Oct. 7, 2016
By John Heisler
Irish head coach Brian Kelly's 2016 Notre Dame football team heads back on the road for the third of three straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference competition--Saturday in Raleigh against North Carolina State. Here are five things to watch as Carter-Finley Stadium celebrates its 50th anniversary:
1.The weather and the environment.
Hurricane Matthew doesn't appear to be headed toward Raleigh, so the worst of the weather likely will be rain--and maybe lots of it. The Irish have experience with that--having played in a downpour for much of the game at Clemson a year ago. Despite those conditions, the Irish gained 432 total yards against the Tigers, with DeShone Kizer throwing for 321 (only three yards short of his season high that came later that fall against Boston College). Meanwhile, NC State fans are toasting the 50th birthday of their stadium--and they did that by buying a school-record 36,000 season tickets for 2016. Veteran NC State observers suggest this marks the biggest Wolfpack home game since Ohio State played in Raleigh in 2004. In another interesting twist, NC State coach Dave Doeren sent an email this week to Wolfpack fans urging them to spend all four quarters of the game in their seats. NC State fans are allowed to leave the stadium at halftime to tailgate, and ABC announcers noted the many empty seats when the second half of a 2015 game against Clemson began.
2. Where does the Irish defense go from here?
Notre Dame's win against Syracuse at least permitted the Irish defense to effectively salve some of its wounds. Now, with new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson in place for multiple weeks of preparation and with head coach Brian Kelly continuing to leave his imprint on that unit, Notre Dame tries to take the next step against NC State. It won't be easy because the Wolfpack has been more than capable both running and throwing the football. Quarterback Ryan Finley has yet to throw an interception, and NC State ranks 38th nationally in rushing (208 yards per game). It's solid preparation for the Irish who face plenty of big-production running games on their remaining schedule (Army ranks 1st in that category at 374.8, Navy 14th at 251.5, Miami 24th at 232.5 and Virginia Tech 49th at 195.5).
3. More fun and more participation.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly last week promised lots more players involved on defense and more passion and emotion from all--and he delivered on that at the Meadowlands. That's what a victory will do for a team. Kelly and secondary coach Todd Lyght took players like freshman Tony Pride Jr. and sophomore Nicco Fertitta, who had hardly been factors so far in 2016, and made them critical cogs in the plan against Syracuse. That means there are a good number of Irish players with a bit more self-confidence in their hip pockets this week--and they'll need all they can get on the road against a balanced NC State offense that averages 40 points and 500-plus yards an outing.
4. Kizer and the offense are trending up.
It was only a single game, but it was a somewhat bizarre feeling to see the Irish throw for 471 yards last week against Syracuse, score 50 points, finish with 654 total yards--and have the Notre Dame offensive players and coaches feel like those numbers should have been significantly higher. What bugged Kizer and his mates? They had three possessions where they went three and out and then punted, including two in the third period after they had scored twice in a row and looked capable of putting the game away. The goal of the Notre Dame offense is to create a completely boring afternoon for punter Tyler Newsome.
5. Can the Irish buck the odds in the turnover category?
Notre Dame so far in 2016 has not been especially disruptive on defense. Though Brian Kelly likes the pressure and hurries his squad has produced, the numbers list the Irish 126th in team sacks (with two, both by linebacker Nyles Morgan) and 109th in turnover margin (four gained, eight lost). Meanwhile, NC State ranks among the best in the business in avoiding turnovers (only two all season), so one key for Notre Dame could well be whether or not the Irish can change that equation.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. Look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens against NC State as Brian Kelly's squad continues its 2016 season.