Secondary ProblemThe Cardinal bring a balanced offensive attack and one of the nation's best quarterbacks to Saturday's contest, but there's little question where their bread is buttered: a brutish running game, led by four veteran offensive linemen, a top-tier blocking fullback and a trio of capable runners.
But while Irish defensive emphasis will be mitigating the damage incurred by the Cardinal ground game, it's also essential that the back line of the defense return to form. For the first time in three weeks, it appears all hands will be on deck in the Irish secondary…despite a few early season aches and pains.
"They all took reps today; they all got some work," Brian Kelly said of Notre Dame's banged up secondary following Thursday's practice. "I'm glad we're playing Saturday, not Thursday night football.
"I think this is not going to be a one-time occurrence; we're going to have some bumps and bruises, especially where we lack some of the depth," he continued. "The reality is we're a little thin in certain areas. And in the areas we were concerned about (entering the season) unfortunately; we got hit all at one time...I really think they'll all be able to play on Saturday."
Junior free safety Jamoris Slaughter is expected to return after missing two games with an ankle sprain. His classmate, backup safety Dan McCarthy, should make his season debut after battling a hamstring ("soft tissue") injury since the tail end of camp. McCarthy was expected to help the Irish Saturday evening in East Lansing but circumstances prevented that occurrence.
"The thing with McCarthy last week is we really couldn't practice him until Thursday," Kelly offered. "And he's really been working at Harrison (Smith's) position more, so it's been hard for us to cross-train him and get him ready at both of those positions because he's been out so much.
"And then when the game hit, we (didn't) want to take Harrison out of the game, we wanted to give Zeke (Motta) a blow, but we really couldn't because Mac hadn't been working at that position."
Along with sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o, Smith is generally charged with aligning the defense from play-to-play, further complicating a potential debut for the untested McCarthy.
Not by ChoiceIt took about five quarters (for me, one) before Irish fans began to inquire about the defense's propensity to keep its base personnel on the field, regardless of down and distance.
Fear not, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco don't prefer to guard slot receivers with linebackers…it was a necessity over the first few contests.
"Third down is the ‘Money Down'" Kelly noted. "So if you're vanilla on third down, you're going to be losing a lot of money. Hence, we have to be able to give different looks on third down.
"If you just line up against any offense in the BCS, they're going to be able to find ways to keep the ball. So you have to be able to do some things on third down that, we haven't been able to do, quite frankly, but we have to do this weekend or you guys can write your stories right now."
Kelly offered last week that he prefers a safety in the role of a nickel defender (it appeared Motta would fill the role before he became an emergency starter at free safety). It's understandable in 3rd and medium yardage situations, but for the life of me I can't understand why a third cornerback such as Robert Blanton wouldn't regularly take the field in long-yardage situations.
The expected influx of relatively healthy bodies should allow the Irish defense the luxury of multiple looks vs. the Cardinal.
"I'll start with the (previous) inability on 3rd and 3-to-5 (yards) to play some multiple coverage looks. We'd like to play maybe a little man, maybe some roll zone; we'd like to do different things so it's not as easy to convert in those situations.
"Having a little more depth at that position allows you to do a lot more and keep the offense guessing especially in third and medium (yardage)."
Statistically, the Irish defense has been solid on the "Money Down" through three games, limiting Purdue to 5 conversions in 17 chances; Michigan to 3 in 16 and Michigan State to 6 of 17. (The trio, however, converted an aggregate 5 of 7 fourth down opportunities into a new set of downs.)
Still about us, not themAn offense that ranks among the nation's top 16 in six of the seven main offensive categories, scores more than 51 points per game and has accrued a staggering balance of 727 rushing yards vs. 699 passing yards en route to 69 first downs with 10 passing…and 10 rushing touchdowns through three games. Prudent to keep that offense off the field, right?
"It's a conversation during the week," Kelly admitted when asked if he approached contests differently when the opponent features such offensive firepower. "Do we keep them off the field? Do we try to possess the football?
"I've always run into problems as a play-caller when I'm trying to get to the chains instead of the end zone," he added. "It's just me. Maybe somebody else would be better at it. But I'm going to be cognizant of the fact that we're playing a great offense.
"I think we've done a really good job of trying to score points, but not putting our defense, other than, maybe save for one occasion, on a short field."
In other words, don't expect a theoretical shift Saturday.
"Long fields, score points; more so than: manage possession, keep them off the field."