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The Big Notre Dame Football Preview: Can Virginia rise above the talent gap?

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The Hoos head home after a fairly disastrous season opener in Los Angeles. Meeting them in the home opener is nation powerhouse Notre Dame. The Irish aren't the team they were 30 or 50 years ago, but they are still pretty good. Currently ranked #9 in the nation, they have CFB Playoff aspirations and may have the talent to do it. Can Virginia slow them down?

Mike London and the rest of the coaching staff simply have to be better.
Mike London and the rest of the coaching staff simply have to be better.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos face their second straight top 15 team, as Notre Dame comes to Scott Stadium for the Hoos' season opener. This is the first matchup between the two teams since Notre Dame's ACC football quasi-membership began. It is also only the 2nd matchup ever between the two teams. The first was the Kickoff Classic in 1989, held at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. The #2 Fighting Irish won that game 36-13 over #18 Virginia. The Hoos would finish #15 in the nation, while Notre Dame would finish #2 behind National Champion Miami.

Notre Dame finished last year 8-5, after starting 6-0. They lost 4 straight to end the regular season, including a 31-28 loss to the same Louisville team that the Hoos knocked off earlier. Therefore, by the transitive property of College Football, the Hoos were better than the Irish last year. The Irish finished the season by beating LSU in the Music City Bowl.

Following the four consecutive losses, Notre Dame decided to start their bowl game with Malik Zaire at QB instead of Everett Golson (who would play sporadically in the game). Golson had been the starting QB all year but he struggled badly down the stretch including 5 TO performance in a 55-31 loss to Arizona St. After entering the season as a Heisman hopeful, he hadn't lived up to the hype. Golson is now the starting QB at FSU while Zaire is the starting QB for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame opened their season last week against Texas. The game was hyped as two national powerhouse schools facing off, but in reality it was a mismatch. Notre Dame won the game 38-3. They piled up 527 total yards while holding Texas to just 163.

Notre Dame Offense

In that Music City Bowl start, Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a TD. He also ran for 96 yards on 22 carries, with another TD. He was named the MVP of the game. Those numbers make it look like he's a run-first QB. But, Zaire is really more of a passer than a runner. In the Texas game, Zaire completed 19/22 for 313 yards and 3 TDs. He rushed 9 times for 16 yards.

Zaire is a junior, though he's making just his 3rd career start. He's inexperienced, although not nearly as much as the QB the Hoos faced last week. However, like last week, this QB is surrounded by an immensely talented roster.

Let's start up front with the big uglies. Notre Dame returns 4 starters from last year's unit, including OC Nick Martin and LT Ronnie Stanley. Stanley could well be the top overall pick in the NFL draft this year, and Martin could go high as well (Martin's brother Zack was drafted by the Cowboys in the first round in 2014). RT Mike McGlinchey and LG Quenton Nelson are both just sophomores but will likely be high draft picks in either 2017 or 2018, whenever they decide to leave. RG Steve Elmer may not be a high NFL draft pick, but he'll still play on Sundays. In other words, this OL is made up entirely of future NFL starters.

The Irish don't have multiple high first round picks at the skill positions. But, they are still loaded. After splitting carries with a number of RBs last year, Torean Folston entered this year as the main guy in the backfield. Sadly (for him, anyway) he tore his ACL against Texas and will not return this year. The Irish are now without their top 4 rushers from a year ago. Zaire was 5th, with just 33 carries.

This leaves C.J. Prosise (a Richmond native) as the starting RB. He had 20 carries against Texas for 98 yards. However, a pair of true freshmen in Josh Adams and Dexter Williams were the more exciting RBs. Adams rushed for 49 yards on 5 carries including 2 TDs. Williams came on in garbage time and rushed for 24 yards on 7 carries. Prosise will continue to get a majority of the carries right now, but Adams and Williams will see more and more action as the season goes on.

The problems at RB are not mirrored at WR. Not in the least. The Irish return their top 5 WRs from last year. This includes Will Fuller, who finished third in the nation last year with 15 TD receptions. The Irish did lose their top TE, Ben Koyack, who had 30 receptions a year ago. His replacement, Durham Smythe, had just 1 catch for 6 yards against Texas, although he is a talented TE with good hands and decent wheels.

Notre Dame will move Fuller around. He'll line up in the slot quite a bit, but he'll also line up on either side. The Hoos were beaten repeatedly by UCLA's WRs, and Fuller is probably better than any of them. If they continue to use man coverage on the outside, and continue to have trouble getting any pressure on the QB, Fuller and company are going to torch them.

A lot of the problems the Hoos had against UCLA were related to the defense's inability to get any pressure on QB Josh Rosen. However, they did a decent job in the ground game. Paul Perkins rushed for just 59 yards on 14 carries. Soso Jamabo rushed for 79 yards on just 9 carries, mostly in garbage time. Even that, though, included a 39 yard run. The rest of his runs averaged just 5 yards per carry. (OK, still pretty disconcerting since the Hoos knew he was going to be running, but there were a lot of second-teamers on the field on both sides of the ball.)

Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding and Kelvin Rainey all looked good coming up and making plays against the run. But against the pass, they were all lost. Notre Dame's rushing game is probably better than UCLA's, with the addition of a mobile QB. If the Hoos are forced to keep a spy on Zaire, that will mean one less player covering the talented WRs.

The Hoos are going to see fair amount of read-option this week. They are going to see another up-tempo team. They are going to see runs up the middle, to the edge and with misdirection. And they are going to see play-action. Zaire has a huge arm and can make every throw. He can throw on the run in both directions. The loss of Folston is a big one for the Irish, but they have talented RBs behind him.

Stopping the Irish is going to be a big challenge. Maybe a bigger one than last week's, although at least the Hoos are at home now and can feed off the crowd. Holding UCLA to 34 points wasn't enough, and a similar defensive performance this week also won't be enough.

Player to Watch

#7 WR Will Fuller - Obviously, Zaire is the key to the Notre Dame offense. However, his go-to guy in the passing game is Fuller. The 6'0" 184 pound WR finished 27th in the nation in receptions last year, 21st in receiving yards and 3rd in TDs. Fuller had 7 receptions for 142 yards and 2 TDs last week.

Interestingly, Fuller was the lowest rated WR in Notre Dame's 2012 recruiting class. Torii Hunter Jr (son of the Minnesota Twins OF) and Corey Robinson were both higher rated. Robinson and Hunter are backup WRs right now for the Irish.

Fuller isn't the biggest of WRs. He's also not the fastest, although he is plenty fast. He's not the best route-runner, although he runs decent routes. He has great hands, great moves in the open field and a great feel for getting open. Sometimes, getting open is a result of a great route. Sometimes, it's a great throw. But for some receivers, getting open is just a natural ability. Fuller just seems to have a knack for getting open.

Fuller may well leave early this year for the NFL. A big year will certainly help him there. He's undersized for the NFL, and maybe not fast enough to make up for his lack of size. So maybe he returns. If he does, and has a couple more years like last year, he'll be approaching Michael Floyd's career records for receiving at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Defense

A year ago, Notre Dame's ranked 71st in the nation in total defense. They were 72nd in rushing defense and 75th in passing defense. They were also 82nd in scoring defense and 84th in pass efficiency defense. At least they were consistent. From that defense, they return almost the entire unit.

The strength of defense is the LBs, led by junior Jaylon Smith, and the DBs led by safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. Smith is a Bednarik Award Nominee this year and is one of the top LBs in the nation. He's started every game since he arrived in South Bend and he's a likely high first round draft pick this year. Last year, he led the team in tackles and TFLs and was 2nd in sacks. The Irish will rotate a few different guys next to Smith. Joe Schmidt will get a lot of playing time, especially in passing situations. He had 2 INTs last year in just 8 games before injuring his ankle. Other LBs the Hoos will see include Nyles Morgan, James Onwualu and Greer Martini.

Redfield and Shumate were the 2nd and 3rd leading tacklers on the team a year ago. Both are bigger safeties, around 6'0" and over 200 pounds (Shumate is 225). They both run well, although both are better against the run than against the pass, though they did each have an INT last year. The CBs are on the small side, but both are excellent cover guys. Keivarae Russell missed all of last year due to academic suspension, but he's returned this year in shape and looking to build a case for the NFL draft. He's a high 4.3 guy and he led the team with 9 passes defended in 2013. He might be a bit rusty after a year off, but he's got the skills.

On the DL, the only loss from a year ago is senior DT Jarron Jones, who will miss the entire season with a torn MCL. But Jones wasn't even starting last year. Notre Dame used several guys at DT last year, and will continue to do so this year. The starter listed for this week is sophomore Daniel Cage, a 6'0" 315 pound space eater. He's next to senior Sheldon Day, who missed some time last year due to injury. Many thought Day would go pro even after the injury, but he surprised everybody by returning. He's an Outland Award nominee and should be an early draft pick this year. Those two are the strength of the Notre Dame DL. The DEs are solid, but not great. Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara each totaled 39 tackles last year and combined for 11.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Okwara had a sack against Texas.

Like UCLA, the Notre Dame defense is very strong up the middle. With two very strong DTs, Jaylon Smith and the two safeties in the middle of the field, it is going to be difficult to run between the tackles for the Hoos. However, Notre Dame's defense isn't as fast as UCLA's. There is a ton of talent on the team, but its still largely the same defense that finished in the bottom half of the nation last year. Thing is, their offense is good enough that the defense doesn't have to be great.

If the Hoos continue to run the same boring plays out of shotgun, giving the Notre Dame defenders easy reads, they aren't going to be successful. Notre Dame's interior DL is going to have a field day getting penetration into the backfield, but they aren't as fast pursuing as UCLA's defense was. So maybe some edge runs could be successful. Maybe a pitch play with Smoke getting some momentum going  ff-tackle.

If they can get some successful runs going, then the Notre Dame safeties are going to have to creep up, and the CBs are going to be keeping an eye in the backfield. This will open up play-action for Matt Johns. His WRs have big size advantages over Notre Dame's CBs. So instead of running the same screens and stop routes, maybe the Hoos could run some slants and jump balls. Routes that would use the size the Hoos WRs have. A guy like Andre Levrone should be able to get a clean release off the line, since he's got 30-40 pounds on the Irish DBs. This makes a quick slant a pretty easy throw to make. And maybe Levrone is able to break a tackle and turn it into a big play. (Doesn't have to be Levrone. Kyle Dockins is even bigger than Levrone. Severin isn't quite as big but he's long and has better hands.) Hey coach Fairchild, this isn't rocket science.

This isn't the game for Albert Reid to get 15 carries running into the middle of the line. There may be opportunities for that later in the year, especially if the Hoos OL is able to gel. Right now, there is a big disadvantage on the interior of the line of scrimmage for the Hoos. The trick for the offensive coaching staff is to scheme around that disadvantage. Pulling an OL for an off-tackle trap is one way to neutralize the ND interior OLs. Running some misdirection runs might slow down the penetration. We haven't seen any of this from the Hoos in quite some time.

Player to Watch

#9 LB Jaylon Smith - The leader of the Notre Dame defense, Smith is a do-everything LB. He can rush the passer (3.5 sacks last year), he can cover in the pass game (5 pass breakups and 2 INTs in his 2 years), and he can stop the run (179 tackles in 2 years).

He's 6'3" 235 pounds and runs in the low 4.5s. He's going to leave early after this year and he's going to be a top 10 draft pick. In the passing game, Matt Johns needs to be careful about throwing anything over the middle because Smith will be there. In the ground game, the Hoos need to be sure they get a body on Smith on any runs, even edge runs. He'll go sideline to sideline and make plays all over the field.

Perhaps most importantly, the Hoos need to be sure to protect the football when he's near, because Smith is very good at forcing fumbles.

Special Teams

Notre Dame's special teams haven't been all that great in the past few years. Considering the athletes they recruit, they haven't had very strong return games and their coverage teams have been below average. They've also had problems with FGs, but they believe they've solved that with true freshman Justin Yoon, a recruited PK from Nashville. He was 1-2 against Texas, missing from 45 yards out.

This is one week where special teams shouldn't be a problem for the Hoos. (Of course, having said that, we'll probably see a huge breakdown in special teams.)

Conclusion

For the 2nd week in a row, the Hoos are outmatched. Notre Dame, like UCLA, is better in the trenches, better at the skill positions, and better on the sidelines. In this case, though, the Hoos are at home. How much of an advantage is that? Enough that the line-makers in Vegas have Notre Dame as just 12.5 point favorites, after UCLA was 20 point favorites. UCLA might be better than Notre Dame. But they might not be.

The early forecast is for cool weather, with potential rain. Rain might help the Hoos, because it'll slow down Notre Dame, removing much of their advantage. However, it could also limit the crowd, which hurts the Hoos.

If the Hoos continue to play the same game they've been playing for the past couple of years, they are going to get crushed again. It is time to start game planning for specific opponents. Running out of the shotgun isn't going to work against Notre Dame because the interior of our OL is going to keep getting blown up. Throwing the same tired screen passes and flare passes to Smoke isn't going to work either because their safeties are too good.

Against Notre Dame's great OL, the Hoos can't continue to bring pressure on every passing downs. Because they simply aren't going to get there. This, in turn, means the DBs are playing soft coverage, and it means they are going to keep getting beat. In this game, Coach Tenuta needs to change his stripes and play some underneath zones. He needs to play some cover-2 and cover-3. An occasional blitz is more likely to work than all out blitzes on every passing down. And the Hoos LBs need to be fully engaged on stopping the run, especially the read option.

Despite the talent gap between these two teams, I think the Hoos can do well in this game. The Hoos generally play well at home, the weather may help them out, and the crowd should be a good one for the home opener. That said, I have little confidence in the coaching staff to create the correct game plan for this opponent. And even if I did, the talent gap is simply too much, especially at the skill positions.

The spread is only 12.5, which seems low.

Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Hoos 17