It’s Owls Week!
It’s been a long off-season; the kind of bitterly long off-season that follows a bewildering and disappointing (to put it diplomatically) 4-8 season. But, it’s time to put that disappointment behind us, or at least, off to the side, out of our direct line of sight. It’s time to embrace the anxiety, and optimism, of a new season in which many new faces, both on the field, and on the sidelines, will take center stage for our Fighting Irish.
Coach Kelly returns, to the dismay of some, to lead the Fighting Irish in 2017. But, after a bit of a coaching staff purge (and exodus), he comes with reinforcements, including a new Defensive Coordinator, Mike Elko, and a new Offensive Coordinator, and play caller, Chip Long. Once the Fighting Irish take the field, they’ll be led by a talented, though as of yet untested, Brandon Wimbush, who will be making his first start for the Irish. Wimbush will have plenty of returning weapons to lean on, including explosive play maker Equanimeous St. Brown, and hard running Josh Adams. On defense, the Irish will be led by hard hitting linebacker, and Team Captain, Nyles Morgan, who led the Irish in tackles last season, and a group of young defensive backs that includes sophomore Julian Love at cornerback, and sophomore Devin Studstill at safety.
There are certainly plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season, especially with the changes in the coaching staff. And, the Irish certainly aren’t devoid of talent; but, then again, they weren’t last season, either. All that said, and against my usual optimistic self, it’s hard not to take a “wait and see” approach toward the upcoming season. I think the Fighting Irish have the ability to pull off a 9 or 10 win season, but, at least for now, I’m not going to let any optimism I may be feeling get ahead of the game at hand.
No need to belabor the point, but the Fighting Irish are coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, and are looking to bounce back from their 4-8 record last season.. The Temple Owls, on the other hand, pulled off an impressive 10-4 regular season before dominating the 20th ranked Navy Midshipmen by a score of 34-10 to win the 2016 AAC Championship, the first major conference title in Temple history; they would go on to play Wake Forest in the Military Bowl, a game they lost by a score of 34-26.
The Irish have faced the Owls just twice before, in 2013 and 2015, and both resulted in Irish victories. 2013’s season opener against the Owls was a fairly easy 28-6 win for the Irish, but the Irish were forced to mount a comeback late in the 4th Quarter to pull out a 24-20 win over the Owls in 2015.
Players To Watch
Brandon Wimbush (QB)
With the departure of Kizer to the NFL, and Malik Zaire to Florida, Wimbush will get his first start for the Irish under center. Wimbush didn’t see the field in 2016, and played in just two games in 2015, including the blowout victory against UMASS where he took an option read 58 yards to the end zone for his first touchdown with the Irish. Wimbush certainly has a lot of potential, what remains to be seen is whether he’s able to take command of the offense and whether or not he can handle the expectations and pressures ahead of him as Notre Dame’s QB1.
Equanimeous St. Brown (WR)
St. Brown, or EQ as I’ll be referring to him hereon out, captured the attention of college football fans everywhere in last year’s season opener when he pulled off an absurdly athletic catch and handstand into the end zone for a touchdown against Texas. EQ would go on to lead the Irish receivers in receptions (58), receiving yards (961), and touchdowns (9), with an average of 16.6 yards per reception. EQ is the obvious No. 1 on the WR depth chart for the Irish, with a bunch of question marks behind him, so you can expect EQ to be Wimbush’s go to guy in the Irish passing game again this season.
Nyles Morgan (LB)
Morgan got significant playing time his freshman year filling in for an injured Joe Schmidt, but saw very little playing time his sophomore year. That all changed last year when Morgan became a full season starter for the Irish with the departure of Joe Schmidt. Even with all of the turmoil on defense, Morgan stepped into his new leadership role for the defense, and led the team in both tackles (94 total) and sacks (4). Now a senior, Morgan, who was voted a Team Captain earlier this year, is ready to once again embrace his leadership role, and he’ll be an integral part of any success this revamped Irish defense will have this season.
Players To Watch
A QB To Be Named Later
First year Temple Head Coach Geoff Collins has yet to name a starting QB for this week’s game against Notre Dame, and it could be any one of the four, yes four, QBs named on his “above the line” depth chart. With no QB being named starter this close to game time (Temple’s “above the line” depth chart was released on Tuesday of this week), it’s actually expected that Temple will play multiple QBs. That type scenario didn’t work out so well for the Irish in their season opener last season, so we’ll see how well it works for the Owls.
Ventell Bryant (WR)
Bryant followed up his freshman campaign where he was the second leading receiver (39 receptions, 579 receiving yards, and 3 TDs) by becoming the team’s leading receiver (54 receptions, 895 receiving yards, and 4 TDs), despite missing three games. He’s been hampered by a hamstring injury this preseason, and didn’t practice earlier this week, but if he’s a go for Saturday’s game, expect him to be a favorite target of whichever QB the Owls decide to play.
Delvon Randall (S)
Part of what many consider one of the top safety combos in college football, Randall started all 14 games for the Owls last season, and tied for 2nd on the team in tackles (65 total), and led the team in interceptions (4); with 6 total takeaways (4 INTs and 2 FR) Randall was ranked 3rd in the entire AAC in takeaways. Randall’s a hard hitter that’s able to mix it up in both the run and pass game, and he’s got a knack for coming up with game changing takeaways.
Keys To Victory
Let Wimbush Settle Into The Game
Last year the Irish went with two quarterbacks in their season opener and neither really found an early rhythm. The Irish don’t have that same problem this year, but they do have a young quarterback who will be starting for the first time with the Irish, despite very little actual game time in previous seasons. The Irish have to let him settle in, and rely on standouts EQ and Adams in the early going, to help build Wimbush’s confidence.
Improvement On Defense
After the disaster of a season that saw VanGorder, and his complicated NFL inspired defensive scheme, sent packing after five games, the Irish waited until the offseason before hiring Wake Forest’s Mike Elko to take over as defensive coordinator. Elko’s 2016 Demon Deacons ranked in the Top 20 in defensive touchdowns, turnovers, sacks, and scoring defense, and ranked 33th in Total Defense; Notre Dame didn’t come close to the top 20 in any of those individual defensive statistics, and ranked 40th in Total Defense. With that kind of success at Wake Forest, it’s not difficult to imagine an improved Irish defense under Coach Elko, but we won’t know just how much magic he’s been able to work until his defense steps on the field. The Owls may have a question mark at QB, but they still have several play makers on offense that can test this young Irish defense, so they’ll need to avoid the sloppy tackling and missed assignments that plagued them throughout last season to avoid another season opening disaster.
Final Analysis: There’s no arguing that Temple is returning some talented players this season, especially on the defense, but the huge question mark at QB should be a concern for Temple fans. The Irish have a few question marks of their own, especially with Wimbush taking over the starting role for the first time, but with Long taking over play calling duties, and a simplified defense being implemented under Elko, the Irish look to be headed in the right direction. The early going might be a little rocky in this game, but the Irish have too much to prove in their season opener to let the game get out of hand, and by the second half the Irish will be in full control.
Final Score: Notre Dame 38 – Temple 17