THE N.C. STATE CHALLENGE
It’s always more difficult to assess a college football matchup when the two combatants have no, or virtually no, history. There’s no point of reference, no real concept of how one team will respond to the strengths and weaknesses of the other.
The only time Notre Dame and N.C. State have squared off on the gridiron was during the 2002 season/the Jan. 1, 2003 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville when the Wolfpack manhandled the Irish, 28-6, behind quarterback Philip Rivers, who had a future NFL receiver – Jerricho Cotchery – to throw to 10 times for 127 yards.
Notre Dame will host N.C. State next year, but won’t tangle with the Wolfpack again until 2023 in Raleigh and 2025 in Notre Dame Stadium. T
There may be no more underachieving ACC program than the N.C. State Wolfpack, who have talent but seldom maximize it. Led by one of the more cantankerous personalities in the conference, head coach Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack have played 18 games against Power 5 teams that have finished the season with a winning record.
He’s perfect so far. He’s lost them all.
It remains to be seen which side of the ledger the Irish will fall upon with a 2-3 record. An Irish loss would certainly increase the likelihood of Notre Dame failing to finish above .500, thus “preventing” Doeren from notching his first win against a winning team.
The Wolfpack will have plenty of other opportunities to defeat a winning program if the Irish can’t get to 7-5, although none of them are particularly promising opportunities. After hosting Notre Dame, N.C. State travels to Clemson (5-0) and Louisville (4-1), which lost to the Tigers last weekend in an epic battle.
Wins over win-deprived Boston College on Oct. 29 and/or Syracuse Nov. 12 won’t break Doeren’s streak. The Wolfpack’s other games are at home against Florida State (3-2) and at home against Miami (4-0).
Good luck with that.
Notre Dame, in Carter-Finley Stadium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the facility’s opening, is the Wolfpack’s most legitimate chance to break its streak.
N.C. State opened as a three-point underdog, but as of Thursday morning, the Wolfpack were 2½-point favorites. That’s a pretty significant swing and one that tells you that the Irish better come prepared to play a solid football game or the recent road woes will continue.
Notre Dame’s generic defensive look in the secondary last week against Syracuse worked. It will be much more difficult to take such a basic approach against N.C. State, which has a solid quarterback, a couple of weapons out of the backfield, and some receivers who are putting up significant yards per catch.
Syracuse had quality receivers too. But the Irish were able to keep the football in front of them and succeed due in part to the Orange’s lack of a running game to balance the attack.
If you’ve seen N.C. State play this season, you know what Jaylen Samuels, Stephen Louis and Kelvin Harmon can do to defenses with Ryan Finley throwing them the football. Samuels is a jack-of-all-trades who gets touches from a multitude of pre-snap alignments.
The X factor, along with Samuels, is running back Matthew Dayes. Dayes is a dynamic 5-foot-9, 203-pounder. Injuries cost him a certain 1,000-yard season last year after rushing for at least 100 yards in each of the first four games. He’s cracked the 100-yard mark three of four games this season.
As it relates to the passing game, vanilla cannot be the flavor of the day in the Irish secondary.
“We have to be on-body,” said Brian Kelly of Notre Dame’s pass coverage against N.C. State. “They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense.
“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. They’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”
As many as five freshmen could see playing time in the secondary for the Irish – cornerbacks Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta also took 70-plus snaps at safety last weekend. It remains to be seen what role sophomore Nick Coleman plays moving forward.
Notre Dame’s offense is dynamic; so is N.C. State’s.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
…A few things, beginning with N.C. State’s defensive coverage against Notre Dame.
Brian Kelly desperately wants a wind-less day in Carter-Finley Stadium because there are yards to be had in the passing game. It’s sounding as if Kelly will get his wish as Hurricane Matthew steers north.
Two areas stuck out in the Wolfpack’s loss to East Carolina: The success of the Pirates against N.C. State’s man coverage and the huge plays on running back wheel routes.
Crossing routes are difficult enough to defend; even more so with Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders running them. The Pirates struck with 39- and 25-yard wheel routes to running backs James Summers and Anthony Scott. They are there for the taking if the Irish can create the look.
N.C. State relies upon/believes in their defensive system. They run out of a four-man front with three linebackers and four defensive backs. If they veer from that, it’s generally the subtraction a linebacker and the addition a defensive back. They don’t blitz a lot. In fact, they fake more blitzes than they actually bring.
Since 2010, dating back to the Tom O’Brien era (speaking of sour personalities, but a better coach than Doeren), the Wolfpack have averaged 32.5 sacks per season compared to Notre Dame’s 26.3.
In those six years, the Irish have had more than 30 sacks once compared to N.C. State’s five.
They generally haven’t needed extra bodies to get to the quarterback. They rush the passer effectively with four down linemen, which theoretically gives them the opportunity to defend the pass with seven defenders.
Because this time of year we live in a world in which strong judgment rolls around every seven days, positive thoughts about Stanford – which hosts Washington State this week and travels to Notre Dame Stadium next week – have diminished since the hide-tanning Washington administered last Friday night.
That was one impressive display by the Huskies, who claimed a 44-6 victory while holding the Cardinal to 29 yards rushing on 30 attempts, due largely to the eight sacks of Stanford quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst.
It would be wise to pump the brakes on this week’s perception of Stanford. They’re transitioning a bit, obviously, while Chris Petersen has begun at Washington what he mastered at Boise State. The Huskies caught a vulnerable Cardinal squad – which had to open with Kansas State, USC and UCLA – and spanked them.
That doesn’t necessarily make Stanford a home-field win for the Irish, who are 1-2 in Notre Dame Stadium this season. It also doesn’t make the Cardinal less of a blueprint for what Notre Dame should aspire to be.
Back when Stanford held Notre Dame to 44 yards rushing in the 2010 home tilt with the Cardinal – a one-sided 37-14 Stanford victory – Brian Kelly told Jack Swarbrick that Notre Dame would be like the Cardinal one day.
Since then, Kelly has backed away on several occasions from sounding off on “aspiring to be like Stanford.” Notre Dame has always been shy about “being like” someone since they are considered a standard bearer.
But if I had Notre Dame’s ear, I would strongly promote emulating the Stanford program from its offensive approach to its defensive scheme to its strength and conditioning program to its recruiting practices to its fifth-year senior decisions, the latter of which Kelly mentioned this week.
With both schools facing similar issues academically, there is a strong correlation between how they must run their programs. There are huge differences: Notre Dame is staunchly conservative and Stanford is not. Notre Dame is in the middle of a deep freeze every November through March whereas northern California is a virtual paradise in comparison.
(Note: I’ve been to Palo Alto 13 times covering Notre Dame vs. Stanford. Don’t recall a bad weather experience…unless it was while leaving the Midwest to head to northern California.)
But in terms of how the two programs must operate under very real academic guidelines and basic football approach, the foundation of the Stanford program – this will be the eighth straight season with at least eight victories, six of which have been a minimum of 11 victories – is Notre Dame’s blueprint.
It’s a bit astonishing to hear Kelly’s comments on a three-man defensive front following the 30-game stint by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Kelly clearly prefers a 3-4 look, which fits Notre Dame because of its difficulty landing true, pass-rushing 4-3 ends.
“I like three-man,” Kelly said. “I’ve always liked the balance of the three-man front…The ability to really get some one-on-one match-ups with those tackles, with hard inside shades…
“We were able to push (Syracuse’s) offensive tackles back. That’s not necessarily going to be the case each and every week, but having the ability to change up where those guys line up is going to be more effective for us.”
Kelly was willing to sacrifice his preferred defense for the more familiar personality when he had to replace Bob Diaco, who took his 3-4 philosophy with him to Connecticut.
If that means “stealing” the principles from Stanford (“emulating” is a more accurate word), do it, including the strength and conditioning model and all that goes with it to keep a team healthier than the Irish have been in November the last three seasons.
As for the fifth-year seniors, Kelly generally has more than he has this year. This year is an anomaly. But if you want more fifth-year seniors, you can’t use as many freshmen. This season calls for it; not every season does.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
A 4-1 record last week raises the mark to a sure-to-crash 75 percent for the season.
• Over 70 Texas Tech @ Kansas State
• Mississippi State +2½ vs. Auburn
• Michigan State -6 vs. BYU
Season record vs. spread: 12-4