Notre Dame is off to a bit of a slow start, so are the vulnerable? I spoke with Patrick Sullivan of SB Nation’s One Foot Down to find out more.
1. The Irish have certainly struggled in the first two games, but they have survived. What did Florida State and Toledo do to keep it close?
In both games, Notre Dame’s struggles were really driven by two things: the Seminoles and Rockets exploiting this Irish team’s greatest weakness (the offensive line), and Marcus Freeman’s defensive scheme — which unlike former DC Clark Lea’s bend-don’t-break defense, is predicated on being more aggressive but also giving up some big plays.
Notre Dame lost 4 OL starters to the NFL from last season’s elite group, and thus began this season with a true freshman at LT (Blake Fisher). Fisher tore his meniscus in the first half against FSU and got replaced by Michael Carmody. Carmody was obviously a step down in terms of performance, and then he, too, got hurt against Toledo, meaning 3rd-string Tosh Baker had to play. Toledo’s defensive line, just like FSU’s the week prior, had a field day — the Rockets finished the game last weekend with SIX sacks, and the ‘Noles had five in the opener. The rest of the line has done next-to-nothing to help prop up the dire situation at left tackle, as even the guys with preseason All-America hype (Jarrett Patterson, Cain Madden) have not been very good (Madden has been downright bad, in fact). Add in that starting QB Jack Coan is not very mobile, and you’ve got an Irish offense that is 125th out of 130 in the nation in sacks allowed.
The other relevant note on that side of the ball is that FSU and Toledo bottled up the Irish running game and made the Irish pretty one-dimensional (less than 200 total rushing yards and 2.7 yards per carry so far this year), which again is a symptom of how bad this offensive line has been. The Irish running backs (Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, Chris Tyree) are the best they’ve probably ever been under Brian Kelly, but opportunities are incredibly limited when the entire line gets pushed backwards on most running plays.
Offensively, both FSU and Toledo have simply been able to take advantage of Freeman’s new defensive scheme and its glaring weaknesses, especially as the Irish keep losing depth at key positions like linebacker. Whether it’s the frequent 3-man front getting gashed by opposing running backs, or it’s Freeman’s defensive ends being asked to stand up and essentially play linebacker in coverage, or it’s ND’s questionable corners being asked to cover receivers on an island, the Irish have already managed to give up more plays of 60+ yards through two games than they did in 3 seasons under Clark Lea, with little else to really show for it, considering they’re 111th in the country in scoring defense, 104th in rushing defense, 62nd in pass defense, and 47th in team pass efficiency defense. The Irish have also struggled to consistently stop opponent drives, ranking 90th in the country in 3rd-down defense.
So, to sum all that up — pressuring Jack Coan and winning the line of scrimmage defensively, combined with connecting on some big plays offensively (and taking what Freeman’s defense gave them) went a long way toward Toledo and Florida State hanging around with an ND team that, on paper, should have crushed them both.
2. What is the status of Jack Coan after getting hurt Saturday, especially since he already has a comeback win over Purdue to his credit (2018).
I’ve seen no reports that he won’t be able to go (I believe he even is quoted as saying his finger is basically back to normal), so I think it’s safe to say that at worst he will have a taped-up finger but otherwise be 100%.
However, one call-out at QB is that no matter if Coan has any trouble with his finger or not, true freshman Tyler Buchner will probably make a few appearances again this week, similar to the Toledo game. It’s clear that with this Irish offensive line, it’s going to be crucial to Tommy Rees’s offense to at least occasionally involve a mobile QB who can evade the rush and who can add another running threat the defense has to respect, so despite Coan’s apparent full-go status, the Boilers will likely have to defend against two very different QBs on Saturday.
3. David Bell has been fantastic for Purdue so far. How does he match up with the Notre Dame secondary?
Short answer: for Purdue, he matches up quite well. For ND, it’s a nightmare.
Longer answer: the Irish secondary is basically All-World safety Kyle Hamilton (unreal size, speed, length, athleticism, instincts, etc.) and then a bunch of guys who are fine, but not super fast or super-lockdown in terms of their coverage abilities.
Toledo’s top receiver, Devin Maddox, went for 9 catches and 135 yards last weekend, including a 66-yarder. Florida State’s Ja’Khi Douglas had 3 receptions for 80 yards in the opener, including a 60-yard TD. In my opinion (and I think you guys will agree), David Bell is on another level when compared to those guys you likely haven’t even heard of, so I expect a number of big plays from Bell on Saturday despite the fact that he will absolutely be the focal point of Freeman’s strategy, especially with Zander Horvath out.
So, although having Hamilton on the back-end will help neutralize Bell a bit (or at least turn some sure-fire touchdowns into maybe just decent gains), the rest of the Irish secondary is ripe for Bell to pick on. The Irish’s best shot at preventing that from happening is going to have to come on the front end with the pass rush.
4. Purdue’s biggest weakness has been the offensive line. Can the Notre Dame front cause some trouble?
Yes, they absolutely can. Whereas the Irish defense has been disappointing overall, the one area where they thrive is getting into the backfield with their talented and very deep rotation of defensive linemen and wreaking havoc on opposing backfields — especially on passing downs.
The Irish rank 5th in the country in sacks and 6th in tackles for loss, led by guys like DE Isaiah Foskey (11 tackles, 3 sacks), DE Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble), and the Ademilola brothers, Jayson (10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 passes broken up) and Justin (8 tackles, 1.5 sacks). On top of those guys, there are a handful of very talented and promising rotation guys who have the ability to cause similar damage.
Notre Dame has not been nearly as good against the run as they usually are, but with Horvath out and Purdue’s o-line a weak link, I think the Irish will manage to contain the Boiler running game for the most part (although the awesomely-named King Doerue could break loose for a big run or two at some point) and get plenty of pressure on QB Jack Plummer. Doing so will be critical, in my opinion, to knock the ever-efficient and accurate Plummer off his game and make it harder to find guys like Bell and Payne Durham, even when they’re very open thanks to the ND secondary.
5. I know it was just UConn, but does Purdue have an advantage in having a nice restful blowout this week after Notre Dame had to struggle?
I think so, even if it’s just a minimal advantage. The Boilers won easily, got to rest starters, and have lots of confidence entering a game against a clearly very overrated top-15 ND team.
Meanwhile, the Irish are reeling, second-guessing everything from their starting offensive line to their defensive strategy to even who should start at QB going forward. Add that they have played two close and intense 3-point games where they had to win in the final minute/overtime, and considering how thin they are at some positions, Notre Dame has gotta be both mentally and physically exhausted at this point...which is an absolutely wild thing for me to be saying about them in Week 3 after having played Toledo and a team that lost to Jacksonville State. Woof.
6. What does Purdue need to do to pull the upset?
I think they should follow the blueprint laid out by FSU and Toledo, considering the Boilermakers are probably a tad more talented than those two teams and might be able to do the same things but actually hold on for the upset.
If the Purdue defensive line can win the match-up in the trenches with the ND offensive line (George Karlaftis and crew have a good chance of doing so), that means they’ll have managed to bottle up Bellyman and Tyree and have gotten to Coan early and often, not giving him time to find all the talented offensive weapons he has to throw to (and that Purdue WILL struggle to cover), like Michael Mayer, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Avery Davis.
On the other side of the ball, I think Purdue should go big with David Bell early and often (and also look for guys like Durham if the Irish double Bell), and if ND adjusts to try to take any and all passing offense away, they’ll probably be in a 3-man front that will be ripe for the Purdue running game to gash for some nice gains on the ground.
If the Boilermakers can string together enough big plays to swing momentum their way and score lots of points, along with just abusing the Irish offensive line, then it may just take them playing the Irish even or slightly better in terms of turnovers in order to walk out of South Bend with Jeff Brohm’s best win since the 2018 OSU game.