Notre Dame and North Carolina are set to kick-off later this afternoon. As you get ready for the game, here are a few story lines to follow throughout the game as the Irish look to improve to 6-0 on the season and potentially set up one of the biggest regular season games of the season next week.
Can the Notre Dame offensive line gel?
In my weekly question for the Irish Blogger Gathering, I asked if my fellow bloggers felt the reshuffled offensive line would look better this week after being tested by the blitz happy Syracuse defense and the stout Stanford DL the last two weeks. I asked because so far I haven’t been overly encouraged by the play of the offensive line.
Golson has had time to pass, but the run blocking simply isn’t there yet. Not only that, but even though the pass blocking has been OK, there were entirely too many instances of the Irish OL simply getting blown up by Stanford. It’s one thing to get beat but its another to be completely bull rushed and knocked over.
The North Carolina defense is probably the weakest defense this team has seen all year next to maybe Rice. There’s no reason for the offensive line to struggle to control the line of scrimmage this week.
Can Everett Golson cut out the turnovers?
Through three games Everett Golson had a pristine turnover column in his stat sheet. In the last two weeks, however, he’s turned the ball over six times (3 interceptions, 3 fumbles). Luckily the Irish escaped both with victories, but that kind of luck will eventually run out.
Facing a weak defense, Golson has to do a better job of protecting the football. Weather for this weekend in South Bend looks gorgeous so he shouldn’t have to worry about the conditions impacting ball security either. For Notre Dame to really have a chance at a playoff run Golson needs to clean up that part of his game and turn in the type of performance he has against Rice and Michigan this weekend.
While at this point it’s still premature, Golson also needs to cut out the turnovers if he wants any chance of being invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy Presentation in December too.
Can the Irish defense continue to dominate?
Even the most homerish of homer Notre Dame fans could not have predicted Brian VanGorder would have put together the kind of defense he has. Notre Dame has yet to allow more than 16 points in a single game and the Irish defense is the reason Everett Golson even had a chance at his 4th quarter heroics last weekend.
Led by a young group of fast and hungry defenders, the Irish defense is playing fast, aggressive defense without many of the mental breakdowns that many (including myself) figured were unavoidable. Now, the Irish haven’t really faced an elite offense yet so it will be interesting to see what teams like Florida State and Arizona State will do against the Notre Dame defense, but so far opposing offensive coordinators haven’t cracked VanGorder’s code.
I expect VanGorder to continue bringing pressure this week and not allowing North Carolina any time to get comfortable. If he blitzed on 4th and the ball game last week against Stanford with a young defense, he will keep doing it.
After a tough and physical game last week though it will be interesting to watch how the Irish defense responds later today against the Tar Heels.
Can Notre Dame avoid the let down?
Any time you have an emotional, thrilling game like last weekend there is always the threat of a let down. Two years ago following Notre Dame’s epic goal line stand against Stanford the Irish struggled against BYU at home with Tommy Rees filling in for a concussed Everett Golson. Were the struggles from a let down or from adjusting to a completely different style quarterback?
Even earlier this year the Irish had a bit of a let down against Purdue following their shut out victory over Michigan. For the Irish to stay in the playoff race though they will need to avoid a let down today and have a solid victory over North Carolina. Even if the Irish stay unbeaten but continue to have closer games against weak opponents, the playoff committee will almost certainly take notice.
North Carolina came into the season ranked, but has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country. There defense has been ravaged by lesser offenses than the one they will face later today. Notre Dame needs to avoid the let down and take care of business.
Can they also prevent themselves from looking ahead?
As if avoiding a let down this weekend wasn’t hard enough, Notre Dame also has the added element of the chance of looking ahead to next weekend’s showdown with Florida State in Tallahassee. If the Irish and Seminoles both take care of business today, next week’s game will be one of the most hyped games of the entire season and is the biggest hurdle in Notre Dame’s path to the playoffs. An Irish win would not only validate Notre Dame’s place in the polls but would put them in the driver’s seat towards a playoff selection.
With all of that on the table next week, it would be very easy for the Irish to look ahead given North Carolina’s less than stellar record this year. I’m sure Brian Kelly drilled that home to every player this week, but it wouldn’t be the first time a team overlooked an easier opponent with a big game on the horizon. A slow start from the Irish will only raise concerns over the Irish looking ahead of suffering from a let down this week.