As the season changes to fall, it seems every year we hear the same few teams getting early season hype. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are one of those teams but this year it isn’t just hype, it’s reality.
This team is stacked defensively, led by star linebacker Manti Te’o and “freak” defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. Brent Musberger was fawning over the sophomore on Saturday’s broadcast, but it wasn’t without good reason. He’s already amassed five sacks in just three games.
Obviously losing senior safety Jamoris Slaugher to injury is going to hurt the Irish, but they should be able to offset his experience in the secondary by being even more ferocious up front. They’ve already had to play without stud corner Lo Wood and safety Austin Collinsworth as both went down with injuries in the preseason.
This week will be a good test against the Michigan Wolverines. Denard Robinson‘s passing game has improved during his second season under offensive coordinator Al Borges, but not to a point where he’ll scare you enough that your secondary gets exposed. Those big passing tests will come later on.
Against the run, though, is where the Irish have shown their tremendous strength. Holding preseason Heisman contender Le’Veon Bell to 77 yards rushing is remarkable. The Michigan State Spartans had been known to have one of the better offensive lines in the country preseason and this Irish front just mauled them.
When I looked at the tape again, Bell really didn’t have any opportunity to get his speed built up like he did versus the Boise State Broncos and, yes, while they had to replace five defensive starters, they had done so in years past without a ton of trouble.
Containing Michigan’s ground attack with be a different animal, though, as the majority of their run game will come from their quarterback. I expect Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to bring down his outside linebackers Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and Danny Spond close to the line of scrimmage to contain Robinson–force him to throw down the field to speedsters Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess.
Everyone remembers that epic winning drive last September, but before that, Robinson was not particular good from the pocket. He made his living on the run, gaining more than 250 yards on the ground. That will be issue number one for the Irish defense to stop.
Offensively this team is a work in progress, but they can afford to keep it basic with their stable of running backs. I’d argue the trio of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III is the best in the country. Wood is the veteran who returned last week from suspension to pick up 56 yards on just 10 carries. Riddick and Atkinson are speedsters who give quarterback Everett Golson the ability to make the easy check down throw. While he’s still a work in progress and didn’t play well last week versus Michigan State, more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.
Too many times we see young quarterbacks trying to be the BMOC (Big Man on Campus) early in their career. Brian Kelly has had tremendous success with quarterbacks throughout his career and once Golson develops better footwork, I assume that intermediate passing game will come, which will in turn open up his ability to run. His athleticism allows him to get out of the pocket and extend plays. Lest we forget about the nation’s top tight end, Tyler Eifert, a top 20 pick in next April’s NFL Draft. Golson just needs to play within the system and let his defense carry him.
The schedule sets up nicely for the Irish until their game with the Oklahoma Sooners Oct. 27. The only real test after Michigan is the Stanford Cardinal coming to South Bend. That should be a close one but in a battle of similar teams, I’d give Notre Dame a slight edge with Stanford traveling cross country.
Oklahoma has major issues on the offensive line, while USC’s scholarship limit is killing their depth week by week. Coach Kelly’s teams generally have taken off in his third year. This year’s Irish are on the launch pad. I don’t think they’ll be aborting takeoff this time. 10-2, 11-1 sounds about right for this group.