Notre Dame completes its early season homestand by hosting the Vanderbilt Commodores from the Southeastern Conference. The Irish played well in defeating Michigan on opening night, but were listless and sloppy in getting past Ball State last week. Vanderbilt also enters this contest at 2-0, having defeated Middle Tennessee and Nevada as they warm up to more serious competition. The game will be nationally televised on NBC beginning at 2:30 pm ET.
Irish players and coaches are very much aware of the subpar effort last week. They hope to send a message that the truth about the 2018 team is much closer to Week 1, and Week 2 was an aberration caused by a natural letdown. While the defense was largely effective last week and should return to form simply by turning up the intensity, the offense was a train wreck. Preparation, play calling, effort and execution by the offensive line and quarterback play were deficient against Ball State.
The Commodores are coached by Derek Mason, who is in his fifth season in Nashville. He was previously elevated to serve as the Stanford Defensive Coordinator under David Shaw after joining Jim Harbaugh’s staff in 2010 as a position coach. Prior to his work at Stanford, Mason coached defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings. His 20-31 record at Vanderbilt reflects the difficulty of competing with the SEC’s elite teams. Mason also understands the challenge of playing a ranked team on the road. “We know when we go to a place like Notre Dame, you can’t make mistakes,” he said. “You can’t have penalties. You can’t make mistakes. You have to tackle. You have to play well on special teams. And you have to score points.”
Vanderbilt remains firmly grounded in the bottom half of the conference, but they have some very good players including senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, a four-year starter. Kyle is the son of Pat Shurmur, the current head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants. Defensively, linebacker Charles Wright made the SEC second team in 2017 and is gunning for first team honors this season.
The Irish lost yet another starter to injury last week when tight end Cole Kmet went down with a high ankle sprain. This will not end his season, unlike defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and cornerback Shaun Crawford, but this type of injury usually takes several weeks to heal. Kmet’s absence will be filled by fellow sophomore Brock Wright and senior Nick Weishar, who will join Alize Mack in the rotation. It was also just reported that Notre Dame reserve linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah went down for the season with a broken foot suffered in practice this week. The Commodores are relatively healthy entering this game.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. VANDERBILT’S DEFENSE
Coach Brian Kelly attempted to work out the kinks in his passing game last week by allowing Brandon Wimbush to throw plenty of passes against a relatively weak opponent. The strategy backfired as Ball State attacked from the opening whistle and pressured Wimbush into three interceptions, four sacks and numerous hurries. Instead of gaining confidence, Wimbush appeared to regress closer to November 2017 form by failing to locate open receivers and throwing into the teeth of the coverage. Meanwhile, the offensive line blocked poorly in the ground game. There were two very successful runs and 40 forgettable ones.
Vanderbilt also employs a 3-4 defense, and has better athletes at its disposal than the Cardinals. Senior leader Dare Odeyingbo lines up at one end and younger brother Dayo is on the other side in a rotation with Louis Vecchio. Wright and Josh Smith are both seniors and capable pass rushers at the outside linebacker positions. Smith and inside backer Jordan Griffin, also a senior, lead the team in tackles. This group will attack unless and until Wimbush proves he can make them pay a heavy price.
Mason has faced Kelly’s offense on numerous occasions, so he understands the risks as well as how to lure Wimbush into making incorrect pre-snap reads. In order to win with a gambling style, the Commodore secondary must hold up in coverage. Cornerback Joejuan Williams and safety LaDarius Wiley are the key players in this group.
Vanderbilt’s defense was shredded last season, and Mason has worked hard during the past eight months to shore up the depth and quality of play. The Irish won’t take this game lightly and are reportedly eager to show that last week was not a true indicator of the team’s potential. Mason will utilize all of his coaching skills to keep Notre Dame off the scoreboard, but it won’t matter unless his players can win enough of the individual battles.
VANDERBILT’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Shurmur has two reliable receivers from last year’s team, junior wideout Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. They are joined by Chris Pierce, Trey Ellis and Donaven Tennyson, who are looking to make their mark. Lipscomb has 14 receptions and three scores in two games, while Shurmur has hit 67% of his passes after completing only 57% last year.
The offensive line will be a key for the Commodores this season. They return all five starters, led by left tackle Justin Skule. The unit was solid in pass protection but did not generate much of a ground attack. To be fair, the team was usually trailing by significant margins in most of its SEC games. This year’s edition will have its hands full with the talented Irish, were the likes of Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Jerry Tillery can play with anyone.
Vanderbilt employs a trio of tailbacks, starting with Ke’Shawn Vaughn and including Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield. Vaughn is perhaps the most versatile and is a capable receiver as well. The base offense includes a fullback, Jaire George, who is the son of former Tennessee Titan running back and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.
The Irish are unlikely to confuse a seasoned quarterback with the pedigree of Shurmur, but they can apply pressure against this offensive line and bring down his completion rate. He is not much of a threat to run and will try to get rid of the ball quickly to the short and intermediate spaces.
Notre Dame is still working on fundamentals such as making sure its kickoffs don’t go out of bounds. There is also mild concern regarding the normally strong-legged punter Tyler Newsome, who is on the verge of becoming a field position liability rather than a weapon. Additional practice time should cure these ills. Freshman C’Bo Flemister has emerged as the kickoff return man, and it would be nice to see what he could do if his blockers give him an opening.
Riley Guay takes over the place kicking duties for the Commodores this season after serving as an apprentice in 2017. To date he has missed his only field goal attempt beyond 40 yards, but converted two shorter ones. Veteran punter Parker Thome is a graduate transfer from Columbia in the Ivy League, where he earned All-Conference honors. Ellis and Wakefield are the primary return men for punts and kickoffs, respectively. Results to date have been about average.
Teams are going to scheme to shut down Notre Dame’s running game and take risks to pressure Brandon Wimbush until the Irish quarterback burns them. Mason is a capable defensive coach who has enjoyed success against Kelly in the past, but the Irish have a decided edge in talent and should gash the Commodores for a few big plays during this contest. Fans are frustrated with the inconsistent nature of the team so far, but hopefully an identity will begin to emerge this week.
The Irish are also on the hook to prove they can run the football. It’s unfair to place the entire burden of winning on the quarterback, but that has been the Brian Kelly effect since he arrived in South Bend. Wimbush is not a prototypical pocket passer, so expect to see him run the ball more this week and revert to the style of offense that suits him best.
Vanderbilt is donning a special uniform for this contest – an all-white ensemble in lieu of the traditional gold and black accent colors. This change might come in handy as the weather is expected to be sunny and warm, but the Commodores may need more help than that.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will the Notre Dame defensive front knock Shurmur out of his rhythm?
Can either team establish a respectable running game?
Will Wimbush avoid drive-killing sacks and interceptions?
Can Mason push the right buttons to keep his defense from getting steamrolled?
Will the Irish demonstrate increased intensity after last week’s uninspired effort?
Can the Notre Dame special teams have a positive impact on the outcome?
Will the Irish be able to avoid another costly injury?
It’s hard to imagine the Irish could lose to a school that was named after a severely nearsighted cavalry soldier who kept getting blasted out of the lookout tower in the 1960’s sitcom F-Troop, but stranger things have happened. You might see backup quarterback Ian Book make an appearance in this game, but hopefully not for the wrong reasons. This might be a nail-biter if the game were played in Nashville, but either way Notre Dame will have to break a sweat if it expects to win.
NOTRE DAME 27 VANDERBILT 17