Who And What To Watch: Notre Dame @ N.C. State

Your weekly pre-game points of interest as Notre Dame travels to Raleigh to take on North Carolina State.

1 – The Pretense of a Running Game: Can Notre Dame run the ball when it has to? We assumed they could entering the season and to date, each of the five foes faced has felt the same.

As a result (these numbers per Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson), DeShone Kizer has thrived in play-action passing situations, hitting 20 of 26 passes on the season at a robust 18.6 per attempt. And over the last two outings, the numbers are staggering when Kizer first fakes a handoff: 14-for-16, 366 yards, 3 TD.

Conversely, Notre Dame’s rushing attack is mired at 4.4 yards per carry and last week suffered 18 stuffs (tackles behind the line or for gains of 0, 1, 2 yards) on 37 rushing attempts.

North Carolina State ranks 13th nationally against the run.

Maybe the Irish ground game will get untracked Saturday in Raleigh. Maybe not, but the intent to run and patience to stick with it opens up everything else.

2 – The Benefits of a Rotation: The following is expected from Notre Dame’s newly formed emphasis on heavy defensive rotation in Raleigh:

  • 4 cornerbacks – Cole Luke plus freshmen Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride, and Julian Love
  • 4-5 safeties – Devin Studstill, Drue Tranquill, Nicco Fertitta, and Jalen Elliott (and perhaps Avery Sebastian)
  • 4-5 linebackers – James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney and Greer Martini (as well as redshirt-freshman Asmar Bilal)
  • 8 defensive linemen – Isaac Rochell at “Big End” with the tandems of Jarron Jones/Daniel Cage; Jerry Tillery/Jonathan Bonner inside and Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Daelin Hayes opposite Rochell.

The method of heavy rotation, first employed last week against Syracuse, was one welcomed by workhorse senior Isaac Rochell, a defender who has at least once (at Virginia last fall) taken part in more snaps than were officially executed in a contest (because of penalties).

“Oh my (gosh) it was an amazing difference,” he said of the occasional respite afforded. “Three-down helped, but just getting off the field a little early was huge late.”

Eight of Notre Dame’s 10 second-half Stuffs were registered by Irish defensive linemen – the group that needs to rotate most. Whether it’s platoon football, situational (third-down substitutions), or series-by-series and by unit, a heavy rotation remains the most prudent plan for a defense in need of aid.

3 – Weather the Storm: Seventeen of Brian Kelly’s 26 losses have included early deficits of at least 10 points. Included therein are seven of the last 10 defeats dating back to November 2014:

  • 31-14 in the third quarter against Texas
  • 36-7 in the third to Michigan State
  • 28-7 in the first half against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl
  • 14-0 at Clemson 53 weeks ago
  • 35-0 at USC in 2014
  • 17-6 at home vs. Louisville one week prior
  • 34-3 at Arizona State

 If Notre Dame can just avoid an early deficit and withstand the expected emotional surge by the host Wolfpack, the Irish – thanks to quarterback DeShone Kizer and a potent offense – are likely to win out in the end.

It’s a notion that holds true throughout the remainder of the regular season, regardless of foe.

4 – Week Two (Redux): Football coaches often opine that a team’s biggest improvement occurs between Game One and Game Two.

For Brian Kelly’s Irish, “Game One” occurred last week in the New Meadowlands.

“For the first time this year there was momentum that other units created for the offense, defense, special teams,” said Kelly of the win seven days ago against he Orange. “So in some ways it was like Week One of what you want your football team to look like and it's now something that they all see that we have to build off of.

“There will be carryover from what we did last week to this week and we will add some things obviously that we feel are appropriate to the game plan.”

Continued (and continuous) improvement as tacklers remains a concern. On Syracuse’s 87 official snaps last Saturday, Notre Dame defenders executed “first-hit” tackles just 36 times. (19 in the first half; 17 in the second.)

5 – The Third Phase: Can Notre Dame win a toss-up road game in which it loses the overall special teams battle?

Kelly’s Irish have been maddeningly inconsistent in the sport’s all-important third phase so far this fall:

  • The punt coverage unit has surrendered returns of 74, 38, and 18 yards
  • The kickoff coverage unit has been dominant…with the notable exception of a tide-turning 96-yard return score against Duke
  • The punt return unit boasts C.J Sanders, but likewise suffered the gaffe of a fumbled punt off a blocker’s leg in a loss to Michigan State
  • Kicker Justin Yoon has missed three field goals including two in losses (Texas, blocked; and against Duke)
  • The only reliable weapon to date has been the kick return unit – one that took away a C.J. Sanders score vs. Michigan State due to a blatant hold.

Do the Irish specialty units have a clean game in them? And can it coincide with a big play offered by the coverage units. or a C.J. Sanders Special to help turn the tide?

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