by John Vannie
Two teams that throw the ball at will and score points by the bushel are scheduled to meet on Saturday when Notre Dame visits the North Carolina State Wolfpack in Raleigh, NC. The Fighting Irish are seeking to square their season record at 3-3 while the 3-1 Wolfpack have designs on a signature win for the program in Coach Dave Doeren’s fourth year. Doeren took Northern Illinois to a BCS bowl in 2012 before taking over a rebuilding job at State, and he finally reached the .500 plateau overall with a 3-1 start this season. Doeren has also served as an assistant for Wisconsin and the USC Trojans during his coaching career . The game will start at noon eastern time and ABC will provide national television coverage.
The elephant in the room for Saturday is Hurricane Matthew, a massive storm that is moving its way up the Eastern Seaboard while wreaking havoc with 125 mph winds and causing the evacuation of millions of people from coastal communities. For the second consecutive season, Notre Dame is headed into such an environment, having played through heavy rains caused by Joaquin last year at Clemson. The Wolfpack fully expects to play the game as scheduled as of today, but there has been talk about moving it to another location, including South Bend.
North Carolina State Athletic officials weighed in on the issue earlier this week. “We are monitoring the path and potential impact of weather in our region this weekend due to Hurricane Matthew,” the statement read. “While we will make every effort to play our much-anticipated game with Notre Dame this Saturday as scheduled, the safety of both teams and our patrons is our first priority. We had a conference call this afternoon with the ACC and Notre Dame, will remain in communication and monitor the potential conditions.”
Meanwhile, the teams must prepare for conditions that make it more difficult for a pair of offenses that average 500 yards per game to continue at that torrid pace. The revamped Irish defense, which bounced back in the second half against Syracuse to rekindle hope for future successes, will be challenged by a balanced and efficient NC State attack. Conversely, the Wolfpack secondary has been a problem area for Doeren this season, but the fates may provide relief if the weather puts a damper on the passing game.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NORTH CAROLINA STATE’S DEFENSE
One person who is not concerned with the inclement forecast is Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. “I’ve never really had issues with weather,” he said. Kizer, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, recalled his performance against Clemson and added, “You know, playing ball in the Midwest, we’ve been through it all from rain to sleet to snow to negative-degree temperatures. Last year it was obviously apparent that I’m pretty capable of throwing the ball in the rain, just a couple of adjustments in my grip and I can rip it just the same.”
Despite Kizer’s confidence and Coach Brian Kelly’s preference to have his sling the ball at will, the Irish should plan to rely more than usual on the running game this week. Dexter Williams has emerged as a threat to go the distance, while starter Josh Adams has been a reliable performer in all aspects of the offense. Senior Tarean Folston is expected back after an injury kept him on the sidelines last week.
The task then falls to Notre Dame’s offensive line to win the battle against an NC State front four that is the strongest component of its defense. The rotation at end includes Brandon Chubb, Darian Rosario, and Kentavius street, each of whom has a generated a number of tackles for loss, quarterback pressures and sacks. The interior tackles are two plus-sized juniors, B.J. Hill and Justin Jones.
A trio of smallish linebackers is the next line of the Wolfpack defense. Airius Moore handles the weak side position and is the primary playmaker with four forced fumbles and six tackles for loss. Free safety Josh Jones, the team’s leading tackler, leads a secondary that has struggled overall. Jones is outstanding against the run, but the group as a whole has allowed opposing receivers to run free much too often. Strong safety Shawn Boone will miss the first half of the contest due to a targeting penalty in the second half of the Wake Forest game. Freshman Jarius Morehead is penciled in as his replacement.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
On paper, the NC State attack appears formidable. Doeren has a number of quality skilled athletes and quarterback Ryan Finley has multiple targets in the passing game and a stable of productive running backs. Finley has complete 72% of his passes to date without an interception, and has nine touchdowns while gaining nearly 300 yards per game. Six different receivers have scored, with H-Back Jaylen Samuels leading the pack with 20 receptions. Samuels has recorded seven touchdowns – three on the ground and four through the air. His backup, freshman Thaddeus Moss, is a future star. Wideout Stephen Louis is the deep threat who is tough to cover at 6’2” 215 lbs.
Matt Dayes is a 100+ yards per game running back with a 5.8 yard average. Dayes, Samuels, and reserve tailbacks Reggie Gallaspy and Dakwa Nichols have carried the ball a total of 117 times for 705 yards, and in the process have lost only four yards. The team has converted on 55% of its third down chances and has scored touchdowns on 19 of 23 trips to the red zone.
This level of efficiency indicates that the Wolfpack offensive line is doing its job. Senior center Joe Scelfo anchors the group, which is surprising composed of three sophomores and a junior at guard and tackle. Notre Dame’s defensive line will need to create negative plays to slow down Finley and Dayes, but NC State is definitely a level above Syracuse. Finley is not much of a runner or scrambler, so the Irish can make life uncomfortable for him if they are able to get penetration. At this point in the season, no Irish defensive lineman has been credited with a sack.
The mantra last week from Kelly and new Defensive Coordinator Greg Hudson was to play without fear and just have some fun. The message translated well for the large number of freshmen that saw extended playing time, and will hopefully carry over.
C. J. Sanders immediately comes to mind as a potential difference maker in this contest. The sophomore undoubtedly wants to perform well in these conditions after committing a costly fumble on a kickoff return in last year’s monsoon at Clemson. The Wolfpack have been very successful in covering kicks and punts to date, but a wet field adds a new dynamic to the equation. Notre Dame’s specialists, kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome, have not yet found a groove in 2016, and a wet, windy afternoon is not going to help the situation.
NC State kicker Kyle Bambard has attempted only three field goals to date, but he has made all of them. He does have two missed extra points, so he cannot be considered “automatic”. Punter A. J. Colle, on the other hand, is exceptional. He averages 50 yards per boot and his punts are rarely returned. Field position is going to be a key element in this battle, so a weapon of Colle’s stature will be valuable.
Even if the Notre Dame defense gives a spirited effort along the lines of its second half performance last week, North Carolina State’s offense is good enough to give the Irish problems. The successful team will run the ball with authority, get ahead on the scoreboard, and pressure the opposing quarterback into fatal mistakes. Kizer will certainly have to carry a large share of the offense again with his passing and running ability, but the team will be better served if Williams and Adams can keep the ball away from Finley and the Wolfpack.
Here are a few questions that will have an impact on the outcome:
Which offense will be most effective in the red zone?
Can the Irish offensive line control the active NC State defensive front?
Which special teams will dictate field position?
With the potential sloppy conditions, which team will manage to avoid costly turnovers?
Which of these much-maligned secondaries will raise their game?
Can Notre Dame’s defensive line make a positive contribution?
Which team will run the ball more consistently?
Do I really want to spend four hours of my weekend watching a B-level disaster movie?
If the weather is indeed poor, a game such as this is almost impossible to pick since one slip by a defensive back or a wobbly pass with a wet football can be disastrous. All signs point to a high scoring affair under normal conditions, where Kizer and the Irish would be most likely to prevail by simply outscoring NC State. As it stands, the Wolfpack appear to be more consistent in the trenches, and that will tip the scales in their favor.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE 37 NOTRE DAME 34