Notre Dame (9-0) plays its only home game of the second half of the season on Saturday evening as the Fighting Irish battle Florida State (4-5). This Senior Day affair will be the final performance on home turf for veterans such as Jerry Tillery, TeVon Coney, Drue Tranquill, Dexter Williams, Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome. Unfortunately for the Irish, quarterback Ian Book has been declared out for the game with cracked ribs and a possible kidney injury suffered last week against Northwestern. Senior Brandon Wimbush will start against the Seminoles, and there is no word yet on how long Book will be out of action.
Florida State Coach Willie Taggart was surprised on Thursday by the news regarding Book, but indicated it would not substantially alter his game plan. “They have a capable quarterback who has played a lot for them and won some games for them, too. So we’re going to continue to prepare like we’ve been preparing and be ready for whatever comes our way on Saturday”, he said.
Notre Dame is ranked third in both AP and Coaches polls, and also by the playoff committee. The game falls near the 25th anniversary of the November 13, 1993 showdown between top ranked FSU and second ranked Notre Dame, where the Irish under Lou Holtz walked away with a 31-24 victory over Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles. Saturday’s contest will be nationally televised by NBC, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 pm Eastern time.
The Noles are in their first season under Taggart after Jimbo Fisher left Tallahassee for a truckload of money at Texas A&M. Taggart’s team has struggled defensively, primarily against the pass, yielding 30 points per game. Offensively, the rushing attack ranks among the worst in the nation. The past two weeks have been particularly painful with blowout losses to Clemson and North Carolina State. Taggart has now relinquished the play calling duties and suddenly has a quarterback controversy on his hands.
Deondre Francois has started every game this year before sitting out last week with a concussion. Backup James Blackman, the team’s 2017 starter as a true freshman, got the nod and threw for 421 yards in a 47-28 loss. Earlier this week, Francois pronounced himself healthy and said he will start against Notre Dame. Taggart, however, was not ready to make a public commitment. “We’ll see on Saturday,” he said. “We’ve got to get through the week and see how Deondre is doing and see how those guys are practicing throughout the week.… We’ll make that decision later in the week.” Aside from Francois, other Florida State attrition includes a pair of starters, offensive guard Cole Minshew and cornerback Levonta Taylor. Both are listed as questionable as of Thursday.
While the Irish will likely tailor their offensive game plan to maximize Wimbush’s strengths, Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea finds himself in a situation where he must deploy extra defensive backs against a pass-heavy opponent. This may provide injured (ankle) linebacker Drue Tranquill with an opportunity for more rest. Backup Jordan Genmark-Heath is a converted safety and should hold up against the pass, while Tranquill is better defending the run. The Notre Dame injury list lists two additional key offensive players, running back Jafar Armstrong and tight end Alize Mack. Both could be available on Saturday but are not at full strength.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. FLORIDA STATE’S DEFENSE
Wimbush will have a greater chance to succeed if Notre Dame’s ground attack is productive. The problem is Florida State is very stout against the run, allowing only 111 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry. Their front four is loaded with talent, starting with a pair of 300-pound senior tackles in Demarcus Christmas and Fredrick Jones. The star player is end Brian Burns, who has nine sacks, five quarterback hits, and 13 tackles for loss. Burns and backup Josh Kaindoh will provide a severe test for Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg, while center Sam Mustipher and undersized guard Trevor Ruhland will have their hands full with the Seminoles interior rotation.
The FSU linebackers are young but talented. Junior Dontavious Jackson is in the middle and is flanked by two freshmen, DeCalon Brooks and Jaiden Woodbey. Brooks is the son of legendary Seminole linebacker Derrick Brooks, who played in the aforementioned 1993 game and achieved first team All-American honors in both 1993 and 1994.
Pass defense has been the Achilles Heel of this defense. Injuries, roster attrition and poor performances have forced Taggart to alter his back end lineup nearly every week. Free safety A.J. Westbrook is the only constant, but is more effective against the run. This week’s strong safety will be Hamsah Nasirildeen, who has linebacker size and is far and away the team’s leading tackler with 72. Westbrook is a distant second with 48.
Cornerback has been the most problematic position in Tallahassee. Taylor was a five-star recruit, but has not played up to expectations this season and is now nursing a leg injury. Stanford Samuels was moved over from a safety spot last week when Taylor went down, and will start there again on Saturday. Freshman Asante Samuel, also the son of an NFL player, made his first start at the other corner spot last week and will continue there against the Irish. This group struggled mightily last week against the Wolfpack, yielding a 77% completion rate and committing multiple pass interference penalties.
The tall Irish receivers can have a field day against this secondary if Wimbush can deliver the ball accurately and the line can keep Burns and company out of the pocket. The historical issue with Wimbush has been locating open receivers in a timely fashion, particularly where they are not the primary target for the play call. As for the running game, it would benefit from more misdirection to counter the power and pursuit of the defense. Lateral, slow-developing stretch plays are unlikely to generate many creases.
FLORIDA STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Francois and Blackman are similar in that they are pocket passers with little inclination to run the ball. Both are accurate when given time to throw, and have a wealth of talent at wide receiver. The rotation includes Nyqwan Murray, D.J. Matthews, Keith Gavin and speedster Tamorrion Terry, who leads the team with seven touchdowns and a 22-yard average. Tight end Tre McKitty is also an integral part of the aerial attack, while tailbacks Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick are capable receivers out of the backfield.
The Irish will be challenged to cover all of these options, and will undoubtedly give up yardage in the middle of the field. The key will be to stop them on third down and in the red zone. It should be noted that the Noles complete more than 60% of their passes but have only a 31% conversion rate on third down.
A strong pass rush is the best weapon against a team that throws the ball as much as Florida State, and the matchup in the trenches strong favors Notre Dame. The Seminoles have struggled to gain traction up front, and the loss of starters Landon Dickerson and now Minshew does not help their cause. The Irish have cooled off somewhat over the past few weeks as the season long workload takes its toll on stalwarts such as Tillery and Khalid Kareem, but this pair and rising star Julian Okwara should still be able to have some success.
The young Seminole linemen have struggled even more in the running game. The team averages a mere 2.4 yards per carry and has reached the 100-yard mark in only one of seven games against Power Five Conference competition. Akers leads the team with 496 yards, including one 85-yarder, a 58-yarder, and very little else to show for the other 120 carries. Patrick has chipped in with 251 yards. If the Irish can smother this running game and rush the passer with abandon on third down, they can keep Florida State in check on the scoreboard.
Notre Dame does not spend much practice time on this phase of the game, so the random atrocities they have committed on fourth downs and on kickoffs this season should not have surprised anyone. The latest calamity was the blocked punt by Northwestern that was clearly a coaching failure by the Irish staff as much as a credit to the Wildcat coaches. The cold weather could also impact those who must handle punts or kicks, and Irish fans will be holding their breath every time a long snapper gets into his stance or the ball is placed on a tee.
Florida State’s kicking game boasts two strong legged performers. Ricky Aguayo handles the scoring end of the task and is a threat on 50+ yard field goals, although he has displayed accuracy issues from mid-range. Logan Tyler is the punter as well as the kickoff man, where he usually records a touchback. Matthews has enjoyed success as a punt returner, and has one long touchdown to his credit. The coverage teams are not statistically impressive, and the punt team allowed a block that was returned for a touchdown.
What is the biggest distraction for Irish fans will not be a problem for the players and coaches, and that is worrying about style points and the week to week playoff seedings. Book’s absence means the Irish must focus on winning battles on every play with a solid effort in all phases. Coach Brian Kelly will probably come out passing and try to give Wimbush a few easy throws get off to a good start, but the Irish will need to have enough success on the ground to keep the visitors honest.
The Noles have been plagued by youthful mistakes and penalties throughout the season. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has survived its own miscues to date, but not without creating several tense moments and making recent games much closer than necessary. A spate of unforced errors could let a talented but somewhat dysfunctional FSU squad give the Irish fits. Last week, an offensive pass interference penalty in scoring territory and a blocked punt turned what should have been an impressive 38-14 victory into a 31-21 margin that elicited some disrespect from the pundits.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can either team generate a productive running game against a stout defensive front?
Will the Irish offense break a negative trend by avoiding an early turnover?
Which secondary will best defend the third down passes?
Can Notre Dame’s special teams finally turn in a clean performance?
Which set of receivers will be able to get open against tight coverage?
Will Wimbush be able to ignite the offense?
Which team will avoid critical mistakes and penalties?
The Seminoles are determined to set aside their woes of the past few weeks and salvage their season in this game, but the Irish can stifle their hopes with a strong start. The Senior Day home crowd is the most favorable venue for Wimbush to make a successful return to the starting lineup. The Irish should rally around the popular senior and play with high energy, with an eye toward grabbing an early lead that persuades the visitors to forget about winning and look for ways to keep warm on the sideline. As much as this scenario appeals to me, Notre Dame will need to force turnovers on defense or generate a rare special teams breakthrough to win comfortably. Absent such heroics, the game is more likely to be competitive at least until everyone in the stadium is painfully aware that winter is coming.
NOTRE DAME 30 FLORIDA STATE 20