Who, and What, to Watch

O'Malley's weekly six-pack of questions entering Saturday's showdown with Louisville in South Bend.

1.) Will he choose the lesser of two evils? NBC sideline reporter Mike Mayock offered the following prior to last week's contest against the nation's 72nd-ranked rush defense, Northwestern:

"Nothing calms down a heavy dose of sacks and turnovers like a good run game."

The Irish achieved balance (40 rushes, 40 passes) but that was about 10 passes too many for an offense that could have rushed starter Tarean Folston 20 times, backups Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant 10 apiece, and quarterback Everett Golson 10 more, and as a result, likely won by two touchdowns.

Fast forward to the present and Louisville's No. 2 ranked rush defense. If ever head coach Brian Kelly would be justified in his proclivity to throw it all over the House that Rockne Built it would be this week -- except, of course, these same Cardinals boast the nation's fifth-best pass defense and lead the nation in interceptions with a staggering 22 in 10 games.

To borrow from the late Woody Hayes, three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad. Kelly's Irish have to run the football more than they're comfortable this week because I don't believe Everett Golson's sprained shoulder is ready to win this football game for Notre Dame.

Add to that the reality that the nation's No. 1 ballhawk, safety Gerod Holliman (an obscene 13 interceptions and 16 more passes defended) mans Louisville's back line and it's clear the Irish are playing with fire if they indeed decide to fire away.

2.) What if Louisville decides to take it to them? Can Notre Dame's bruised, battered, and buckling rush defense stop a Cardinals offense that features a running quarterback and former BCS Championship game MVP (Auburn 2011), RB Michael Dyer?

"I think we have to eliminate big plays defensively. We can’t give them big play runs and passes," said Kelly. "I think first and foremost, we have to be more effective against the run. We’ve lost a very good player inside with Sheldon Day. We have to be committed to stopping the run."

Without Day, that's far easier suggested than done. In Day's stead steps solid backup Justin Utupo for his first career start. Behind Utupo, the rawest of rookies, Jay Hayes, a planned redshirt that will Saturday find 30 plays of action per Kelly, that after a season spent on the scout team. Alongside that 1-2 punch, nose tackle Jarron Jones, who over the last three games has been a shell of the player that Irish fans saw dominate in Tallahassee.

Four ends will rotate and are at least healthy, led by Top 10 2014 performer Isaac Rochell, who will also likely find time inside to aid the undermanned tackles contingent. (Redshirt-freshman Jacob Matuska will be asked to spell Jones on the nose on occasion as well. Matuska has one tackle this season.)

And oh yeah, no Joe Schmidt, without whom Brian VanGorder's defense has proved a rudderless, sinking ship.

If Louisville doesn't run on first down, 2nd-and-8, and 3rd-and-4, and early and often, it's advantage Notre Dame. The broken Irish front is unlikely to hold up if it absorbs body blows for the full 60 minutes.

3.) Can the Irish take it from them? Lost in the turnover bonanza authored by Notre Dame's offense this season is the fact that VanGorder's defense has likewise been effective at taking the ball away from the opposition: 15 interceptions with six fumble recoveries, forcing six more that bounced back to opposing offenses, including a potential game-winner last week.

Louisville has lost 14 fumbles, tied for the third-highest total nationally, and freshman backup quarterback Reggie Bonnafon hasn't distinguished himself as a passer to date. If Notre Dame can win on first down, keep Louisville behind the chains on second, and allow for its dime blitz package to wreak havoc on third, Bonnafon, a backup passer that's clearly more comfortable as a runner than passer, can be pressed into mistakes.

The Irish likely must win the turnover differential by at least two to finish Senior Day with a W.

Which means...

4.) Can the Irish avoid more than one? For three games, Kelly's offense played focused, detail-oriented, clean football. They were a joy to watch, well-coached, and possessed the best quarterback north of Seminole County and west of the Willamette Valley.

Since? Yeesh. Five turnovers against Syracuse, two against Stanford, three against North Carolina, two against Florida State, one against Navy, five against Arizona State, and four last week vs. Northwestern.

(Aside from that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?)

"Offensively we have to run the offense that we’ve run without the mistakes that we’ve made in terms of turning the football over," said Kelly. "If that’s the case, we think we can score enough points to win the football game."

For that to happen, Notre Dame's offensive line has to return to its pre-desert form. The unit, tight end Ben Koyack and running back Tarean Folston included, flat-out got whipped by Arizona State on Nov. 8. More disturbing, they lost the battle up front to Northwestern last week.

Enter Louisville, averaging seven tackles-for-loss per game; 10th nationally in sacks with 33 (or a whopping 15 more to date than the Irish defense has registered), and as noted in Question #1 above, the best team in the nation at taking it away through the air.

"They're a great defense, very athletic, a great front seven," said Koyack of the Cardinals. "Whether it's pass-rush, run plays, they're aggressive, smart, and an athletic group of guys that present a challenge. But we're looking forward to it."

As Kelly noted in consecutive post-game press conferences, Notre Dame's offense has put its youth-filled, battered defense in terrible positions of late.

A return to detail-oriented, clean, focused offensive football is paramount Saturday in South Bend -- from play-caller, to triggerman, to those paid to protect and produce.

5.) Can they rebound? Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan, Kyle Brindza and the Irish safeties.

Has Jones hit the junior-year wall? (sarcasm intended) Is the freshman Morgan in a situation he can't handle? And if so, why can't the staff help him? Can Kyle Brindza put his first dose of failure behind him? And what in the name of Harrison Smith and all that is holy is going on with Notre Dame's ridiculous safeties unit -- in consecutive seasons, no less?

The Irish need turnaround efforts from each or it'll get ugly in a hurry.

6.) Is a "Notre Dame Moment" Upon Us? Nothing like breaking down a game's matchups and key points by adding a plea for divine intervention, eh?

Perhaps it's not diving intervention that's needed, but rather a healthy dose of athletic pride.

Northwestern! For crying out loud, they lost to Northwestern!

If that's not enough to jump-start a football team's athletic pride -- a football team that was in contention for the national championship three weeks ago -- then nothing will.

(I feel like this new Notre Dame reality deserves one more, NORTHWESTERN!)

Brian Kelly is 4-0 in South Bend on Senior Day. He's 17-2 in his last 19 home games and his Irish have found a way to respond to far worse situations during his 62-game tenure (how's that for a backhanded compliment?).

The Irish players that spoke for team interviews Wednesday seemed focused, ready to play that moment. I have little doubt they'll play hard for 60 minutes, and would not be surprised if Louisville isn't lights out from the outset, either.

That said, my gut tells me the Irish staff will rue the day they facilitated the Great Giveaway of 2014, aka, Northwestern.

. They won't give this one away, but as Brian Kelly has offered after a fair share of too-close victories over recent seasons when facing purportedly inferior foes: It's hard to win in college football.

. It's getting harder.

.

Louisville 34 Notre Dame 24


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