by John Vannie
Notre Dame kicks off its 2014 college football season on Saturday by hosting the defending Conference USA champion Rice Owls. Head Coach Brian Kelly (37-15) enters his fifth year for the Irish, who hold a 4-0 advantage in the series. The teams last played during Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season. David Bailiff, who owns a 40-48 record in seven years as coach of the Owls, is 17-10 over the last two. The game marks the return of Everett Golson as quarterback of the Irish after he sat out the 2013 season due to an academic related suspension. This contest will be nationally televised by NBC starting at 3:30 PM Eastern time.
Kelly has assembled a formidable array of weapons to support Golson, and he appears to be well-equipped for both ground and aerial assault. Fans are excited in anticipation of seeing tailback Greg Bryant join Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel in the backfield after Bryant missed most of his freshman season with a knee injury. The reports out of training camp support the belief that all three bring diverse running and receiving skills to the attack. Each will see action on Saturday.
At wide receiver, the raw talent on this year’s roster is undeniable, but the levels of games started and past production are lacking. Both 2013 stalwarts T.J. Jones and tight end Troy Niklas have moved on, and DaVaris Daniels is among four players being held out of this game pending an investigation into alleged academic improprieties. Last season’s impact freshman, Corey Robinson, is nursing an injured thumb and will be limited this week. The go-to receiver role falls to Chris Brown, who is primed for a breakout campaign, and tight end Ben Koyack, a senior who has made considerable strides in his overall game.
The offensive line is big and athletic, but the departure of Chris Watt and Zack Martin to the NFL leaves a void in experience and leadership. Center Nick Martin has emerged as the new leader of the line and a team captain, along with McDaniel, Sheldon Day and Austin Collinsworth. Still, it falls to Golson to be the catalyst to bring the pieces together and make this offense work. His understudy, Malik Zaire, is also a dual threat quarterback with above average skills.
Most Notre Dame followers understand that the defense is the primary unknown at this point and the area of greatest concern. The depth among front seven is razor thin, which means that freshmen will be playing more snaps than is usual and advisable. There are several candidates for playing time in the secondary, where the focus will be on new starting safeties Max Redfield and Collinsworth. All of this uncertainty is further compounded by the fact that two key starters, end Ishaq Williams and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, are part of the aforementioned academic investigation and will not play on Saturday.
The Owls also have holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Driphus Jackson takes over at quarterback where he served as a backup last year. Jackson is an elusive runner and a fair passer, and he brings a style that has posed problems for Notre Dame in the past. Rice prefers a fast paced offense with an emphasis on the running game, so the Irish faithful may learn quickly how well their defensive front can hold up.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. RICE’S DEFENSE
The most favorable matchup for the Irish is their offensive line against the Owl’s defensive front. Nick Martin anchors a deep group that includes starting tackles Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer along with reserve Mike McGlinchey, and starting guards Matt Hegarty and Christian Lombard with Connor Hanratty as the next man in. Nose tackle Christian Covington may be the best defender for Rice, and he is joined by Ross Winship to form a stout inside presence. The defensive end positions will feature new starters Brian Nordstrom and Zach Patt. Coach Bailiff’s 4-2-5 alignment is primarily designed to stop the pass, and his two undersized ends and linebackers will have trouble holding up if the Irish elect to pound the ball.
A group of five seniors, including free safety Julius White and cornerback Bryce Callahan form a secondary that is highly regarded. Callahan has 11 career interceptions, tying him with the legendary LaDouphyous McCalla for fourth place all time at Rice. Kelly will counter in the passing game with Brown and speedster Will Fuller on the outside, with C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle in the slot. Bryant is also the top threat as a pass receiver among the running backs.
Things begin to get a bit dicey for the Notre Dame receiving corps if the starters need a rest. With Daniels and Torii Hunter, Jr. out of action and Robinson questionable for Saturday, freshmen Corey Holmes and Justin Brent may be forced into service. At tight end, Koyack is joined by two players who have yet to catch a pass in Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua.
The Owls must respect the speed of Brown and Fuller, which should open up the middle of the field for everyone else and allow the Irish running game to be successful. While Callahan is a strong defender and must be respected, converted safety Malcolm Hill will be tested at the opposite corner. Everyone is anxious to see whether Golson has improved his pocket awareness, accuracy and downfield vision, but the bottom line is that he should not have to impersonate Peyton Manning to put points on the board this week.
RICE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
It seems that every new Defensive Coordinator promises a faster, more aggressive scheme, but Notre Dame’s Brian Van Gorder will actually deliver on that pledge. The Irish will attempt to create more turnovers than in the previous four seasons under Bob Diaco, but that also introduces the risk of being gashed for big plays. There will be pressure on Redfield and Collinsworth to make good decisions and cover a lot of ground, as the success of this defense may depend on how well they communicate and play.
Van Gorder does have a few solid building blocks around whom he can construct his defense, most notably outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. The sophomore is an exceptional talent and already an All-American candidate. The Irish are at risk at the other outside linebacking spot and in the middle, where converted receiver James Onwualu and walk-on Joe Schmidt are penciled in as starters.
The defensive line is also a concern, but for different reasons. Starting tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones compare favorably to almost any other pair in the nation, but there is virtually no battle tested players behind them. An injury of any significance to either would be devastating. At the end position, Williams was counted upon to be a force on the strong side before his suspension, so the job of providing containment on the edges is left to sophomore Isaac Rochelle, freshman Andrew Trumbetti and reserve Romeo Okwara. Although Day and Jones should effectively clog up the middle, the key indicator to watch this week is whether the Irish can keep Jackson and the quick Owl running backs in check on the outside. Rice will probably run away from Jaylon Smith’s side of the field, so the rest of the Irish personnel will need to be ready.
Rice fields an experienced offensive line that will test the relatively young Notre Dame front seven. Guard Nico Carlson and right tackle Caleb Williams are proficient run blockers, and left tackle Ian Gray is a mere 6’8” and 345 pounds. Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard alternate at running back, and both are fast and dangerous. The Owls will run the ball and are likely to stick with it even if they are not initially successful. Jackson will then look for opportunities to deceive the Irish with play-action and throw the ball to Jordan Taylor, who at 6’5 is the team’s best receiver, and either Dennis Parks or Mario Hull.
The loss of Russell, who is also a potential All-American at cornerback, compounds the risk of Van Gorder’s strategy to employ single press coverage on opposing receivers. With Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this position had been a strong one for Notre Dame but losing the best player in the group is difficult to overcome in any circumstance.
Kyle Brindza returns to handle both the place kicking and punting duties for Notre Dame. The senior iron man has been a stalwart for the Irish and a difference maker in several contests throughout his career. Rice lost an outstanding kicker in Chris Boswell to graduation and replaced him with James Harrison, an import from LSU who handled kickoffs there but did not attempt a field goal. Punter James Farrimond is above average in terms of leg strength and his ability to put the ball inside an opponent’s 20 yard line.
There will be quite a bit of focus on the Irish coverage and return teams this season, as they have generally underperformed during the Kelly regime. The new return men this year are Carlisle and Bryant, while the Owls will counter with Callahan on punts and both Hill and Hull on kickoffs. Neither team performed very well in these categories in 2013, so it will be interesting to see which squad has improved the most.
Both teams should be able to have success in the ground game, and the team that can best keep its defense off the field should win a relatively high scoring affair. Mistakes and turnovers are common in a season opener, and even a slightly rusty Golson should have an edge over Jackson in terms of protecting the football. Notre Dame would be in a much more comfortable position if it were operating at full strength, but as of now three starters remain suspended. This may prove to be a distraction to the Irish in their preparation for a game that at one time appeared to be an almost certain victory. Rice will definitely not flinch regardless of the odds, and should be counted upon to exert maximum effort and energy.
From a defensive standpoint, the ability of each team’s ends and linebackers to stop the run is paramount. For Notre Dame, Onwualu, Schmidt, John Turner and possibly freshman Nyles Morgan will have to run to the ball, tackle well and cover the flat passes, while relatively undersized Rice linebackers Alex Lyons and James Radcliffe will have their hands full with Notre Dame’s imposing wall of blockers, physical tight ends and quick slot receivers. The other defensive key is to contain the opponent’s quarterback. Both Golson and Jackson can buy time in the pocket or take off for sizable gains downfield. Neither team appears to be blessed with gifted pass rushers, so it will be interesting to see how the respective defensive coordinators create pressure.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Which defense will most effectively slow down the opponent’s running game?
Will the 2014 edition of Everett Golson throw the ball on time and accurately downfield ?
Can either team rush the quarterback effectively?
Will the Irish return and coverage teams demonstrate discernable improvement?
Can the new, ultra-aggressive Van Gorder defense create turnovers?
Will Brown, Fuller and the other Notre Dame receivers have breakout performances?
Will the Irish match the energy level from Rice despite the distraction of the academic suspensions to their teammates?
How many people will show up in the Stadium for this game?
The good news for the Irish defense is the Owls won’t be able to hide from Jaylon Smith even if they try to run away from him. He is the difference maker that gives Notre Dame the edge in comparing the personnel on these defenses. On offense, the Irish have more weapons for Golson, but Rice’s Jackson is also very elusive and will create problems for the hosts. Brindza gives Notre Dame a solid advantage in the kicking game but the overall special teams play must cease to be an embarrassment for the Irish. Expect a few tense moments during the afternoon before the Irish put it away.
NOTRE DAME 41 RICE 24