In Part II of Notre Dame’s 2014 season prediction, the Fighting Irish exited the month of September with a 3-1 record on their way to two more losses in October at the hands of Stanford and defending national champion, Florida State. Heading into November, how will Notre Dame fare during the home stretch of its season?
Notre Dame at Arizona State
Summary: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is beginning to develop a rivalry with Arizona State head coach Todd Graham that spans three different universities. The pair first met in Kelly’s debut season in South Bend in 2010 when then-Tulsa head coach Graham shocked the Fighting Irish with a Golden Hurricane stunner inside Notre Dame Stadium. A similar situation nearly occurred in 2011 when Graham, who had since moved on to be the head coach at Pittsburgh, fell just shy of defeating Kelly again, 15-12.
Now fully settled at Arizona State, Graham is building a winner in Tempe after securing 18 wins in only two seasons with the Sun Devils, including a 10-4 record in 2013 and a Pac-12 South Division title. ASU has the firepower to repeat last year’s success with returning dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly at the helm, a face Irish fans are familiar with after Kelly completed 70% of his passes for 362 yards and 3 touchdowns against Notre Dame in 2013. All-American candidate Jaelen Strong will also return at the wide receiver position after racking up 8 receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown against ND’s defense in Dallas last season.
The obstacle Graham must overcome in 2014 is the extreme loss of talent on defense. Arizona State will have to replace seven defensive starters, most notably its offensive line-clogging nose tackle, Will Sutton, now playing in the NFL for the Chicago Bears. Arizona State will also need to fill the hole left by two standout starting cornerbacks in Oshaon Irabor and Robert Nelson.
Prediction: Arizona State has become a trendy pick for media outlets, and rightfully so. The Sun Devils have quietly placed themselves into the thick of the Pac-12 race alongside the likes of Oregon, UCLA and Stanford. However, Notre Dame’s 74th ranked offense from 2013 was able to score 37 points against an Arizona State defense at the height of its power, and there is no reason to think Notre Dame couldn’t do even more damage now that the Everett Golson-led offense is coming into its own as Arizona State’s defense is undergoing transition. Notre Dame goes on the road and upsets Arizona State.
- Result: Notre Dame 40, Arizona State 34
- Offensive MVP: Everett Golson
- Defensive MVP: Cody Riggs.
Notre Dame vs. Northwestern
Summary: It’s been 19 years since Notre Dame and Northwestern went toe-to-toe, and both programs have a lot of catching up to do. This matchup feels like it’s been building since 2009 when Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald took a jab at the Fighting Irish during an interview with Sports Illustrated, agreeing that the universities are similar in academic prestige but noting the difference between the two is that Northwestern has been “consistently winning since 1995.”
The Wildcats are undergoing a bit of an offensive transition now that dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter has graduated. Northwestern will replace Colter with experienced senior Trevor Siemian, though his lack of mobility as a pro-style passer will force Fitzgerald’s offense to adopt a more conventional approach. Overall, with a new quarterback, a logjam at the running back position and unproven talent at the wide receiver spot (which includes former Notre Dame recruits Kyle Prater, a USC transfer, and Miles Shuler, a Rutgers transfer), the Wildcat offense may experience some setbacks in 2014.
The Wildcat defense is the steadier of the two units with depth along the defensive line and experience dotting its secondary, with nearly every starter in the back end returning.
Prediction: Northwestern had a 5-7 campaign in 2013 but numbers can be deceiving. Fitzgerald’s group lost 5 games by a margin of 10 points or less, and two of the losses were in overtime. Still, Northwestern only managed the 83rd best offense in the nation last season, and the change at quarterback, coupled with an adjustment to a more traditional pro-style offense, could set the Wildcat offense back even further.
Notre Dame vs. Louisville
Summary: The Louisville Cardinals are in for a season of change in 2014. Set to join the Atlantic Coast Conference and replacing departed head coach Charlie Strong with new/old head man Bobby Petrino, the Cardinals will enter the ACC trying to replace 1st round quarterback selection, Teddy Bridgewater.
Sophomore quarterback Will Gardner has recently been tabbed by Petrino to fill the void left by Bridgewater’s departure and, as illogical as it may seem, has the opportunity to surpass Bridgewater’s production in his very season as starter. Petrino’s prolific offensive attack was on full display during Louisville’s spring game where Gardner threw for 542 yards and 4 touchdowns, a strong indication that Petrino’s offensive philosophy is alive and well In Louisville.
While the offense is set to burst onto the scene, Louisville’s defense, the staple of Charlie Strong’s success, is set to take a major step backward. In addition to implementing a new 3-4 defensive scheme, the Cardinals are forced to replace two all-conference standouts at safety in Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. Given Louisville’s secondary was torched for over 500 yards by a first-time starter in Will Gardner during the Cardinals’ spring game, Petrino’s defensive unit may be in for a long season.
Prediction: Notre Dame and Louisville have much in common given both programs will rely heavily on offensive firepower to win games. Such a comparison will work in Notre Dame’s favor, however, as the Fighting Irish possess a deeper and more talented offensive line, as well as a more experienced quarterback in Everett Golson.
- Result: Notre Dame 38, Louisville 30
- Offensive MVP: Everett Golson
- Defensive MVP: Andrew Trumbetti
Notre Dame at USC
Summary: The 2014 football season will have one new face to replace the departure of two different ones in the previous year. Gone is Lane Kiffin – as well as one-time interim head coach Ed Orgeron – and in comes former University of Washington head coach, Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian will have plenty of toys to play with upon his arrival, starting with junior quarterback, Cody Kessler, entering his second season as starter. USC will also once again be stocked at the wide receiver position with elite talents such as one-time Notre Dame recruit, Nelson Agholor, as well as former 5-star, George Farmer.
USC’s defense is similarly star-studded, with All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams up front and emerging playmaker and former 5-star Su’a Cravens roaming the depths of the Trojan secondary at safety.
Prediction: Notre Dame heads into the Coliseum riding a four-game winning streak and with a nine win season on the line to face a USC team that finally began to tap into its vast potential in 2013. But as talented as Southern Cal is, the lack of depth due to NCAA sanctions still haunts the program, as does hiring yet another unproven head coach that put together a trio of 7-6 seasons before accepting the USC position.
USC may possibly have a talent edge, but depth and coaching favor the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame pulls off yet another upset by wearing down the USC defense with its triple-headed rushing attack and pounding it into submission.
- Result: Notre Dame 28, USC 26
- Offensive MVP: Greg Bryant
- Defensive MVP: Jaylon Smith
The Fighting Irish conclude the 2014 regular season with a 9-3 record and riding a 5-game winning streak, all despite possessing one of the toughest schedules in all of college football. With a more workable schedule in 2015, and with Notre Dame’s abundance of youthful talent having gained a year’s worth of valuable experience against some of the nation’s best, Brian Kelly’s squad heads into 2015 as legitimate contenders for a playoff appearance.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.