It’s Wolfpack Week!
When asked about the 2016 debacle at NC State, Coach Kelly cleverly responded “when it rains, it pours.” This weekend, the Fighting Irish may have a chance to reverse their fortunes in the rain against NC State, as there’s a better than fifty-percent chance we may see rain at some point during the game.
Rain or not, we’ll see two teams take the field that are enjoying markedly better seasons so far in 2017 than either had during their respective 2016 campaigns. For the Irish, the disappointment of the 2016 season has given way to renewed optimism, and legitimate playoff hopes thanks in large part to a Heisman hopeful running back, Josh Adams, and a hard-hitting, turnover creating, defense that has held opponent to twenty points or less every game this season. But the Wolfpack, who are coming off a 6-6 regular season record in 2016, are also sitting at 6-1, and in the hunt for a playoff spot of their own. The Irish have already cleared one hurdle in their quest for the college football playoffs, but this week presents yet another challenge, and another opportunity for the Irish, not just to settle the score from last season, but to separate themselves from the pack, and add another quality win to their resume.
Following their epic 49-14 beat down of the USC Trojans, the Fighting Irish are riding a five game win streak, and are now 6-1 on the season; the win over USC also moved the Irish up four spots in the AP Top 25, to No. 10. The Wolfpack are coming off their bye-week, and are riding a win streak of their own, having won six straight since their season opening loss to South Carolina; the Wolfpack are currently ranked No. 14 in the AP Polls.
This will be just the second regular season meeting between the Fighting Irish and the Wolfpack; the two teams also faced off in the 2003 Gator Bowl. Unfortunately, for the Irish, they’ve lost both prior meetings, including last season’s 10-3 loss at NC State.
Players To Watch
With two rushing touchdowns against USC, Wimbush now has 10 rushing touchdowns this season, tying him for the single season school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback set in 2015 by DeShone Kizer. His 106 yards rushing against USC also gives him three 100+ yard rushing games on the season, including a 207 yard rusing game gainst BC; Wimbush has 508 rushing yards in the six games he’s played in this year. While his run game has been fantastic, Wimbush has struggled in the passing game, as he’s passed for 150+ yards just three times this season, and has thrown for just 903 yards on the season; despite those struggles, Wimbush has thrown for five passing touchdowns in his last two games played.
The legend of Josh Adams grows each week, as he continues to break away from defenses for long touchdown runs. With his 84 yard TD run against USC, Adams now has seven runs of 59+ yards, with five of them going for touchdowns, including four 60+ yard touchdown runs in the last three games. With his 191 yards against USC, Adams now has 967 rushing yards on the season, putting him ahead of his 2016 performance through just seven games.
Despite starting in just two games this season (though he’s played considerable minutes throughout), Coney led the team in tackles against Boston College and USC, and is now the team leader in total tackles with 53 (23 solo, 30 assisted); Coney’s 23 solo tackles puts him in the team lead in that defensive category, as well. Coney’s also come up big for the Irish defense with 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF, and 1 FR.
Players To Watch
Ryan Finley (QB)
A second year starter for the Wolfpack, Finley is one of the most efficient QBs in the country, completing an impressive 69.4% of his passing attempts, ranking him 7th in the country in that category; all but one of the QBs ahead of him in completion percentage have thrown far fewer passes (Max Brown, quarterback for Pittsburgh, and 2nd in completion percentage has thrown 113 fewer passes). Finley threw for a season high 415 yards in their season opening loss to South Carolina, and has thrown for less than 200 yards just twice this season. Through seven games this season, Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards, 11 TDs, and has yet to throw an interception.
Bradley Chubb (DE)
The senior defensive end leads a stout defensive line that sets the tone for a defense that’s ranked 6th in the country in rushing defense, giving up an average of just 91.3 yards rushing per game. Chubb’s the third leading tackler for the Wolfpack, with 37 total tackles (19 solo, 18 assisted). He also has a team leading 14 TFL and 6.5 Sacks, 1 FF, and 7 QBHs on the season.
Fighting Irish Keys To Victory
Strength vs. Strength: Establish The Run Game
In a match-up between the country’s 6th ranked rushing offense, rushing for an average of 317.9 yards per game, and the country’s 6th ranked rushing defense, giving up just 91.3 yards per game, something will have to give. Notre Dame has faced two Top 10 run defenses so far this season, Georgia and MSU, and were held to 55 and 182 yards on the ground, respectively, so there’s at least some evidence to support the idea that the Irish can expect some success on the ground against NC State. On the other hand, NC State hasn’t faced an elite run team like Notre Dame, and have only faced on team in the Top 30 in rushing offense, Louisville (28th in the country), who managed just over 100 yards on the ground against the Wolfpack. Notre Dame won’t need to run for three hundred plus yards against the Wolfpack to get the job done, but with anything less than one hundred and fifty yards on the ground they could find themselves struggling to put the Wolfpack away.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, the Wolfpack’s QB, Ryan Finley hasn’t thrown a single interception this season, and the offense has only turned the ball over 3 times, total, so if there’s one thing the Wolfpack offense does well, it’s protecting the football. Fortunately, for the Irish, their defense doesn’t wait for offenses to turn the ball over, they go out and force turnovers. And, when the Irish do come up with turnovers, the offense capitalizes on them. The Irish defense has now come up with 17 turnovers (10 fumble recoveries, 7 interceptions), and the Irish offense has turned 14 of those turnovers into points, scoring 13 touchdowns and 1 field goal following a turnover recovery.
Final Analysis: It’s going to be a heavy weight battle between Notre Dame’s powerful, and explosive, run game led by Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush, against the Wolfpack’s monster run stopping defense led by Chubb and company, but I have a feeling that the Irish just have too many weapons at their disposal to be held down for too long. Factor in the return of Kevin Stepherson, which should take some coverage pressure off of Equanimeous St Brown, and add another weapon to Wimbush’s arsenal, and I think the Irish passing game will be enough to prevent NC State from being able to stack the box, and the Irish will score both on the ground, and through the air. NC State is a tough opponent for the Irish, to be sure, but Notre Dame will end up pulling away in the fourth quarter for a comfortable fifth straight win.
Final Score: Notre Dame 38 – North Carolina St. 24