Irish D Braces For Game's Best QB

Notre Dame senior nickel Matthias Farley quickly realized he misspoke. It was understandable, but he misspoke nonetheless.

A garden-variety comment regarding an individual opponent that has proven to be anything but.

"He's incredibly accurate," said Farley of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. "And he's been in a lot of big games, won a lot of big games -- won all the games I should say."

He has indeed. 19 consecutive -- no losses suffered as a collegiate quarterback.

What's at the root of Winston's success?

"First and foremost he's an incredible leader," Farley said. "Guys really look to him. You can see how he can rally everyone whatever the situation is. Guys look to him, older guys, younger guys. He really has an incredible ability of putting the last play behind him and focusing on the next one."

Most of Winston's plays work out just fine, thank you. 51 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. A career completion percentage of 67.9 percent. More than 5,600 yards accrued through the air in his 19 starts without a loss.

Remarkably, a Winston-led offense has never produced fewer than 34 points in a college game -- and that was in a BCS Championship win.

Notre Dame's defense has gained a greater appreciation of his on-field greatness through film study. It's one thing to see Winston riddle Miami or Florida on SportsCenter, another when a week of preparation is dedicated to him.

"You start to see the little things he does well," said junior captain Sheldon Day. "His pocket presence, the way he can escape but keeps his eyes up field. Then he always delivers."

Head coach Brian Kelly has faced the best quarterback (combination college/pro) of the modern generation, Stanford's Andrew Luck. Luck, like Winston, was a redshirt-sophomore at the time of his first game against the Irish. (Later a redshirt-junior). The Irish defense lost both games handily, but that was in large part to miserable offensive showings vs. the stout Cardinal defense.

Former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit managed to pick off the future No. 1 pick on three occasions (vs. five touchdown tosses). Kelly was asked Tuesday about facing an elite quarterback such as Luck or Winston.

"Anytime you're playing a quarterback that is so efficient, and that is what stands out here is efficiency," he began of Winston. "Not turning the football over, minimizing any of the mistakes that they make. I think you have to look at yourself the same way. Not giving up big plays is important for us. Not forcing us (defensively) in a situation where we make that big mistake. 

"They're waiting for you to make a mistake, and I think that's where they've shown themselves to be very, very good, and Winston in particular, he's waiting for you to make a mistake.  We have to be on top of our game. If we do that, we think we've got enough to make some plays as well. He's so efficient. You can't let your guard down against him any play or he'll beat you."

Irish middle linebacker and on-field captain Joe Schmidt summarized the task at hand.

"He's a great player, he makes all the throws all over the field," said Schmidt. "He's big (6'4" 230), he's athletic, they have a great scheme designed for him. He does a great job executing. He's an amazing quarterback and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them. He does all of that well."

One Irish defender has faced Winston, 5th-year senior transfer Cody Riggs. Understandably, the Florida graduate was less flowery in his praise of a quarterback that conquered his alma mater in their only meeting. Winston riddled the Gators defense for 327 yards and three touchdowns (one interception).

"He was at that point, one of the best in the country, if not the best," said Riggs of Winston who'd easily locked up the Heisman Trophy by the time of that late-November contest, won 37-7 by the Seminoles.

Asked if his former chief rival the Seminoles might elicit too much emotion Saturday night, Riggs smiled and offered, "Nah, I'll be fine. I've played them a couple times. It means a lot to you to play against the guys you knew from high school. I'm friends with a lot of those guys."

(Florida was 1-3 vs. Florida State during Riggs tenure. Riggs' 2012 Gators are the last team to defeat Florida State, a string of 22 consecutive wins since. Riggs missed the contest with a broken foot while Winston sat through a redshirt season.)

A question was then posed to Riggs if he'd developed "a heathy, personal dislike" for Florida State, the program he admitted was his dream school growing up in Fort Lauderdale.

"When you go to Florida, that kind of happens," Riggs acknowledged with a chuckle. "Going to Florida for four years you tend to lean towards not liking Florida State too much. I don't hate their program, but it was a rivalry game, you know?"

It's a rivalry game this weekend as well. Against a quarterback unrivaled over the last season-and-a-half in the college game.


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