For the second week in a row, one of college football’s must-see matchups takes place in South Bend, as Notre Dame hosts NC State on Saturday afternoon in a key game for positioning in the top 25. Both teams enter the Week 9 contest with only one loss and another defeat would mean elimination in the race to earn a CFB Playoff spot.
This trip to South Bend is part of a key two-game stretch for NC State. The Wolfpack host Clemson on Nov. 4 in a showdown that could decide the winner of the ACC Atlantic. NC State is also riding a six-game winning streak since losing to South Carolina in the opener. In the neutral site matchup in Charlotte, the Wolfpack drastically outgained the Gamecocks (504 to 246) but had two drives end on fumbles, a missed field goal and two other drives end on downs in South Carolina territory. Since that defeat, NC State knocked off Marshall, Furman, Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt. Coach Dave Doeren’s team is poised to earn its best record of his five-year run in Raleigh. The Wolfpack rallied to finish 7-6 last season and have showed marked improvement in 2017 behind a standout defense and one of the ACC’s top scoring offenses.
As mentioned previously, South Bend and Notre Dame were in the spotlight last Saturday night with USC coming to town. The Fighting Irish wasted no time dispatching of the Trojans, as coach Brian Kelly’s team jumped out to a 28-0 lead before winning 49-14. Similar to Doeren, Kelly entered 2017 squarely on the hot seat after a disappointing 2016 season but has rebounded in a big way. Notre Dame is 6-1 and its only loss came by one point to Georgia (No. 2 in most polls prior to Week 9) in early September. Kelly’s coordinator hires of Chip Long (offense) and Mike Elko (defense) have resulted in improvement on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame is doing a better job in the turnover department. While the Fighting Irish have CFB Playoff aspirations, the road to the top four isn’t easy. After playing NC State this weekend, Notre Dame has to play Wake Forest and Navy in South Bend, along with road trips to Stanford and Miami.
NC State holds a 2-0 series edge over Notre Dame. The Wolfpack won last year’s meeting in rain-soaked Raleigh and claimed the 2002 Gator Bowl over the Fighting Irish.
NC State at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Saturday afternoon’s matchup in South Bend features an interesting contrast and an intriguing duel between two standout signal-callers at quarterback.
NC State’s Ryan Finley is off to a blistering start this year, throwing for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions. The junior is also completing 69.4 percent of his throws. Finley followed coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz from Boise State to NC State prior to the 2016 season, and his development has helped to fuel an attack averaging 35.4 points a game. The Wolfpack have hit on nine plays of 40 or more yards this season, but the strength of this offense is its efficiency. Finley makes quick decisions with the ball and his accuracy allows the offense to maintain favorable down and distance with short passes on early downs. Expect a similar gameplan on Saturday versus the Fighting Irish. Finley will look to attack the perimeter and outside with quick throws and take a couple of shots downfield as the game progresses. The junior doesn’t offer a ton of production on the ground, but he’s also far from a statue. Finley is taking on a Notre Dame secondary that ranks 36th nationally in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only one opponent to throw for more than 265 yards. Can Finley continue his mistake-free play against an improving defense?
It’s a different story on the other sideline, as Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush makes his seventh career start. Wimbush ranked as a four-star prospect and a top-100 recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class. Wimbush was slated to redshirt in his freshman season but became the team’s backup after Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending injury. Wimbush took a redshirt year last fall and continues to progress with every snap in 2017. In six starts, Wimbush has passed for 902 yards and eight touchdowns. The sophomore is clearly still developing as a passer and has yet to top more than 210 yards in game this fall. However, Wimbush has not tossed an interception in each of his last three starts. While the passing game is a work in progress, Wimbush is a dynamic runner and ranks second on the team with 508 yards on 82 carries. The sophomore leads all rushers with 10 touchdowns on the ground and averages 6.2 yards per rush.
Which quarterback will have the better game and lead his team to a win on Saturday? Is it the efficient and steady Finley? Or will Wimbush continue to hurt defenses on the ground, while connecting on just enough via the pass to keep NC State’s group from crowding the line of scrimmage?
2. Notre Dame’s Offensive Line Against NC State’s Defensive Line
This is the must-see matchup on Saturday afternoon. It’s a strength versus strength battle between two of the best units at the line of scrimmage in college football.
Notre Dame’s offensive line is anchored by the standout duo of left tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson. Both players are likely to have an appearance on several postseason All-America squads. The McGlinchey-Nelson combo is a big reason why the Fighting Irish have allowed only 11 sacks this year. Additionally, the offensive line is simply mauling over opponents in the run game. The front five has paved the way for Notre Dame to average 7.1 yards per carry and record 11 rushes of 40 yards or more. Running back Josh Adams has emerged as a Heisman candidate with 967 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging a whopping 9.2 yards per carry through seven contests. In addition to Adams, coordinator Chip Long can lean on Deon McIntosh (241 yards), Dexter Williams (214 yards) and Tony Jones (139) for the ground game. And as mentioned above, quarterback Brandon Wimbush is also a key component in the ground attack.
It’s no secret Notre Dame is going to lean on its ground game and offensive line to win on Saturday. However, the NC State defensive line is the best group the Fighting Irish have played this season since the Sept. 9 game against Georgia. In that matchup, Notre Dame’s offense was held to 55 yards on 37 carries. The success of NC State’s line starts with end Bradley Chubb, who has recorded 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss through seven contests. He’s not the only headliner in the trenches for coordinator Dave Huxtable. Fellow end Darian Roseboro has racked up six tackles for a loss, and Kentavius Street has chipped in 3.5. Justin Jones and B.J. Hill (both over 300 pounds) are a force on the interior. NC State’s run defense has been stellar so far in 2017, as this group is only giving up 91.3 yards per game. No opponent has managed more than 134 rush yards against this unit in 2017. Can that change on Saturday afternoon? Which unit – Notre Dame’s offensive line or NC State’s defensive line – win the battle in the trenches?
3. Notre Dame Defense and Turnover Margin
Notre Dame’s defense was the backbone of its run to the national championship game in the 2012 season. But after coordinator Bob Diaco departed to be the head coach at UConn, this unit slipped under Brian VanGorder’s watch. From 2013-16, the Fighting Irish gave up over five yards per play and surrendered over 22 points a game. VanGorder was dismissed last September, and Kelly hit the reset button on this group over the offseason. Mike Elko was hired away from Wake Forest to call the defensive signals, and Clark Lea followed from Winston-Salem to coach linebackers.
While it’s only seven games into Elko’s tenure, he’s already paid big dividends for the defense. Notre Dame is giving up just 16.4 points a game and has yet to allow an opponent to score more than 20 points in a contest. The Fighting Irish are holding opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 4.86 on snaps overall. Also, this group has allowed just two plays of 40 or more yards and has already exceeded last year’s sack total (14) with 18 through seven contests.
In addition to the statistical improvement at stopping opposing teams, Notre Dame’s defense is tied for eighth nationally with 17 takeaways this season. The Fighting Irish have a plus-10 turnover margin, which is tied for third nationally. On the other sideline, NC State has forced 11 turnovers but has a margin of plus-eight. The Wolfpack have only lost three turnovers this year, which is the fewest of any FBS team.
An improved Notre Dame defense will not only have to find a way to slow down NC State quarterback Ryan Finley, but the offense has other weapons in the form of running back Nyheim Hines (648 yards), receiver Kelvin Harmon (36 catches) and all-around threat/tight end Jaylen Samuels (644 all-purpose yards in 2017). Can the Fighting Irish continue to have success at getting to the quarterback against a standout NC State offensive line? And can this defense continue to have success at generating takeaways against an offense that doesn’t give it over much?
The Big Ten showdown between Ohio State and Penn State is going to steal a lot of eyes away from South Bend, but this should be a good one. If NC State and Notre Dame are going to have any chance to make the CFB Playoff, winning out is a must. Essentially, the loser of this game is likely done for good in the playoff picture. The battle of the trenches is going to be the area to watch. Can the Fighting Irish generate a push against a standout line and establish the run? And if the ground game is slowed, will Wimbush hit on enough throws to take some of the pressure off of Adams? It wouldn't be a surprise if Long came out throwing to get Wimbush in a rhythm and direct some of the attention off the ground attack. When NC State has the ball, keep an eye on turnovers, Finley’s accuracy and how well Notre Dame’s defense can get the Wolfpack into third-and-long situations. The Fighting Irish crossed off one big hurdle last week against USC. Look for Kelly’s team to stay alive in the CFB Playoff picture with a three-point victory over NC State.