Irish, Wolfpack pit strength against strength
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, October 27, 2017
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Notre Dame’s (6-1) rushing attack has inarguably been among the best in the nation this year. Led by junior running back Josh Adams and a team of elite offensive linemen, the Irish have rushed for 317.9 yards per game, good for sixth in the nation.
But against North Carolina State (6-1, 4-0 ACC), that may not be so easy.
The Wolfpack have allowed a mere 91.3 yards per game on the ground this year, which — as it happens — also ranks them sixth in the nation.
The Wolfpack front seven now has a chance to prove itself against the most prolific rushing offense they will have faced all year. Adams said he understands the challenge he’s going against, but believes the Irish ground attack can come out on top as long as they keep to their own game.
“They have a lot of energy on the defensive side of things,” Adams said. “They fly around. They’re pretty sure tacklers. But again, none of that is really too much of a concern for us because it’s more important of focusing on our side of things. Although we had a great game last week, it wasn’t a perfect game. And that’s something that we’re still chasing as a team is trying to have that perfect game.
“So as an offense, we’re going to do better on things that we may have lacked, and we’re going to try to build on things that we have some success on. So we’re constantly trying to get better and improve as an offense and we’re going to continue to do that throughout practice.”
Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren expressed a similar sentiment about his own team playing their game against the Irish rushing attack, and had praise specifically for the way Irish head coach Brian Kelly drastically changed the Irish offense to play to the strengths of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
“We just line up, whoever they put on the schedule, we’re going to give them everything we’ve got,” Doeren said. “As far as what are they doing better than last year, they’re running the football and they believe in running the football. A year ago they were more of a passing football team with Kizer at quarterback. I think [Kelly’s] using his personnel well. I think he’s got an excellent offensive line and a big running back and big tight ends. What they’re doing really fits their personnel, and they’re doing it well and they believe in it.”
But the run game isn’t the only place where the strengths of the Irish and Wolfpack line up. On the other side of the ball, the Irish have forced 17 turnovers this year, placing the Irish in the top 10 in the nation in takeaways per game. But this week, they will face a quarterback who has yet to throw an interception this season in Ryan Finley, whose streak of passes without being picked off totals 313 and stretches back to a contest against Miami last season. The Wolfpack have only turned the ball over a total of three times, the least in the nation. Kelly said Finley’s ability to avoid mistakes makes him an excellent leader of the Wolfpack attack. Even if he isn’t known for making the biggest plays.
“I think the best way to talk about them is starting with their quarterback,” Kelly said. “No interceptions on the season, hasn’t thrown an interception I think since Miami of last year. Finley is very smart, knows the system, a veteran quarterback. He knows exactly what his offensive coordinator wants from him. Just does a really good job of taking care of the football. Very smart.
“They do a great job of holding onto the football, sustaining drives and scoring. I think they average 3.2 points per possession, which is really, really good. So they’ve got a number of weapons on offense.”
If those similarities in strengths weren’t enough, the Wolfpack bring one more. While Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill has been integral to the Irish defense in the Rover role, combining safety and linebacker roles to impact the game in a variety of different manners, the Wolfpack bring a rare matchup problem in H-Back Jaylen Samuels. Samuels is second on the Wolfpack with 453 receiving yards and is tied for first in the team in receiving touchdowns with three, but has also been a rushing threat, especially around the goal-line. Samuels has scored 7 rushing touchdowns this year on just 31 attempts, as well as running for 191 yards. Tranquill said it can be extremely difficult to prepare before the snap when a player has Samuels’ versatility.
“He’ll do everything,” Tranquill said. “He’ll line up in slot, line up receiver line up in the backfield. I think he allows him to do a lot of things in terms of the trades, the motions the getting in different formations. He’s definitely a challenge. He’s everything we talk about in terms of gritty in terms of being a gritty football player. He makes plays happen for the offense and provides a dynamic aspect to them.
“I think when you can line a player up in multiple different spots on the field and create mismatches, you know, he’s a guy who maybe is slightly undersized at the tight end position but has the speed, the agility to be a mismatch on your interior linebackers. So when you can line them up at 3 and teams don’t necessarily know: Do we call this 11 personnel, do we call this 10 personnel how do we best match our personnel on the field? So they can put him in there and he can still block and they can still run the ball, but they can also get an aerial attack and attack you downfield. So it just creates mismatches, I think.”