Welcome back, Canes fam. After a couple weeks off (sorry about that), we’re back with another opponent Q&A to get a view of this week’s opponent from behind enemy lines.
I returned the favor and answered questions for Patrick and OFD. Here it is:
Away we go:
Q1. Everybody in America knows that Notre Dame was 4-8 last year. What's changed between then and the 8-1 record the Irish have at current?
Patrick Sullivan (OFD): To put it simply, everything except the players.
Brian Kelly made sweeping changes to the program this off-season, from hiring a bunch of key staff members (defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, strength coach) to changing the culture in the locker room, to working on himself and how he goes about his business as head coach.
He hired Chip Long as offensive coordinator from Memphis and surrendered play-calling duties to him, which led to this new, run-powered offense that's been so dangerous all season.
He hired Mike Elko as defensive coordinator from Wake Forest, which led to this complete turnaround on defense, scrapping the way-too-complex Brian VanGorder defense and implementing simple, explainable schemes to the team so that they can go out and make plays with their talent without worrying about trying to figure out where they're supposed to be.
He hired strength coach Matt Balis, who has been instrumental in the team's ability to wear opponents down physically and generally stay healthy this season (KNOCK ON WOOD).
He named captains for the team in the spring, and reorganized the locker room based on player personalities to prevent cliques. He spent more time with his players and worked on mellowing himself out, even taking yoga lessons to help him with that.
Really, he took a step back, became less involved in the details on offense and defense, and focused more on the program as a whole, the culture created within it, and having the right assistants to help him run and maintain it.
When all this was happening in the off-season, I, like most Irish fans, was skeptical anything had truly changed and that Kelly could relinquish some control for the good of the program. I was, thankfully, very, very, very wrong. The result has been fantastic.
Q2. Notre Dame's run game is one of the best in America. Was this expected coming into the season, or has this development caught everyone by surprise?
OFD: A little bit of both, actually. ND fans knew the Irish had a very good offensive line, especially on the left side with LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey. And we knew Notre Dame had a lot of talent at running back, as Josh Adams and Dexter Williams had already put their talents on display at least a few times over the past couple seasons.
Nevertheless, we had seen very little from Brandon Wimbush, since he was always stuck behind DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire on the depth chart. We knew he was very athletic, but had no idea he would be this good running the football and running the offense overall (we could have guessed based on his lofty recruiting ratings, but that's about it).
Even more surprising was how much Chip Long focused the offense on the run and played to the unit's strength, as we had seen Brian Kelly offenses stubbornly stick to passing despite having the personnel to run a smash-mouth offense. That plus the clear strength and conditioning gains under Balis have been a joy to watch, as this offensive line and backfield just keep punching opponents in the mouth until the opponents have had enough, mentally and physically breaking to the tune of 60+ yard touchdowns from Josh Adams.
So, we always believed we had the talent to have a rushing offense like this, but never imagined everything would come together to make it happen. It's been a revelation.
Q3. Talk about Josh Adams.
OFD: I think he's one of the most underrated players in the country, even with the Heisman hype he's started to receive. He's a 6'2", 225-pound running back who has the brute strength to average ~6 yards after contact, and the 2nd gear and breakaway speed to lead the country in runs over 60 yards (7). He rarely fails to gain positive yards, and if he's given even a sliver of space (which happens most of the time with how the ND offensive line has been playing), he will absolutely make the defense pay.
On top of all of that, he seems like a very nice, intelligent, hardworking kid. He was named a captain as a junior, which does not happen too often, and is just incredibly easy to root for out there.
ND has a full stable of talented running backs behind him, and the offensive line has been absolutely stupendous, but it's safe to say this Irish offense would not be nearly as dominant or explosive if not for Josh Adams. He deserves an invitation to New York, and I think he'll get one if he stays healthy the next few weeks.
Q4. QB Brandon Wimbush was a highly rated recruit a couple years ago. What are the strongest and weakest parts of the Junior's game?
OFD: This won't be telling you too much you couldn't glean from his stats, but Brandon Wimbush's strength is absolutely his legs, and his weakness is his accuracy throwing the football.
Notre Dame hasn't had a QB this dangerous on the ground since probably Tony Rice, as he's got a fantastic combination of athleticism, shiftiness, and straight-line speed that allows him to juke defenders out of their shoes, beat them to the corner in the red zone, and escape dangerous pass rush situations and create positive plays for the offense.
Throwing the ball, he's got a cannon for an arm and is capable of making just about any throw. The problem is that he isn't always accurate, and has oftentimes over- or under-thrown teammates on deep balls, missed guys on quick passes in the flat, etc. He hasn't turned the ball over too much, so throwing a bunch of interceptions doesn't seem likely, but he's always at risk of killing a drive's momentum by stringing together a few incomplete passes. If Miami can keep him in the pocket while also applying good pressure, that's their best bet to make him make mistakes.
Q5. Miami's obviously going to try to take away ND's run game and make the Irish beat them with the pass. Who are some players that could challenge the Canes' secondary in the passing game?
OFD: There are really three receivers Miami needs to worry about. Equanimeous St. Brown is the #1 receiver for the Irish, although he's been incredibly quiet this season. However, he's got excellent hands and enough speed and length to always be dangerous, and Wimbush still sees him as one of his go-targets in big moments.
Chase Claypool is a sophomore who's exploded in the past few games (especially against Wake Forest -- 9 rec, 180 yds, 1 TD), and is a matchup nightmare for most corners. He's 6'4" and has a TE-esque body but runs like a receiver. He has occasional lapses in focus in terms of catching the ball, but his physical tools are sensational and he's a great deep ball target for Wimbush because he's able to go up and get the ball better than anyone on the team.
Third, Kevin Stepherson is a sophomore receiver who had an excellent year as a freshman, but who was suspended for the first 4 games of this season. He's finally started to get back into the swing of things, though, and has made a handful of big plays in the past three games. He's another constant deep threat with his speed, and offensive coordinator Chip Long also likes to give him a couple jet sweeps per game to utilize his speed out in space.
Besides those three, I'd say watch out for Durham Smythe and Alize Mack, a couple tight ends with size and athleticism who are big, fairly reliable targets for Wimbush.
Q6. While the offense is getting headlines, ND's Defense is strong. Who are the leaders/players to know on that side of the ball?
OFD: Jerry Tillery is a monster DT who makes several plays a game that you wouldn't expect from a DT. Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara are sophomore DEs with all the speed and athleticism you'd want at that position, and will certainly be bringing the heat Saturday. Julian Love has been an absolute standout at corner (3rd in the country in passes defended, 4th in pass breakups, 1st in interception return yardage), and nickelback Shaun Crawford is just constantly making big plays (2 INT, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 FR, 5 PBU).
The key group to watch, though, is certainly the linebacking corps. Nyles Morgan, Te'von Coney, Greer Martini, and "Rover" Drue Tranquill are the collective heart and soul of Mike Elko's defense (3 of the 4 are team captains), and account for ~40% of the team's tackles each game. They're all fast, athletic, and physical, supplying devastating hits to ball carriers on a consistent basis.
If the Hurricanes can get some blockers on them and prevent them from getting into the backfield, they will have success. Those are the 4 that Miami needs to try to stop/contain if they want to have a big day offensively.
Q7. What is ND's biggest weakness on Defense that Miami can exploit?
OFD: I think it's the ND secondary, although it's hard to say that considering they've played pretty damn well overall this season. Specifically, I'd say it's the mix of the cushion they usually give up on the outside (so as not to give up the deep ball) and the safeties' ability to help over the top on longer passes, as they (Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott) haven't been challenged much in that regard this season.
If I'm Miami, I try to engineer methodical drives on short passes to exploit that cushion, with the occasional double move to hopefully catch the safeties cheating up so we can connect on a big-play deep ball. Also, I'd throw away from wherever Julian Love is, and instead pick on sophomore corner Troy Pride Jr. if he's out there, or take senior corner Nick Watkins deep, as he struggled a bit with making a play on the ball on longer throws earlier this year.
Q8. Miami has been great at forcing turnovers this year, but so has Notre Dame. How have the Irish been able to take the ball away from their opponents?
OFD: It's been a focus all year by Elko and his squad to make plays on the ball, and they've been able to do it with a combination of great young talent and superb preparation. You'll listen to players' interviews after games and see guys like Julian Love saying his pick six came about because they practiced defending that exact play during the week, or Shaun Crawford saying they were informed about a running back's fumbling issues and so that's why he went for the strip.
ND has a lot of great athletes out there (Tillery, Hayes, Okwara, Crawford, Love, and Coney, to name the most impressive ones), but Mike Elko and his staff have been the major difference in putting the players in a position to take the ball away from opponents.
Q9. Special teams gets little love, but has a huge impact on the games. Who in the kicking and return games could have an impact on Saturday's game?
OFD: The Notre Dame punt return game is a non-factor, as PR Chris Finke is a small, not-particularly-fast former walk-on who is back there because he's extremely sure-handed and will be able to ensure the offense gets the ball.
On kick returns, CJ Sanders is the main returner, and is always a threat to take it to the house (3 KR TD, 1 PR TD in his career). However, he hasn't done it yet this season, so you could either take that as a sign it won't happen this year, or that he's incredibly due. He had a 50+ yard return last week against Wake Forest, so I personally think it's only a matter of time until he breaks one. On the road in a College Gameday game against a top-10 Miami team would be a nice time to do it!
Kicking-wise, Notre Dame PK Justin Yoon is solid but not spectacular. He will reliably make short kicks and usually make intermediate ones. He hasn't shown the combination of leg power and accuracy to be someone ND fans are confident in from deep. Punter Tyler Newsome is hit-or-miss. He's had punts that are booming, gorgeous things with lots of hang time and get downed at the 2-yardline, and others that he simply misses on and don't flip the field at all. I don't see him or Yoon being the difference in this one, but they're good enough to come up big and surprise people.
Q10. I'm going to be honest: I find Brian Kelly to be a reprehensible person (RIP Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg, I'll never forget or forgive). How do ND fans feel about their coach?
OFD: Pretty mixed reviews. Before this season, the majority opinion was probably that Kelly needed to be fired. He wasn't winning enough and he acted like a jerk on numerous occasions, so he was pretty easy to vilify (I was certainly someone calling for his head).
He made sweeping changes to how he approached managing the program, though, and those changes actually paid off. The team is kicking ass, he's not exploding on kids on the sideline anymore, and besides the Georgia post game press conference, he just seems to have become calmer and more likable (I'm sure winning is the biggest reason for that, but still).
I do admit that his success this year doesn't change some of the issues I still had with him. The Declan Sullivan thing is disgraceful at best, both for Kelly and for Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. That that was allowed to happen under their watch, and basically no one was held accountable for it, is maddening. [editorial note: I added the Lizzy Seeberg statement to the question after Patrick had sent me his responses. That is why he didn’t address that in this response]
Kelly has also, in his tenure, had an academic scandal lead to the vacating of more than a season of games, tossed numerous players under the bus in a public fashion, gone purple screaming on the sideline, aggressively shoved a member of his staff on the sideline, and been the driving force behind a number of changes to the program and its traditions, for better or worse (some definitely think for worse).
People don't like changes to something as timeless and tradition-focused as Notre Dame football, so those didn't go over super smoothly -- even the changes that were for the better. Plus, if you aren't winning at a Nick Saban level, being a jerk and having wins taken away for academic sanctions at a school that talks about its academics so much will certainly look bad.
I'm still not the biggest fan of Brian Kelly, but I do like that he scrapped everything he knew from 30+ years of coaching experience and admitted he needed to change everything to be successful. I appreciate that willingness to change, and hope he continues to improve himself and his program to the point where we can feel like we do now about the team and its coach, all the time.
Q11. What would a berth in the College Football Playoff mean for Notre Dame Football?
OFD: It would be huge in validating that an independent Catholic university in northern Indiana can still compete with the best of the best in college football.
However, we were saying the same thing in 2012, and just making it to the championship didn't change the shellacking Alabama handed the Irish and the ridicule and mediocrity the program has endured since then. Making the CFP would be huge for this program, especially after a 4-8 season, but I don't think Irish fans will feel satisfied without a really good showing in that Playoff. Just being there won't cut it.
Q12. Miami wreaks havoc on the defensive front, and can score on any offensive play with their explosiveness. Which of those 2 things most concerns you heading into Saturday's game?
OFD: The offense's explosiveness, for sure. At this point, having dominated defenses like Michigan State and NC State, I'm not worried about the Notre Dame offense getting its fair share of points. The only defense that's been able to slow the Irish down was Georgia, and not only do I not think Miami's defense is up to par with the Bulldogs, but that Georgia game was also in Week 2, before the Notre Dame offense began to really fire on all cylinders and throttle people.
The ND defense, on the other hand, seemed very stout until last weekend, when Wake Forest managed to score 37 points, including scoring on 4 straight possessions in the second half. Miami has much more talent than Wake, so if the ND defense isn't mentally prepared, Miami could do the same type of thing, and have enough defense to make it a closer game than Wake Forest, if not win.
Q13. I know many, MANY ND fans will travel to South Florida for this week's game. Other than the weather, what do you think they're most looking forward to experiencing while here?
OFD: Probably playing a game in Miami that isn't a 42-14 blowout loss that rips our souls in half.
I guess that outcome is technically possible, but I don't see Miami blowing Notre Dame out on Saturday. So, it'll be nice for Irish fans to have another awesome trip to South Beach that doesn't end with utter embarrassment. It could still be a huge disappointment if the Irish lose, but almost anything would beat the complete despair that the 2012 National Championship engendered in all of us ND fans.
Otherwise, it's the weather and the beach! South Bend isn't very lovely in November, so Miami is a very nice change of pace and just being in that atmosphere has to be the number one thing ND fans are looking forward to (besides hopefully picking up a Top-10 win).
Q14. Prediction time: how does the game play out and who wins? (include a score)
OFD: Early on, I think Miami's athleticism and explosiveness will be fairly effective, as the Hurricanes will keep pace with the Irish offense and maybe even force an early turnover or two.
The ND offense will be too much to completely shut down, though, and so I think this game is close up until the 4th quarter, when I expect Notre Dame to get a stop/takeaway on D and then mount a final scoring drive full of physical, emphatic Josh Adams runs that ends with a touchdown, clinching the big road victory.
Notre Dame 42, Miami 31
Thanks to Patrick for joining us in the opponent Q&A this week. You can read his work, and the work of other talented writers, over at One Foot Down.