After a somewhat sloppy but convincing decision over Florida State the Irish are at home once again taking on the Louisville Cardinals. The Irish are 17.5 point favorites against a Louisville squad that opened the season ranked but have dropped three straight ACC games en route to one of the most disappointing starts in the FBS. For new readers of this analytics driven preview please follow this link to a primer for some definitions and context you will need to analyze like a champion today.
LOUISVILLE OFFENSE VS NOTRE DAME DEFENSE
The Cardinals have had an average passing attack so far, leaning on first year starting quarterback Malik Cunningham to lead their offense. Cunningham has struggled to generate above average offense through the air, averaging only 0.02 EPA/play (46th out of 78 quarterbacks). His favorite target has been standout receiver Tutu Atwell, but he only ranks 83rd out 140 FBS players with at least 15 targets in EPA/play. Tight end Marshon Ford and wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick have been much more efficient in their limited targets, averaging 1.06 and 0.73 EPA/play respectively. Louisville needs to get the two playmakers much more involved to stay competitive.
The Cardinals feature a strong ground game, ranking nineteenth in EPA/rush nationwide and picking up a dangerous 5.5 yards per rushing play. They are headlined by Cunningham and running back Javian Hawkins, who is 33rd in EPA/play the FBS out of the 87 players with at least thirty carries. Despite this, Louisville has struggled to run the ball on early downs, only averaging a positive EPA rushing on third down. If they continue to try and establish the run on early downs and deploy a balanced offense, this could get out of hand quickly. Notre Dame has allowed -0.03 EPA and 4.5 yards per carry on first down, and an astounding -0.57 EPA and 3 yards per carry on second down. The Cardinals may find tougher sledding than they’re used to in the run game on early downs.
Controlling the Cardinal running attack will be more complex than simply shutting down Hawkins since Malik Cunningham is even more dangerous on the ground than through the air. The quarterback is averaging 0.37 EPA per carry, seventh best in the nation out of runners with at least thirty carries. The Irish have not done a great job against the quarterback run this season (note that this chart includes scrambles, which in most of our recaps are included under drop backs), allowing Chase Brice and Jordan McCloud to get loose on the ground so far. If the Irish can control Cunningham on the ground and limit the deep passing that Florida State was able to beat them with, expect another quality performance from the Irish defense.
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE VS LOUISVILLE DEFENSE
The Louisville defense has struggled spectacularly against the pass this season. They are 53rd out of 74 FBS teams in EPA/pass allowed, and just conceded 0.57 EPA/passing play against a Georgia Tech team that is 11th in the ACC in EPA/pass. Look for Book to have another strong performance here as he continues to regain the form we all know and expect from him. One more performance like last week and all of the internet haters have to go away. That’s how the internet works right? Right?
This is also going to be an excellent opportunity for Kevin Austin and Javon McKinley to battle it out for the number one wide receiver spot moving forward. Austin is at a disadvantage having been injured for the past several weeks, but he appears to have no restrictions moving forward so we’ll know if he’s someone Book can rely on in short order. McKinley’s aDOT of 21.2 last weekend was an excellent indicator of how confident Book feels about McKinley’s ability to make plays down the field. Even with this big game in the books McKinley still has to answer if Florida State is going to be the peak of his career or if he’s starting to tap into his potential.
The Cardinals are better against the run than they are against the pass, but their run defense is still not very good. I don’t see any reason why what has been an average run defense so far is going to play its best game of the season against the best offensive line in the country, but I also don’t expect to see the types of holes we saw last weekend for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree to run untouched through (that was a special gift courtesy of Florida State’s invisible defense). Williams and Tyree are both excellent backs, but as long as the Irish offensive line continues to dominate like this, the two of them will put up big numbers no matter how many missed tackles they force.
Last weekend was the first game where play action plays were not markedly better than non play action, but the season long stats speak for themselves. The Irish need to stay committed to play fakes on at least 30% of their drop backs, (the FBS average is 27%) and I would be fine with seeing Rees push this number even higher. Motion has not had the same effect as play action, but with Braden Lenzy finally healthy getting his speed going across the formation at the snap provides a brand new dimension to the Irish offense that we hope to see Rees stick with despite mixed results in a small sample size so far.
The Irish are far better than this Cardinals squad, especially when comparing the Irish offense to that lackluster Cardinals defense. If Book plays like he did last weekend and avoids turnovers then that Cardinal secondary is ripe for the picking. We feel confident the Irish will not only win, but also cover the 17.5 point spread in this one. If the passing offense continues to get right and the offensive line continues to steamroll anyone in its path this should be a comfortable Saturday afternoon in South Bend.