1) Everett Golson has seemed much more mature and comfortable all year but has had a rash of turnovers the last few weeks. Is there anything in common with his turnovers? What has caused him problems?
Tim O'Malley: Yes, there's one commonality: he's careless with the football.
Not to be flippant, but that's the case. He carries the ball loosely and has admitted it. The fumbles aren't surprising and they're going to cost Notre Dame a W this season, with four of the five occurring in relatively the same manner -- that is, he scrambles, beats the first wave of defenders, and gets stripped from behind.
What's strange is the sudden presence of interceptions, three of the four have been egregious errors. More than one turnover from the Irish Saturday would doom their chances of an upset.
Golson's a playmaker, and if he's going to throw 35 or more times, he'll likely get picked off, because he throws to all levels of the football field, both from inside and outside the pocket. But any interception Saturday night has to occur when he's testing the Seminoles downfield, not in a way that sets up Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense with plus field position -- and not from the red zone after a long drive.
2) Notre Dame lost quite a bit from last year's defensive front and has gone to more of a one-gap scheme from an even front. How will this front match up with Florida State's offensive line in the running game? How do you expect Notre Dame to try to get pressure on Jameis Winston?
TO: The defensive line ranks as the season's most pleasant surprise for Notre Dame. I, along with nearly everyone that covers the program, pegged the unit as its weak link.
It's been far better than the fat group former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco featured last fall.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Day is far and away its best player. He's a borderline All-American as both a run defender and pressure creator. Nose tackle Jarron Jones was on the scout team one year ago this week -- he's played well next to Day but doubtless benefits from double-team attention that must be paid to Day. Both have backups that play, for Jones, its true freshman Daniel Cage; for Day, 5th-year senior Justin Utupo, who's come on of late after a career spent on special teams.
The defensive ends have a four-man rotation with sophomore Isaac Rochell showing the most improvement since the season's opening kick -- he's likely one of the team's 10 best players over the last two games. Remarkably, of these eight regulars, seven return next season -- five thereafter. They're a young line that dominated Stanford, which might sound more impressive than it is in reality, but I don't expect them to be overwhelmed by Florida State's stout front.
Pressure generally comes from the mind of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder whose NFL-style zone blitz schemes have confounded all foes save for last week's -- Marquise Williams and the North Carolina up-tempo offense got the better of Notre Dame's defense, a unit that had ranked among the nation's best prior to the contest.
VanGorder employs a dime look on third-down in relative passing situations with a pair of freshman, rush end Kolin Hill and S/LB Drue Tranquill adding speed to the unit. Also look for Notre Dame's best future pro, sophomore LB Jaylon Smith, to be used as third-down pass rusher.
Smith will never leave the field in a competitive scrimmage situation Saturday night.
3) The Irish offensive line has been reshuffled during the year and has struggled at times. What should Florida State expect from the Notre Dame offensive line? Where is it strongest and weakest?
TO: It's outside-in, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley the best player and athlete (and future pro) and likely fifth-year senior Christian Lombard on the right side performing the best of the reshuffled foursome.
Lombard moved from right guard, now occupied by sophomore Steve Elmer, formerly the right tackle. Senior captain Nick Martin tore ligaments in his right thumb and thus moved from center to left guard, displacing classmate Conor Hanratty. Into the center position steps fellow senior Matt Hegarty. The new-look line enters its fourth game together off of its best effort, albeit vs. the worst defense it will face this year in North Carolina?
Caught up? Just know that interior pressure is likely from a Florida State defensive front that will likely win more than it loses snap-to-snap. But at some point, this line will click. Kelly noted it was the team's strongest unit entering the season. To date, it's been anything but.
Look for Elmer and Hegarty to shine as run-blockers and to have issues Saturday night in pass protection.
4) How does the Notre Dame back seven match up with Florida State? How do you expect them to scheme against Winston, Rashad Greene, and the rest of the FSU passing offense?
TO: Brian VanGorder more often than not favors nickel personnel as his base, using former safety starter Matthias Farley as a field-side linebacker. Farley has excelled laterally and in attack mode this season, but remains susceptible to vertical routes (especially corners and flags). The Seminoles will hit those and down the seam against him more than once Saturday.
Key to the back seven in pass coverage is weak side linebacker Jaylon Smith who's among the best cover men ever to play for the program. His occasional matchup with Nick O'Leary is one to watch. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt has shined this fall and is inarguably among the team's top five players, but the former walk-on (you read that right) will be tested in space by a much quicker offense than he's encountered to date. Schmidt is a genius on the football field and an underrated athlete.
Florida transfer Cody Riggs was outspoken this week (Wednesday) regarding his childhood love of the 'Noles and former star Peter Warrick-- along with his Gators-fueled distaste for the squad thereafter.
But all that matters for Riggs, ND, and FSU is that the 5th-year senior transfer ranks as one of Notre Dame's top six players through six games. They'd be lost without him as top cornerback Keivarae Russell was one of the suspended five due to academic dishonesty.
Sophomore Cole Luke might be the team's most physically gifted cornerback (including Russell), but he'll be overmatched vs. the savvy Greene if matched against him often. Luke has three interceptions in the last two contests and is a 2016 All-America candidate.
Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are elite athletes: Shumate as a hitter, Redfield as a space-eraser. Shumate did not beat out 5th-year senior captain Austin Collinsworth who has played sparingly due to a pair of injuries (knee, shoulder). He will not play until late November in this, his final season. The loss of Collinsworth and addition of Shumate is likely a benefit to Notre Dame in this matchup. (It was not last week vs. the myriad packages offered from the Tar Heels as Shumate was forced to think rather than react).
5) Where do you think Notre Dame might have a matchup edge in this game? Where do you expect them to have the most trouble?
TO: I don't think Notre Dame's interior offensive line will show well if the FSU front comes to play, and I think the Irish secondary might be out-numbered by one man. That's not an excuse, taking KeiVarae Russell out of the secondary hasn't hurt yet, but the best quarterback Notre Dame has faced is Stanford's Kevin Hogan or UNC's Marquise Williams -- both a touch different than Winston.
These aren't fatal flaws for Notre Dame as much as areas that an all-timer such as Winston will inevitably exploit. In other words, the Irish might hold Winston to his career low point total -- but 30-34 is the realistic low end for Saturday's winning point total.
As for the Seminoles trouble spots vs. the Irish, I'm going to go off the grid:
Golson and Notre Dame's young receivers are going to give the FSU back line all it can handle Saturday night. (This will be an even better matchup in the 2015 Final Four, about 15 months from now.)
Sophomore Will Fuller, his classmate Corey Robinson, and the three-player supporting cast of Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, and C.J. Prosise are underrated nationally. They'll show up Saturday in Tallahassee, because Golson can find them from anywhere on the field.
But when a team's matchup disadvantage is up front, it usually spells "L" after 60 minutes.