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Observer Roundtable: Notre Dame’s toughest games, X-factors in 2021

, , , and | Friday, August 20, 2021

The 2021 football season is almost here for Notre Dame, and with a tough but winnable schedule ahead, they’ve got their eyes on a third unbeaten season in four years. Can the Irish pull it off? Today, the Observer’s football beat writers came together to identify their biggest concerns for the upcoming season, along with X-Factors on both sides of the ball. 

Toughest Home and Away Games

Nate Moller: Cincinnati, Florida State

Although the Cincy game might not have the hype that the USC and UNC night games will have, I think the Bearcats are the most dangerous team the Irish will face. The Bearcats return Desmond Ridder at quarterback, who had a sensational 2020 season with nearly 2,300 passing yards and 600 rushing yards. I expect Ridder’s dual-threat ability to challenge the Irish defense and make this a very competitive game. 

I don’t think the Seminoles are the most talented road team the Irish will face this season, but because the game is the opener, it scares me. There are lots of unknowns surrounding the Seminoles with Mckenzie Milton starting at quarterback for the first time since his gruesome injury a couple of years ago. The atmosphere at Doak Campbell will surely be electric and if the Irish are caught off guard in this one, they could be in trouble.

Mannion McGinley: USC, Florida State

The toughest home game on paper may be the UNC game. However, I am never thrilled with how we play in the game after the bye week. I’m even less this year now that we play USC that weekend. The Irish ride well off the high from a win the week before. But without a game, they are going to have to be acutely aware of USC’s defensive weapons. This includes defensive lineman Nick Figueroa who accumulated 20 tackles, seven for loss and 3.5 sacks throughout the 2020 season. They will also have to watch out for outside linebacker Drake Jackson and cornerback Chris Steele. 

The Trojans are the ones who have to travel though. If we’re coming off a bye week at least it’ll be at home. On the flip, if the Irish aren’t in the right headspace, the game may be closer than anyone would hope. 

The most stressful away game is going to be the first game of the season against FSU. Even if that isn’t the case statistically, I dictated this one on personal nerves alone. 

The Irish offense is new in so many ways. From roster additions to key players returning after an injury, there are quite a few moving pieces. Once they get their feet set under them it should be a fairly functional season (knock on all the wood and fingers crossed) but until then I’ll be peaking through my hands to watch the game. 

Emily DeFazio: UNC, Wisconsin

UNC is a game to watch for the Irish. While Notre Dame came out on top in the 2020 season, they are entering this matchup after an intense five-game run against some of the more formidable opponents of their schedule — especially against the rival Trojans the week before — which can make this matchup cause for some concern. On the road, Wisconsin looks to be one of the toughest matchups. Especially now that former Badger Jack Coan has been named the starter, Wisconsin can come into this game with a chip on their shoulder that can give them the push they need to take down the Irish.

Colin Capece: UNC, Wisconsin

The final matchup in a brutal five-game stretch for the Irish which includes four top 15 opponents is at home against No. 10 North Carolina. The Tar Heels no doubt remember playing Notre Dame tough last year in Chapel Hill before eventually getting worn down in the trenches. Potential top-five pick Sam Howell won’t be intimidated by Notre Dame Stadium, and with a relatively easy ACC schedule ahead of Oct. 30, North Carolina will be fresh and looking for revenge against the Irish.

While Soldier Field will likely be packed with Notre Dame fans, the Irish will be the road team against Wisconsin in Chicago on Sept. 25. The Badgers’ defense is no joke, as eight starters return this year from a unit that allowed just 17 points a game in 2020. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz flashed his potential with five passing touchdowns in his first career start and finished with the third-highest passer rating in school history after testing positive for COVID early in the year. He could cement his place as one of the nation’s best young signal-callers with an impressive performance against the Irish. Notre Dame will be tested in this one despite playing in their own backyard.

Aidan Thomas: USC, Virginia Tech
At home, this rivalry game is a clear answer for the toughest contest. A fairly average USC team pushed Notre Dame’s 10-2 squad two years ago, and they figure to be way tougher with a seasoned Kedon Slovis under center. Notre Dame is historically rusty off a bye, and it’s worth considering that this game is at the end of Notre Dame’s Fall Break, which could lead to less of a student presence and home-field advantage for the Irish. 

Ever heard of the trap game? Most have, but how about the trap game following the trap game? If the Irish can escape a potential top-10 Group of 5 opponent in Cincinnati, they have just one game separating them from their bye. That game is at Virginia Tech, which is a sneakily tough road atmosphere. Combine that with the fact that the Hokies nearly sprung the upset against the Irish in 2019 in South Bend, and I’m highly concerned about this sneaky road game leading up to Notre Dame’s bye week. 

Biggest Trap Game

Nate Moller: Purdue

The Irish should dominate the Boilermakers in all aspects of this game, but the history of this rivalry and the upcoming schedule will make this a potential trap game for the Irish. With the Irish traveling to Soldier Field to face the Badgers the week after this game and then continuing on with the hardest part of their schedule after that, I expect the Irish to overlook the Boilermakers. Games between these two teams have been competitive lately as well with eight of the nine last matchups being decided by less than double digits. In fact, the last time the Irish played the Boilermakers in 2013, the Irish won by only a touchdown despite being three-touchdown favorites. This game will be the biggest of the year for Purdue, and they will be playing with a chip on their shoulder as they try to spoil the Irish’s season.

Mannion McGinley: Cincinnati

Again, the mental game is sometimes the hardest part for the Fighting Irish. And there isn’t a bigger mental trap than the Cincinnati game. They’re a team that’s on the up and up so they’re not a well-established threat. Despite coach warnings, the Irish may not feel like they have to prepare for Cincy in any extra way. Especially since Kelly used to work there, there’s space for a sense of comfort to easily creep in. It absolutely does not belong anywhere near that game though.

Being a team on the rise lights a fire under you. Because of that, I would expect the Cincinnati guys to bring everything they have. That energy will turn a spark into a flame. The Irish have to be careful to contain it and do so quickly. 

Emily DeFazio: Wisconsin

Wisconsin can be an early upset for the Irish if they let them. Quarterback Graham Mertz started all seven games in 2020 and got a few school records under his belt along the way. Pair his playmaking abilities and a strong Badger defense with the fact this matchup comes towards the beginning of the season when the kinks are just starting to be ironed out —especially with the Irish O-line — and you have a game that can easily be the biggest trap of the season.

Colin Capece: Virginia Tech

The one that stands out is the Oct. 9 trip to Virginia Tech. That game sits in the middle of Notre Dame’s midseason gauntlet. The Irish could enter that game riding wins against Wisconsin and Cincinnati yet looking ahead to a bye week followed by home games with USC and North Carolina. Blacksburg is never an easy place to play, and the Irish can’t overlook this game against a Hokies defense that forced 15 turnovers in 11 games last season.

Aidan Thomas: Virginia

I could answer Virginia Tech for the reasons I listed in my first response. But I’m going with this road clash in Charlottesville as the biggest trap game for the Irish. Should Notre Dame escape the brutal part of their schedule, they will have consecutive primetime wins against USC and UNC. That leaves this game against Virginia separating them from cupcake games against Navy and Georgia Tech. The last time the Irish went to Charlottesville, they needed a final-minute Hail Mary to escape victorious. Brennan Armstrong is a very good quarterback. Additionally, Virginia has given the Irish problems in the past, so I’m worried about this one. 

Offensive and Defensive X-Factor for the Irish’s success 

Nate Moller: Jack Coan, Tariq Bracy

This is the simple answer, but it is true. The offense’s success hinges on the abilities of Jack Coan this season. While some players will need to step up at the wide receiver and offensive line positions as well, Coan will have to prove he can effectively manage and command the offense this season. Coan proved to be a big-time playmaker at Wisconsin two years ago, but there are a lot of question marks about what he can do after not playing last year. If Coan is able to find his groove and be as good a quarterback as he was at Wisconsin, the Irish are likely a CFP contender. If he plays rusty and struggles, though, the Irish could see their CFP hopes vanish in the beginning of the season.

The secondary is arguably the biggest concern for the Irish on the season. Bracy started at cornerback for the Irish most of the year last season. He lost his starting spot, though, after getting torched in the North Carolina game. With a lack of depth in the secondary this year, the Irish will almost certainly depend on Bracy this year, and he will have to be better if the Irish are going to find success in the secondary. It sounds like Bracy has shown some promise at the nickel position in camp so far, and whether he is there or at cornerback, the Irish will need Bracy to be successful against the plethora of top-tier college quarterbacks that the Irish are set to face this season.

Mannion McGinley: Kyren Williams/Chris Tyree, Kyle Hamilton

On offense, the running back tandem will be a major weapon. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have both become incredibly reliable. Williams has a power that the Irish haven’t seen the same way since Josh Adams. But, he’s also got a great blocking capability within his position that allows him to make space for Tyree. He builds a sound time-bubble for Coan as well. 

On defense, Kyle Hamilton will be a powerhouse. The junior has already made a name for himself within the roster. In two years of play, he has 104 tackles, 5.5 of them for a loss. Additionally, he’s defended 17 passes, had 5 interceptions and a touchdown. I mean he is everywhere on that field. I almost hope there will be someone who outshines him because then the Irish defense would be killer. But from where I’m standing, one name will be a standout force on the defensive end, and that’s Kyle Hamilton. 

Emily DeFazio: Kyren Williams/Chris Tyree, Kyle Hamilton

The running backs will be offensive linchpins, namely Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. The two combined for just over 1600 rushing yards in 2020. Their streak of vital contributions shouldn’t change with the 2021 season. Defensively, safety Kyle Hamilton remains a key component. I expect him to be a leader on defense and have a stellar year that will propel the Irish towards a potential postseason showing.

Colin Capece: Kevin Austin, Isaiah Foskey/Justin Ademilola

To no one’s surprise, the Irish will be a run-first team in 2021.  Especially when the run operates behind the dynamic one-two punch of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. But to utilize play-action and avoid becoming too predictable on offense, there needs to be a reliable downfield threat. Enter senior Kevin Austin Jr., who never bounced back from a foot injury suffered in camp last year. When he’s healthy, Austin has the kind of speed and size to stretch the field the way Javon McKinley did for this offense last year. The Irish ground game will watch opposing defenses stack the box if Austin or someone else on the roster can’t emerge as an effective target.

After losing both starting defensive ends to the NFL draft for the second year in a row, Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola have to become reliable edge rushers for the Irish. With a largely inexperienced secondary returning just one starter in Tariq Bracy, the Irish have to pressure the quarterback to avoid getting picked apart in the passing game. Foskey and Ademilola were effective on the field in 2020, but the depth at defensive end is also lacking. Pressure off the edge needs to come from these two if it’s going to come at all.  

Aidan Thomas: George Takacs, Drew White 

When thinking of Irish offensive success in 2020, a lot of it centered around tight end Tommy Tremble. His pass-blocking and path-making prowess were exceptional, and the Irish need to replace it quickly. Notre Dame wants Michael Mayer to be a pass-catching playmaker. So, Takacs is the likely option to be the linchpin in the running game. 

Drew White is the leader of a deep linebacker corps that must replace the dynamic Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. If White can be dynamic against the run and pass, it solidifies what Notre Dame can do defensively. 

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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About Colin Capece

Colin is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in political science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He hails from the great state of New York and currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer for the 2021-2022 academic year. You can sometimes find him on Twitter at @ColinCapeceND

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About Emily DeFazio

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

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About Mannion McGinley

Mannion McGinley is a class of 2023 American Studies and Sociology major with a Journalism minor. She is a member of the Glynn Family Honors program and is Sports Department Editor at The Observer.

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