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Behind enemy lines: Previewing Notre Dame with the Fighting Irish experts

Ahead of Saturday night’s contest we spoke with the Notre Dame SB Nation site to preview the game.

Navy v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

With the Virginia Cavaliers kicking off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday at 7:30 on ABC, we talked to the experts from SB Nation’s Notre Dame site, One Foot Down to preview the matchup.

1. This seems to have been a bit of an odd season for the Irish. With so much turnover from last season and some early season (relative) stumbles, it seems like the team is back on track. Is that how you see things? Has this team lived up to expectations?

I do think your assessment of the team being “back on track” is accurate, in terms of how they’re FINALLY starting to perform how a top-10 team should perform against such a not-tough schedule. This slate of ND opponents in 2021 has turned out to be one of the softest lineups in years, and so how the Irish have handled USC, UNC, and Navy the last few weeks is much more in line with what I’d expect a decent Notre Dame team to do to opposition like that. It’s certainly a major improvement from early in the season, when the Irish were out there making Florida State and Toledo and Virginia Tech look downright competent.

With that said, I wouldn’t say the team has quite “lived up to expectations,” only because despite the turnover from last season, ND fans expected the Irish to look at least this good against what looked like an okay but still not-that-bad schedule in the preseason. Knowing what we know now — that the Irish will finish the year having only played one actually-good (i.e. Top 10-15) team (Cincinnati) and would lose to them at home by double-digits — I think it’s somewhat disappointing. This is the kind of season, with the amount of chaos and parity we’re seeing across the country aside from Georgia, that Notre Dame should be able to thrive against mediocre opponents and coast to a playoff berth (even though it’s now clear they don’t deserve a Playoff bid this year, having seen the first 6 games for the Irish).

It’s hard to be MAD about being 8-1 with a very feasible path to 11-1 and a NY6 bowl bid, though, so I’ll say this is a fine bridge year between the 2020 CFP season and hopefully some more competitive years in 2022 and 2023 with all this young talent the Irish have entering the program. But considering ND has made two CFPs in the last 3 seasons, not making it again when graced with a schedule full of duds is definitely frustrating and falls a bit short of expectations.

2. There’s been a good deal of fluctuation at the quarterback position for the Irish, what do you expect to see on that front this Saturday?

Despite the fluctuation and some frustrating decisions by Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees earlier in the year (waiting too long to play Drew Pyne vs. Cincy, not rolling with him as the starter after that), the Irish are pretty settled at this point in terms of the quarterback position. Jack Coan is the starter and primary signal caller for the rest of the season, and has played much better football in recent weeks than he did early in the year.

Part of that may be Coan finally figuring things out, and part of it could be the Irish finally landing on a 5-man group at offensive line that wasn’t the worst line of the Kelly era like it was in the first 6 games. But I also think Coan is finally just seeing some worse defenses in the back half of the season. Those first 6 games featured defenses ranked #2, #11, #28, #32, #38, and #53 in SP+. USC’s, UNC’s, and Navy’s defenses currently rank 88th, 78th, and 89th, respectively. So, Coan’s sudden success makes some sense, and considering UVA (#82), Georgia Tech (#72), and Stanford (#99), he’ll probably continue to play pretty well down the stretch.

Along with Coan, Virginia fans should expect to see at least a little bit of true freshman Tyler Buchner as well. Buchner is the change-of-pace QB the Irish bring in to add a more mobile running threat under center, and he’ll do lots of read-option stuff in the select series for which he’s inserted. Early in the season when Coan was being sacked constantly due to his statue-like quickness and the line’s sieve-like blocking, Buchner was a big reason the Irish were still able to beat teams like Toledo and Virginia Tech. Recently, he’s played sparingly, but has still been pretty effective when he played, and it’s pretty clear he’ll probably be the starter come next season when the Irish open the year at Ohio State.

3. Who should Wahoo fans look out for among the Notre Dame skill position players?

First and foremost, the guy to watch out for is Notre Dame’s starting running back, Kyren “Bellyman” Williams (please note “Bellyman” is not his official nickname, but I refuse to call him anything else). He’s a back who can do it all: pick up tough yardage with power/incredible balance, break defenders’ ankles with ridiculous cutting ability and agility, outrun entire defenses for home-run touchdowns, serve as an excellent receiver out of the backfield, and put on a Goddamn clinic in pass-pro when he needs to. He wasn’t putting up monster numbers early in the year thanks to the offensive line’s struggles, but he found little ways to still be the best player on the offense. Now, with the line gelling and with the opponents being much worse at defense, he’s THRIVING. UVA fans will quickly get to know him on Saturday.

Tight end Michael Mayer is another name to definitely know — I don’t think there’s another tight end in the country I would pick over him, as he’s just a huge, athletic, ultra-reliable match-up nightmare for defenses. I will say, though, that he’s been quiet recently as opposing defenses have made keying on him and double-teaming him a focus and as he’s battled some injuries, but to me that just means he’s due for a big game. Look for him to get pretty involved, especially because ND is now so light on wide receiver depth.

At receiver, I wasn’t exaggerating in my previous sentence about the depth at this point. Notre Dame is down to 5 scholarship wide receivers now, with 3 of them being true freshmen. They’re all quite talented, but it’s always a question as to which of them will show up and which will essentially be ghosts on the field. Kevin Austin Jr. was supposed to be the dominant, alpha, #1 wideout this year — and he has been at times, like last week against Navy (6 receptions, 139 yards, one 70-yard touchdown). But he also has games where he’ll have a few drops and not much else, so we will see if he comes to play this week. Braden Lenzy is a burner who always has the ability to beat corners and safeties deep, but besides a really nice Cincy game, he hasn’t done too much this year, statistically-speaking. Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie are two blue-chip freshmen who forced their way into the rotation a few weeks back, and so they’ll probably have a few nice catches each.

Finally, to revisit the running backs aside from Bellyman — backup running back Chris Tyree is the fastest guy on the team and a true threat to house one every time he touches the ball. Just ask Wisconsin about him.

He’s had some turf toe issues he just came back from, though, so another guy you’ll see out there is true freshman Logan Diggs, who’s really making a case to be the starter next year after Bellyman departs. He’s a smooth, talented back with a very bright future.

4. What’s safety Kyle Hamilton’s status heading into Saturday? How does his absence or presence alter how this Irish defense plays?

Similar to Armstrong’s status, Hamilton’s is very much up in the air, but even more doubtful/unlikely in terms of his chances of actually playing. He’s missed essentially all of the last three games after getting hurt early against USC, and just based on the updates given by the coaches at each presser, I highly doubt they will rush him back onto the field on Saturday. To be honest, we might not see Hamilton play for the Irish again, except maybe in a bowl game. As a near-lock to be a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, he’s gotta be careful not to do anything to jeopardize that. It does sound like he wants to come back and play, though.

His absence completely changes the defense, without a doubt. Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman is able to call a lot of things pretty aggressively because he’s got Hamilton to help cover major gaps sideline-to-sideline and to clean up messes on the back-end if someone gets burnt badly. Without him, Freeman has to cycle in more DBs to try to use a combination of guys to do what Hamilton could do on his own, and he also can’t take as many chances with certain coverages or blitzes. Furthermore, he’ll have to find more ways to really get a great pass rush out of 3-5 guys without Hamilton on the field, because a good QB will pick apart the rest of that Irish secondary if they have enough time to do so.

5. Is there a weakness in this Irish defense? Perhaps among the outside corners? Could the Wahoo receivers exploit anything?

Yes, yes, and yes. With Hamilton out, the ND secondary is the most vulnerable part of the defense, considering the defensive line is a strength and the linebackers are good, just not super deep thanks to injuries.

That’s not to say CBs Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis and safeties Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown and nickel-back TaRiq Bracy are horrible or anything — they’ve all had solid seasons with nice little moments from each of them, and Hart especially has looked really good after being pretty much an unknown entering the year as a converted receiver who had surprisingly won a starting job in camp. Brown has played pretty admirably in Hamilton’s place, too, which needs to be noted.

However, for the most part, all of those guys have their flaws/limitations — they’re all former 3-star recruits who can collectively get the job done but individually can absolutely be beaten, especially by a group of talented receivers...enter Virginia’s stacked receiver room.

If Armstrong can’t go or isn’t able to do what he normally does, I would feel a lot better about this DB group and how they can hold up, because even if they get beat occasionally, the young UVA backup probably isn’t developed/experienced enough to find those receivers every time. But if Armstrong DOES play this weekend, the Irish secondary could have a really tough game — especially if the Irish pass rush doesn’t land very often to disrupt his progressions.

6. What would it realistically take for Notre Dame to join the ACC? All contingent on the CFP?

Yep, it would essentially take a situation where the only feasible path to competing for national championships would be to join a conference.

Otherwise, Notre Dame is not at all interested in giving up their unique/special/powerful independent position in the world of college football. And honestly, can you blame them? They aren’t beholden to any conference’s wishes yet still have a massive amount of sway in the college football landscape while also having the freedom to schedule and recruit more nationally than a lot of programs in conferences can.

Until they’re forced to give that up, the Irish will be independent — and that’s how we like it.

7. What’re your predictions for Saturday’s contest?

You gave me two predictions based on if Brennan Armstrong plays, and I will do the same.

If Armstrong plays, I think Notre Dame wins by just a possession — the Irish defense will get a couple stops throughout the night while the UVA defense will largely fail to slow down the Irish offense, and that will end up being the difference in a shoot-out of sorts. Irish win 45-37.

If Armstrong does not play, I think the ND offense still puts up roughly the same performance, but is able to ground-and-pound a bit more in the second half with Bellyman leading the way, and that not only limits UVA’s scoring opportunities but also enables ND to pull away in the second half, which forces Virginia to take more chances offensively, which then leads to some turnovers and thus to ND pouring it on in the 4th quarter, similar to what happened at the end of the Wisconsin/ND game in September. Irish win 41-20.