Who, And What, To Watch

Our final handful of game-deciding scenarios for fans to monitor today when the No. 8 Irish and No. 7 Buckeyes do battle in the Desert.

1 – Wait, His Record is What? If you’re in the camp that believes the only statistic that matters is the W-L ledger it might be time to bow at the alter of Urban.

Ohio State’s head coach is a remarkable 49-4 during his four seasons in Columbus and for his career, 9-2 in bowl games and a ludicrous 42-3 when he has more than a week to prepare for an opponent.

It’s no wonder Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Meyer: “When you play a team that has won so much, what (talent) doesn't show you is resolve.
This football team knows how to win. They've got great resolve. They're going to fight for four quarters. It doesn't measure itself relative to size, speed and strength.

“That's the most difficult opponent to play.”
In this instance, it’s up to Notre Dame to match that championship resolve.

2 – Of Future Pros and Replacements: Kelly and Meyer were asked Thursday about the contest’s “cavalcade” of NFL talent on hand.

Who among a group of 18-20 future NFL players – the best of the game’s best – will rise to the challenge? As important, who among “The Replacements” will make a play or handful of plays to help turn the tide?

The bet here is Notre Dame’s Nick Watkins, a first-time starting cornerback of whom Kelly offered, “I’d be surprised if he didn't play well. He's going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them. I think he'll hold up. He's a kid that will compete. He's got a lot of pride. He's got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

In a game beset by 2016 and 2017 draft picks, an unsung here is likely to emerge.

3 – Not Perfect, But Close: What is Notre Dame’s best?

Offensively, it’s some combination of USC, Pittsburgh, and Stanford. That is: big plays (USC), red zone execution (Pittsburgh) and a punishing ground game (Stanford). It’s easy to see Kelly’s best unit playing their best today in Glendale.

But what of Brian VanGorder’s vexing, inconsistent defense?

“Really what we’re most focused on is we want to play a complete game,” said the unit’s rudder Joe Schmidt. “And yes, we really want to win this football game and it’s incredibly important to us. But we’re so focused on playing our best football game in our last game. If that happens it gives us the best chance to get the W, but regardless is will honor the preparation we put in, it will honor the relationships and everything that this football team stands for. Team 127.”

Honoring the effort the squad has put in for a calendar year is a commendable goal, but it’s likewise plausible that Notre Dame’s defensive best won’t be good enough – that is, unless, we have yet to see it.

4 – The Red Zone, Period: In a contest that will include at least 800, probably 900, and perhaps 1,000 combined yards, the defense that rises up when its opponent reaches the red zone is likely to prevail.

For Notre Dame – solid this season with the 22nd- ranked red zone defense – that means a unit that was battered by Stanford for five touchdowns on five red zone forays must rise to the fore against an Ohio State offense that’s scored 14 touchdowns in its last 18 trips – a stat that dates back to quarterback J.T. Barrett winning back the starting nod.

Ohio State’s red zone defense ranks 32nd, allowing 16 touchdowns in 22 combined trips by its foes. Friday will be the best offense the Buckeyes have faced and at least two red zone stops are necessary against an Irish attack that can move the ball against anyone.

5 – The Game-Turning Tweak? A matchup of two top 10 teams rarely comes down to the sideline that has the smartest guy in the room, but with more than a month to prepare, one smart guy wearing a headset is going to make a crucial tweak that will help decide Friday’s contest.

Meyer was asked, “What do you have cooked up this week for Notre Dame?” In retrospect, Kelly should have been asked the same for recent underdog roles at Oklahoma (win), Florida State (everything but the win), Stanford (ditto) and a year ago when vastly undermanned against LSU (win).

Two of the 10, perhaps five best coaches in college football are on hand this week in the Valley of the Sun – one of them will shine brightest with an adjustment the other can’t quite match.

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