Irish are replacing the all-time leader in points (Justin Yoon) and a punter who was a captain last year (Tyler Newsome) with PK Jonathan Doerer, who has looked shaky at best in limited time as the kickoff guy last year, and P Jay Bramblett, a true freshman who appears to have the talent but will definitely have growing pains early this year.
Honestly, I could see one or two special teams disasters happening early in the game that keep things close for a while, maybe even into halftime. We all know special teams is simply not a strength of any Brian Kelly squad, and with the new faces at both kicking positions, who knows what will happen?
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 41, Louisville 17
I think Jafar has at least one big run, Okwara and Kareem get themselves a few sacks, Gilman and Elliott and maybe even Hamilton will be fighting for interceptions all day, and despite a shaky 1st quarter/half, I think the Irish stomp Louisville in this one and ultimately win big.