Following perhaps the most impressive win of the Brian Kelly era, things won’t get any easier for Notre Dame as they host #14 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack hold a 2-0 all-time record against the Irish, including last year’s infamous “Hurricane” game. While the weather doesn’t look perfect for Saturday, anything would be better than playing in a literal lake.
Although the Irish will have nicer weather conditions, they’ll face a much better NC State team than 2016. The Wolfpack already have wins over Florida State and Louisville and posses one of the best defensive lines in the nation. For the second consecutive week, the Irish find themselves in a playoff elimination game. Though, as Brian Kelly said earlier in the week “As an independent, every game is like the playoffs.” Kelly makes a good point. Lose, and the Irish won’t have much to play for. Win, and the Irish inch one step closer to the final four. Let’s take a look at the matchups this week.
Notre Dame Offense vs. NC State Defense
With their performance against USC, Notre Dame made clear that they’re a dominant running team. Behind a stellar offensive line, the Irish have averaged 317 yards per game on the ground. Credit should certainly be given to the play of the offensive line. However, don’t underestimate the impact Brandon Wimbush has had on this rushing attack. His ability to run forces defenses to account for him, rather than hone in on Josh Adams. Unfortunately for Wimbush, Adams, Tony Jones, and Dexter Williams, there may not be as much room to run as usual against the Wolfpack. NC State currently has the #6 rushing defense allowing just 91 yards per game.
If the Irish have trouble running the ball, they may have to turn to their deep passing game. Equanimeous St. Brown, Kevin Stepherson, and Alize Mack all could be mismatches against a struggling Wolfpack secondary. Based on prior game plans, I would expect Notre Dame to take a shot down field on their first drive. Should the Irish hit on a long ball early, it could be a long day for the NC State secondary.
As I mentioned above, NC State has one of the top run defenses in the nation. The entirety of the Wolfpack front seven is made up of seniors. The most imposing of these seniors is Bradley Chubb, who very well could be a top five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Chubb already has 13 tackles for loss this season. 13! It’s not just Chubb though, Kentavius Street, Darian Roseboro, Justin Jones, and B.J. Hill are all imposing defensive lineman. The linebacker group isn’t as talented, but is just as experienced. However, this front seven has yet to see an offensive line close to as good as Notre Dame’s. On the other hand, if the Wolfpack can contain the run game the same way Georgia did, they have a good chance at the upset.
While the Wolfpack are legit up front, they have struggled on the backend. The secondary is inexperienced and has allowed 287 pass yards per game. While some of that may have to do with teams playing from behind, it is certainly alarming. Overall, though, the most exciting thing to watch in this game will be Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson going up against one of the best defensive lines in the country. I give a slight edge to the Irish here.
Edge: Notre Dame
NC State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The NC State offense is defined by two things; protecting the football and balance. NC State ranks first in the nation in turnovers lost with just three all year. Quarterback Ryan Finley has not thrown a single interception and is close to breaking the FBS record for most attempts without a pick. Finley focuses on the short passing game to methodically move the Wolfpack down the field. His favorite target this season has been Mr. Do Everything Jaylen Samuels, who leads the team with 54 catches. Samuels can line up at H-back, tight end, running back, full back, in the slot, basically anywhere on the field. Along with the short passing game, the Wolfpack will take occasional deep shots with Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis.
In the run game, Nyheim Hines is one of the fastest running backs in the country. The track star has the ability to take any carry to the house. Reggie Gallaspy and Jaylen Samuels add a bit more of a bruising effect to the run game as well. These backs run behind a veteran offensive line that is solid in blocking, but far better in pass protection.
Notre Dame’s defense under Mike Elko has become a turnover machine. The Irish rank 8th in the country with 17 turnovers gained thus far. To force even one turnover against NC State would be an accomplishment, let alone two. One way the Irish would be more likely to create turnovers is if they can put a strong pass rush on Ryan Finley. Finley has been sacked just 8 times this season. If Daelin and Jay Hayes, Jerry Tillery, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem can get some shots in on Finley, he may not be as comfortable.
Another key for the Irish defense is to continue to be strong in the red zone. Notre Dame has allowed just 9 touchdowns in 23 red zone trips by opponents this season. Meanwhile, NC State ranks near the bottom of the country scoring (either a field goal or touchdown) on less than 76% of red zone trips. The Wolfpack simply cannot afford empty red zone trips with the explosive Notre Dame offense on the other side.
Edge: NC State
No matter who they’re playing, the Irish should feel confident with the kicking and punting duo of Yoon and Newsome. However, the return and coverage teams continue to be unimpressive. Remember, special teams cost the Irish in this game last year, so they need to avoid any major mistakes.
Carson Wise has struggled mightily as the Wolfpack kicker this season, going just 6-for-11. If the game comes down to field goal kicking, I’d give a massive edge to the Irish. Punter AJ Cole III has been solid averaging nearly 45 yards per boot. Nyheim Hines is extremely dangerous as a return man and already brought back a punt this season. Field position may be crucial in this game, and the Irish cannot allow Hines to gain steam and kickoff and punt returns.
Edge: Notre Dame
I’m convinced that NC State is the best team left on Notre Dame’s schedule. It’s fitting that Halloween is coming up, because this game is spooky. The Wolfpack have a dominant front seven, an offense that plays mistake free football, and the advantage of a bye week. Still, the performance of this Notre Dame team over the last 6 weeks has given me supreme confidence. I don’t believe the Irish will run for 300 yards, but I could see a performance similar to Michigan State (around 180). As long as Notre Dame can make a few stops in the red zone, the offense should do more than enough damage. I see this as a close game throughout, with the Irish adding a late field goal to win it by 10.
Notre Dame 34 NC State 24
Tailgate Song of the Week
Hey, it’s almost Halloween. Not to mention, this game has the potential to be an absolute thriller. Though, another game like last week would be just fine with me. Happy Halloween and Go Irish!