Cardinal Authority: This will be Louisville's first-ever trip to Notre Dame Stadium. With more than 80,000 expected to be in attendance, what type of reception should the Cardinals expect when they take the field?
Tim O'Malley: Last week's home loss to Northwestern was a shocker to all -- save for, apparently, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald -- as not only were the Irish 17-point favorites, but Brian Kelly's squad had won 17 of its last 18 games at home. Northwestern ranked among the least likely of the lot to take down the hosts. The fact that the loss dropped Notre Dame from major bowl contention was not lost on the fan base -- that one week after falling out of playoff contention in the desert.
In short, the fan base is shocked over recent proceedings. It's difficult to stomach that this team is but a month removed from looking like the best team in the nation for 60 minutes in Tallahassee.
Notre Dame has a history of "letdown crowds" in such situations, and South Bend's February-in-November weather situation won't help. I fully expect Louisville's flocking fans to make up at least 15, if not 20 percent of the crowd if they show up in droves as is rumored.
On the field, infiltration by opposing fans usually elicits a response from the Irish faithful that don't pawn off their tickets, making for an enjoyable atmosphere. Notre Dame fans are among the most welcoming, nationally.
CA: Louisville's freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon led the Cardinals with 76 rushing yards on 13 carries in the win against Boston College. How has the Irish defense fared against a mobile quarterback this season?
Tim O'Malley:Of late, poorly.
North Carolina's Marquise Williams ran for more than 100 yards in early October and last week, Northwestern trigger man Trevor Siemian had his way with the Irish, albeit as a shifty quarterback picking his spots, not as an overwhelming runner.
Notre Dame's defensive line responded to harsh criticism after Williams ripped through them by playing its best overall game of the season -- and against the best offensive line and quarterback it has faced, Florida State. The Irish dominated the Seminoles up front, but have yet to regain that form, due in part to injury, but also the reality that the unit is far too young to compete at the level it had shown earlier this season.
The Irish defense is without two of it's top three players in middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (hurt vs. Navy) and defensive tackle Sheldon Day who was injured last week against Northwestern. The team's "fourth best" defender, cornerback Cody Riggs, will start but then cede time to sophomore Devin Butler. Riggs is attempting to play through a foot injury, he played about half the game last week.
Day, Schmidt, and Riggs are massive losses, and I expect Louisville to roll up more than 400 yards of offense without blinking Saturday.
CA: With more than 3,000 passing yards, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson ranks among the nation's leaders. He has also struggled turning the ball over when facing pressure, which feeds into the U of L defensive strengths. Will the Irish try anything new this weekend in attempt to slow the Cardinals pressure?
Tim O'Malley: Some of Golson's wounds are self-inflicted -- he carries the ball like a loaf of bread -- but it's true the team's pass protection has often failed him. Don't be surprised if senior captain Cam McDaniel is a regular on passing downs Saturday as the backup runner excels in pass protection. (Notre Dame ripped off four straight touchdowns with McDaniel subbing for sophomore Tarean Folston at Arizona State largely because the former neutralized the Sun Devils blitzing safeties and corners.)
Fortunately for the Irish, Golson is fantastic throwing on the run -- unfortunately, he struggles with the mechanics of the read-option exchange, an issue when facing a penetrating front. In an ideal world, Notre Dame would scrap the read-option in favor of a run-first, play-action accompaniment by Golson, who would still hurt defenses with his legs in scrambling and designed running situations.
The only thing that would surprise me Saturday (not a Louisville blowout, or an ND blowout, or a five overtime game), would be if the Irish don't turn it over at least twice. Louisville's defense is too good to allow the sloppy Irish to play a clean 60 minutes.
CA: Louisville ranks first in the ACC and 10th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 17 points an outing, while Notre Dame's offense is among the top 30, scoring over 35 points per game. What do the Irish need to do to make sure the old saying, 'defense wins' doesn't come true on Saturday?
Tim O'Malley: It's related to the topic above, but only Stanford has been able to slow the Irish offense without the aid of turnovers this fall (and the Irish still turned it over twice). Notre Dame rolled through Florida State and Arizona State save for mistakes (FIVE TURNOVERS at ASU!), but at this point, I believe "you are what you are" and Notre Dame is a turnover-ridden football team. As Kelly noted Tuesday, their turnovers aren't just turnovers, they're "catastrophic" in nature.
I don't think the offensive line is consistent enough to keep Golson's jersey clean and I don't believe Kelly trusts the running game enough to rely on it. (To his point, the 2014 O-Line is not as good as last year's unit that featured starting NFL rookies Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side.) The result is usually 40-plus passes from Golson and about 450-500 yards of offense. Red zone turnovers have kept point totals lower than they could have been most games. (The Irish fumbled twice at the Northwestern one-yard line last week and threw a pick vs. ASU in the end zone as well.)
But the offense rarely experiences a healthy dose of three-and-outs or five- six-play drives. It's quite efficient…until it stubs its toe en route to pay dirt.
So to answer your question, if Louisville's proven ball hawks make plays in a timely manner as expected, the Irish won't' score enough to win. But if Golson is somehow afforded consistent protection, he's outstanding, and Louisville fans are going to run into the best offense they've seen in two seasons save for Florida State in the second half earlier this year.
Of note We'll potentially know more on this topic tonight, but Golson sprained his throwing shoulder in the second half vs. Northwestern -- he was inaccurate thereafter (he never "misses" throws like he did late vs. the Wildcats). His early game accuracy is something to monitor Saturday.
CA: Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker has posted 100-yard efforts in each of the games he's played since returning from a preseason foot injury. What efforts can the Irish make to slow the future NFL'er?
Tim O'Malley: It would have been tough with a healthy Cody Riggs, but without him, concerns abound. Right cornerback Cole Luke has steadily progressed this season -- he's a future All-America candidate and is just a sophomore. Classmate Devin Butler, Riggs' replacement, would be an outstanding No. 4 cornerback -- he's unfortunately going to have to serve as a part-time starter as Riggs won't be able to go the whole game and the program's top CB, Keivarae Russell, was suspended for academic dishonesty.
The Irish are a little short in the secondary, a situation exacerbated by injuries at safety and inconsistent play by those that man the back line.
The group, however, is no stranger to standout wide receivers. Jaelen Strong (5 catches, under 60 yards, TD) was held in check (Riggs didn't play at all) and a full strength Irish secondary dominated Michigan's Devin Funchess and Stanford's Ty Montgomery. Parker is far better than that latter pair, and, as Kelly noted Tuesday, is similar to Strong, only faster.
(USC's Nelson Agholor awaits, by the way).
Notre Dame won't stop Parker, but sound tackling post-catch can make it so he's not the reason Louisville leaves South Bend victorious.
CA: A large group of Louisville fans are expected to make the trip to South Bend. What type of tailgating and game day atmosphere should be anticipated?
Tim O'Malley:The most welcoming group of tailgaters you've ever experienced. Get there early, walk the campus (assuming it's a nice snow and not a miserable rain), because there's a lot to soak in. In case it rains, outside the stadium to the immediate south is Legends (formerly "Senior Bar") for food and drink ($7 to get in, but it's $7 credit towards your food) and there are a trio of bars about a quarter-mile from the stadium at Eddy Street Commons. (Bars exist nearby to the east as well, but that walk would be less enjoyable in inclement weather.)
If weather permits, merely walking around the Joyce tailgating lot (parking lots just outside the adjacent basketball arena) is an enjoyable experience. For a few "bucket list" game day experiences, the link below will get you started. My recommendation if you've never been to a game in South Bend before is to take a tailgate break to witness/walk with the marching band from through campus into the stadium, though most fans would tell you the Players' Walk.
(Please note, the team no longer walks from the Basilica to the stadium as indicated in the link. The Players' Walk is now from the football offices to the stadium. And feel free to ask some old guard Irish fans about that change if you'd like an earful…)