Notre Dame hosts its final home game of the month before spending two weekends on the road as the Fighting Irish host the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday. These teams played last year in the season opener, which was the inaugural game for head coach Scott Satterfield. Notre Dame won by 35-17, but the contest was more competitive than expected. The 2020 Irish remain undefeated with last week’s victory over Florida State, although the defense played poorly following a three-week forced hiatus due to COVID-19. The NBC network will televise this game beginning at 2:30 PM Eastern time.
Satterfield led Louisville to an 8-5 record last season after taking over a badly broken 2-10 program. The team has been unable to pick up where it left off, however, starting this year at 1-3. The Cardinals have outgained opponents by 424-390 yards per game, but are on the wrong end of an 11-3 turnover ratio. The ugly start has caused Satterfield to dampen expectations regarding Saturday’s contest. He has implored his team to simply focus on fundamentals.
“I think for us, it’s not about Notre Dame,” he said earlier this week. “I think it’s about us in this building, and how well we can go out and prepare this week to play this game and then go out and actually execute and play the game the way we prepared. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Whether we win or we lose, whatever the score is, to me, what’s going to help make this season for us is that we are coming out and we’re playing the way we need to be playing, taking care of the football, pulling our trigger on defense.”
Sloppy tackling has been the issue for the Irish defense. Quarterback Jordan Travis hurt them with his legs last week, and the Cards have a similar dual threat quarterback in Malik Cunningham. He is not the only player Notre Dame will have to contain, though. Satterfield will bring a creative and diverse running game to South Bend. Tailback Javian Hawkins averages 117 yards per game, and speedster Tutu Atwell is a big play receiver.
On the injury front, the Irish hope to regain the services of defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and linebacker Jack Kiser, who were sorely missed last week. Wide receiver Brent Skowronek continues to struggle with a sore hamstring. Offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg will play after suffering an eye injury against Florida State.
Louisville has issues at cornerback, where both starters are impacted. Kei’Trel Clark sat out last week’s game against Pittsburgh but is expected to play against the Irish. Marlon Character must sit out the first half due to a targeting penalty. In addition, wide receiver Justin Marshall is questionable with a leg injury.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. LOUISVILLE’S DEFENSE
The Cardinal defense is still a work in progress after Satterfield converted it to a 3-4 alignment. Six of this year’s starters have transferred in from other programs, including former Ohio State linebacker Rodjay Burns at rover. The list of new faces also includes both cornerbacks and free safety Isaiah Hayes. Among the remaining incumbents, senior interior linebackers Dorian Etheridge and C.J. Avery are the most productive defenders, while strong safety Russ Yeast is the lone 2019 holdover for the revamped secondary.
Up front, 305-pound nose tackle Jared Goldwire is a strong physical presence. He is flanked by ends YaYa Diaby and Tabarius Peterson, who have yet to make a significant impact. The Irish will make certain tweaks in the run blocking scheme to account for the 3-4, but that should not slow down what has been the most reliable piece of the offense to date. Both Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have benefitted from a healthy line and Tommy Tremble’s lead blocking from the H-back position. The pair has accounted for 182 yards per game of the team’s 270.
One area of Notre Dame’s attack that has not reached its full potential is the passing game. The Irish have not established the deep ball despite the return to action by Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin. Quarterback Ian Book has not completed a deep scoring pass this season. Regardless of the opponent, he needs to demonstrate this capability to his teammates and to upcoming rivals. Now that he and his receivers can practice regularly, establishing timing and rapport must become a priority.
Louisville’s defense should not pose a difficult challenge for Book and Notre Dame. The Cards have very few sacks or pressures, and are particularly thin at cornerback this week. Satterfield may slow down the run with a few wrinkles in the early going, but the Irish should adjust and move forward. The matchup against a quality defensive coach is indeed a test for Offensive Coordinator Tom Rees.
LOUISVILLE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Cardinals had a difficult time with Pittsburgh’s defensive line earlier this season. Cunningham was harassed from the moment he came out of the locker room. He suffered three interceptions, seven sacks and was pressured five additional times. Louisville was further victimized for 12 tackles for loss in that game. Statistics such as these call attention to the offensive line, which has been mostly effective in the running game but vulnerable to a good pass rush.
The interior of the line remains intact from last season, with center Cole Bentley flanked by guards Robbie Bell and Caleb Chandler. Two new tackles, Adonis Boone and Renato Brown, have been inconsistent.
Despite these challenges, Satterfield has put together a productive rushing attack featuring outside zone blocking and some option mixed in. Cunningham is an adept runner, but Hawkins has been outstanding at tailback. Backup Hassan Hall is also capable. The Cardinals have run well on each opponent this season, but a porous defense and unforced errors by the offense continue to put them in catchup mode.
When asked to throw, Cunningham is a 60% passer with a few quality targets. Atwell operates mainly in the slot, with top wideout Dev Fitzpatrick on the perimeter. Freshman Braden Smith has emerged as a viable target, especially with Marshall’s injury issues. Tight ends Marshon Ford and Ean Pfeifer are capable receivers as well.
Notre Dame has been solid for the most part, although kicker Jonathan Doerer has missed his last two field goal attempts. While these errors have not impacted the outcome of any game, Doerer will be needed down the road. It would be most welcome if he could get a couple of opportunities this week and nail them.
Louisville has a new punter and kicker this season. Freshman James Turner has solidified his position at kicker by converting each of his field goal and extra point tries. Sophomore punter Logan Lupo has already been replaced by freshman Ryan Harwell, who averages just 39 yards per attempt. The versatile Burns is tasked with returning punts, while kickoff duties are handled by Hall and Jordan Watkins. The return and coverage statistics to date for the Cards have been generally average. The Irish have an advantage here and can capitalize if their return men have some room to maneuver.
The Cardinals will be competitive if they can limit their mistakes. Coach Brian Kelly acknowledged this and said Louisville is “a well-coached football team.” He called them “a team that in my estimation could be very easily on the other side of that 1-3 mark”, adding, “If they take care of the football, this is going to be one heckuva football game.” Of course, part of this is coach speak deployed to build up an opponent with high praise, but there is a good deal of truth contained in these statements.
While Louisville’s schemes are creative and potentially challenging, Notre Dame needs to focus on its own performance. The defense must avoid mental errors and missed tackles, while the offense should strive to expand what has been a very limited passing game to date. Improvement in these areas will not only lead to victory this week, but also build confidence for the road games to follow and the tougher schedule in November.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which team will be able to run the ball consistently throughout the afternoon?
Can Book take advantage of the depleted Cardinal secondary?
Will Notre Dame’s linebackers tackle Hawkins and Cunningham in space?
Can Lenzy and Austin record receptions in the intermediate and deep zones?
Will the Irish front be able to create havoc and derail Louisville’s advances?
Can Doerer emerge from his mini-slump in the field goal department?
Will the Irish return teams contribute meaningful yardage?
Should Notre Dame hold a pregame moment of prayer for Nick Saban?
This is the third consecutive road trip for Louisville, while Notre Dame has not left its own back yard. Like Florida State, the Cards will be better later in the season than they are right now, but that knowledge won’t help much on Saturday. They have the talent to make things interesting for a while if they can avoid the mistakes that have plagued them to date. If the Irish defense rebounds strongly from last week’s performance and creates negative plays and turnovers, a blowout will ensue. If not, the game could look much like last week. I figure it will be somewhere in the middle.
NOTRE DAME 42 LOUISVILLE 20
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