by John Vannie
Undefeated Notre Dame heads to Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday night to take on the University of Miami Hurricanes in this season’s Shamrock Series matchup. The 4-1 Canes are coached by Al Golden, who is attempting to rebuild the program with a youth movement in his second season after a 6-6 campaign in 2011 and the continued specter of player suspensions and NCAA sanctions. The Irish are coming off a bye week that came at an opportune time as several players were dealing with nagging injuries and starting quarterback Everett Golson was shaky against Michigan. The game will be televised nationally by NBC beginning at 7:30 PM Eastern time.
It’s probably an understatement to view this game as a contrast in styles. Notre Dame has relied on a stout defense and solid execution on offense with few penalties and turnovers. Miami is an explosive offensive team that has managed to outscore most early season opponents despite defensive breakdowns and a rash of mental mistakes. Golden was asked about his efforts to prepare his team to play the Irish on a national stage, and offered the following:
“It’s getting our kids to bunker down and block out external and really stay with the process. We didn’t do a great job with that when we went to Manhattan [Kansas]. We kind of unraveled and weren’t ready for that stage. Three weeks later, we’ll see if we’ve grown up. There really are no freshmen anymore. This is our fourth road trip. We want to see who can respond to this challenge.”
Meanwhile, Coach Brian Kelly understands that his offense must be more productive going forward, but he will not discard the current style for breakneck speed if it opens the door to the drive-killing mistakes and turnovers that plagued his squad last season. “Yeah, we ran it fast last year”, he said earlier this week. “You saw what happened. We got a lot of speeding tickets, and a bad analogy. But clearly we want to be more of an offense that can have big play capabilities. We need to score more points, no question about that. We’re not scoring enough points. But as you can see, and it’s been the theme, we’re going to be careful with the football. We’re not going to be careless with it. Until we’re ready to amp it up, so to speak, we’ll be careful with the football.”
The Irish will be relatively injury free, as defensive linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sheldon Day have substantially recovered from leg injuries and wide receiver DeVaris Daniels is ready to go after being slowed by an ankle sprain. The Canes will welcome middle linebacker Denzel Perryman back to the lineup, but offensive tackle Ben Jones is out and defensive tackle Olson Pierre is questionable at best.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. MIAMI’S DEFENSE
Like most coaches during a bye week, Kelly has self-scouted his offense in an effort to modify any predictable patterns that will show up on film for Miami and future opponents. One-on-one instruction with Golson also took place to heal the bruises in his confidence and continue his education in reading blitzes and pass coverages. Since the Irish have not trailed in a game this season, there is uncertainty as to whether they have the ability to come from behind. Late game-clinching drives against Purdue and Michigan were gratifying, but both were lead by Tommy Rees with Notre Dame ahead or tied. As of now (Thursday), it is not certain whether Golson or Rees will start on Saturday.
The Irish would dearly love to score first in this game. Miami has quick strike capability and could put pressure on Notre Dame’s offense by jumping out to an early lead. The first offensive series represents an opportunity for Kelly to give the Canes a few looks they have not seen on film while also getting Golson comfortable in a big game should he get the call. Miami’s defense has allowed nearly 500 yards per contest and has only two seniors in the starting lineup in tackle Darius Smith and cornerback Brandon McGee.
Perryman’s return helps out at linebacker in the Canes’ 4-3 alignment. He will be flanked by talented athletes in Eddie Johnson and Paul Gionni, who will rotate with Tyrone Cornileus. The front four has been inconsistent and has not pressured the quarterback to the extent Golden would like, but there is promise among several young players. End Shavon Green is the team’s leading tackler, which is a rare achievement for a lineman. If Pierre is unable to play, sophomore Jalen Grimble or one of several freshmen will have to fill in.
The Canes have also been vulnerable to the pass, as teams average over 17 yards per completion against them. Golden is still searching for an answer at cornerback opposite McGee while three players (A.J. Highsmith, Kacy Rodgers and Deon Bush) share the duties at safety. While the overall team speed on defense is very good, Notre Dame can have success by keeping them off balance and taking advantage when young players inevitably become confused and miss assignments. We should also expect the Irish to throw the ball downfield a bit more in this game in search of a high impact play or two.
Miami’s speed along the back seven and relative youth up front suggests that Notre Dame attack straight ahead in the running game. Traps and misdirection might also be effective, as fans are waiting impatiently for George Atkinson to get several touches in a game. Slow-developing running plays and bubble screens to the flat are not likely to be effective against the Canes.
MIAMI’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Junior quarterback Stephen Morris has been outstanding thus far for Miami, completing 60% of his passes for 327 yards per game. His last minute 62-yard bomb to Phillip Dorsett won last week’s game against North Carolina State and capped an ACC record 566 passing yards. In the past two games, Morris has thrown for 1,002 yards. Dorsett is the leading receiver and an emerging star. He is joined by Rashown Scott, Allen Hurns and Davon Johnson, all of whom have big play capability. Dyron Dye is at tight end along with Clive Walford, who is the better receiver.
Morris is similar to Notre Dame’s Golson in that he is mobile behind the line but is not really utilized as a runner. The Canes have veteran Mike James and freshman sensation Duke Johnson at tailback. Both are productive in the ground game and are also used extensively as receivers out of the backfield. Johnson in particular is very dangerous in open space. This balance and overall team speed make it very difficult for any defense to contain Miami. Morris and company will certainly pose the greatest challenge that the Irish have faced to date. This quick strike attack has completed 12 of 26 scoring drives this season in under two minutes.
The key for Notre Dame is to pressure Morris before his receivers have time to shake loose downfield. The Irish must also account for Johnson out of the backfield when Morris looks to dump the ball to him. If Morris has time in the pocket, the Canes will likely be able to create several big plays. Ideally, Notre Dame will be able to keep Miami on a long field and force them to fight for every yard. The relative youth and inexperience of the Canes are bound to surface if the Irish can control the line of scrimmage.
A healthy Lewis-Moore and Day, along with stalwarts Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt give Notre Dame an advantage against Miami’s offensive line that features three sophomores and two juniors. Former national top recruit Seantrel Henderson has been a disappointment at right tackle, but may get the start due to the injury to Jones.
Kyle Brindza will continue to handle the place kicking duties for Notre Dame as Nick Tausch is not yet fully recovered from a leg injury suffered earlier this season. Brindza has performed well, and his accuracy on field goals has been a difference-maker for the Irish. Miami counterpart Jake Wieclaw has not converted a field goal of more than 38 yards and missed three attempts last week.
Johnson has returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season and usually puts the Canes in good field position, so Brindza’s ability to kick the ball through the end zone will be critical. Most of Wieclaw’s kicks are returned by opponents, which should mean that Atkinson will get opportunities for the Irish. Both teams have room for improvement in the punting game. Notre Dame’s Ben Turk has been inconsistent of late and Miami’s coverage team has surrendered quite a bit of return yardage.
Notre Dame will have to score more than 25 points to win this game. Fortunately, the bye week gives Kelly an opportunity to recharge an offense that faltered for long stretches against Big-10 opponents. Miami is a talented team, but youth makes it vulnerable to mistakes. Note that Golden played 13 true freshmen against NC State. The Irish must take advantage of its strength in the trenches to put pressure on the Canes and force them into mistakes on both sides of the ball. Morris is a better player than he was two years ago against the Irish in the Sun Bowl, and he has been looking forward to this rematch.
“I’ve been waiting for this game since freshman year”, he said. “It’s going to mean a lot to me and my family. It’s going to mean a lot to the program.” Although the emotions surrounding this contest are not as extreme as in the “Catholics vs. Convicts” battles during the Lou Holtz era, the special atmosphere created by the unique venue and national television will give both schools extra motivation. The teams are very much aware of the strong feelings held by former players on each side.
Several former Miami players were allowed to visit the Canes practice facility this week.
Here are a few questions that will be critical to the outcome:
Can the Irish limit the number of explosive plays by Miami?
Will either Notre Dame quarterback be able to throw the ball accurately and with authority?
Which team will run the ball more effectively?
Can the Irish pass rush generate enough pressure to reduce Morris’ accuracy and effectiveness?
Which team will be more disciplined and mistake-free?
Will the kicking game be a significant factor in the final result?
Will Notre Dame be able to generate long plays of its own?
Although the Irish are regarded as favorites, they may be overrated at this point until such time as the offense can provide the defense with a greater margin of error against a capable opponent. Golson’s maturity and ability to finish this game in competent fashion are vital if Notre Dame is going to have BCS level success this year, and this game is a key step in that process. If the Irish fall behind the explosive Canes by more than one score, I do not like their chances regardless of whether they have Golson or Rees at the helm. That said, the bye week should give Notre Dame a boost and make the difference in a hard-fought battle that will be closer than many people think.
NOTRE DAME 27 MIAMI 21