Last week, the Hurricanes were playing for control of the ACC Coastal. This week, they’re looking for another statement win to bolster their playoff resume. The game serves as another installment in the ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ rivalry between the Miami Hurricanes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In a battle between a couple top-10 teams littered with NFL talent, State of the U examines some of the key matchups for another primetime showdown.
One vs. One Matchup
Miami DT RJ McIntosh (six-foot-four, 293 pounds) vs. Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson (six-foot-five, 330 pounds)
If you see a puddle of drool in your vicinity on Saturday, the source of which will probably be from an NFL scout when two of the brightest NFL prospects go head-to-head.
Quenton Nelson is viewed as the best prospect at guard for the 2018 NFL Draft, but could be the best offensive line prospect as well. Noted for his impressive footwork, Herculean strength and lauded for being a technician at the position, Nelson has uprooted defenders all season. While mild-mannered off the field, Nelson is a relentless blocker who creates holes in the running game. Add the fact that Nelson has a heavy anchor when he kicks back to pass block, and it will be a long day for his opposition Saturday night.
Working in RJ McIntosh’s favour is familiarity with Notre Dame’s offensive line, specifically lining up across from Nelson a season ago. The majority of Miami’s defensive line were either starters or contributors in 2016 when the Hurricanes travelled to South Bend, Indiana. McIntosh had a five-tackle performance in his first matchup with Nelson. What makes this matchup all the more intriguing is that McIntosh, who was good last season, has taken his game to a higher level this season. His good burst ability to get clear of blockers has aided him in securing two sacks and six tackles for loss this season. When McIntosh and Nelson meet in the trenches for a rematch, we’ll be seeing a couple of future pros battle it out with serious stakes on the line.
Miami DE Joe Jackson (six-foot-five, 258 pounds) vs. Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey (six-foot-eight, 315 pounds)
Similar to McIntosh, Joe Jackson will line up against a familiar foe on Saturday. A couple of weeks ago, Jackson was the hero late game against North Carolina, stripping RB Jordan Brown to give the Hurricanes the ball, sealing the win at Chapel Hill. Jackson’s three-and-a-half sacks on the season and his seven-and-a-half tackles for loss have helped Miami’s defensive line continue to make quarterbacks uneasy when they see the U on the game plan for the week.
Not to be overshadowed, Mike McGlinchey is just as touted as the guy he lines up beside–Nelson. McGlinchey could have left for the NFL last season, yet felt that he was not ready for that next step. It appears that he made the right decision, as the tandem of McGlinchey and Nelson on the left side of the Irish offensive line has many declaring the offensive line unit as the best in the nation. It’s no shock to see McGlinchey reach the second level of defenses, wrestling with linebackers or pulling to de-cleat a defensive lineman on power run plays. The key to a Miami victory very well could come down to the Hurricanes’ ability to beat the bullies on the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line, instead of becoming their latest victims.
Notre Dame’s Running Game vs. Miami’s Front-seven
The biggest difference in the year’s matchup in comparison to the 2017 game is the running ability of both quarterbacks. Former quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Brad Kaaya were excellent passers, yet not fleet of foot in the 2016 matchup. This time around, the Hurricanes’ defense will have to respect the running ability of QB Brandon Wimbush, who is not quite the passer that his predecessor was. Yet his 639 rushing yards, team-leading 13 touchdowns and his 6.3 yards-per-run average are more than a threat to a defense—it’s an outright challenge to opposing defenses, a “We dare you to stop us, but we don’t think you can” statement. Notre Dame leads all FBS programs with seven yards-per-carry on average. The Irish offensive line also paves the way for the second-most rushing touchdowns in the FBS with 34.
As much love as the ‘Turnover Chain’ receives, Miami’s front-seven defenders have continued to make a name for themselves by causing chaos in opposing backfields. In the last three games, the Hurricanes have 11 sacks, as well as accounting for 27 tackles for loss. Miami’s first and second levels of defense will be tasked with limiting the Irish on the ground. The Hurricanes are susceptible to giving up the odd big run of 20 or more yards, despite the ‘Canes defense allowing an average of just 3.9 yards-per-carry and having given up only four rushing touchdowns all season. It appears that someone’s pride will take a punch to the gut when the game clock strikes zero.
ProCanes Players to Watch
Because of the stellar play along the offensive line, Notre Dame has a legitimate Heisman contender in RB Josh Adams. Some will attribute much of his success to the guys blocking for him, which is fair if you’ve seen the holes that Adams navigates through. However, when a player rushes for 1,1191 yards and nine touchdowns with a 8.6 yards-per-rush average, you can understand why people are campaigning for Adams with a ‘Trucking 33’ slogan in a bid to win the Heisman Trophy. Adams won’t wow you with an array of jukes or cuts—he’s a north-south runner who plows forward on defenses for yards.
While the offense for the Irish gets plenty of praise, there’s not as much love for the defense. However, Notre Dame has sophomore cornerback Julian Love, who has been a pain for opposing offense this season. Love has 14 pass breakups and three interceptions, both of which went for touchdowns. The five-foot-eleven, 193 pound cornerback has become one of the premier defenders on the Irish line.
One defender returning back to his old Florida stomping grounds is LB Te’Von Coney. A Palm Beach product who has come on strong this season, Coney leads the Irish with 74 total tackles and eight-and-a-half tackles for loss. Coney is second on the team with three sacks as well.
It feels like safety Jaquan Johnson is having one of the best under-the-radar seasons for the Hurricanes that hardly anyone is discussing, at least before last weekend. While there has been fluctuation and miscommunication in the secondary, Johnson constantly shines in his role as the last line of defense. Johnson leads the team in tackles for with 58, has two interceptions and three pass breakups. Because of the versatility of Notre Dame’s offense, you have to honor the deep pass as much as you want to creep towards the line of scrimmage to help with run support. The Irish produced 26 pass plays that have exceeded 20 yards or more and just 11 passes that have exceeded 30 or more yards. Miami’s defense has given up 18 passes of 20 yards or more and 7 plays of 30 yards or more.
On offense, I’m not sure that we are seeing a healthy Ahmmon Richards. Whatever the issue, ‘Canes fans want to see Richards leap over Irish defenders like he did the last time the teams met. However, they would be content with Richards continuing to help move the chains on third down and drawing coverage to his side of the field to open up space for teammates. Richards has 17 receptions, 341 receiving yards and one touchdown. Other receivers have stepped up throughout the season, yet Miami is going to need A.R. #82 to unleash his inner Beast Mode to help them down the stretch.
Nothing is automatic in the game of football. The closest thing to being so might just be when Notre Dame gets into the redzone. The Irish have converted 36 of 39 trips with a score, with 31 of those resulting in a touchdown. With Brandon Wimbush posing a legitimate dual-threat, Miami has allowed 24 of 29 conversions in the red zone, with 11 touchdowns and 13 field goals as a result. Ideally, the ‘Canes prevent the Irish from getting into the red zone; but in case the worst does happen, here's hoping that Miami forces K Justin Yoon to kick for three points as opposed to kicking for one.
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!