Having easily dispatched the 6-1 Southern Cal Trojans last Saturday, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might experience some deja vu as they take on another squad with that same record. That team would be the North Carolina State Wolfpack, who enter this game fresh off a bye week and looking to build on their six-game winning streak.
Prior to last season’s waterlogged battle in Raleigh that saw North Carolina State win 10-3, the only other meeting between these two schools dates back to the 2002, season, the first of the brief Tyrone Willingham era. In that Gator Bowl clash, the Wolfpack emerged with a 28-6 victory, so simply coming away with a win in this one will be sufficient for Brian Kelly and his crew.
To accomplish that, Notre Dame needs to hold the upper hand in some key matchups that are listed below:
Notre Dame Pass Defense vs. Ryan Finley
One of the continuing storylines for the Irish defense has been its ability to force opponents into mistakes that the Notre Dame offense has then turned into points. In the team’s first seven games, they’ve forced eight fumbles and recovered 10, while picking off seven passes. Part of that can be connected to the vastly improved pass rush that’s coming off a five-sack performance against Southern Cal and has 40 quarterback hurries for the season.
Getting in Finley’s face doesn’t necessarily guarantee that he’ll be forced into making such mistakes. That’s because this season, Finley has yet to throw an interception in 248 pass attempts. His offensive line has protected him well by giving up just seven sacks, with the signal caller tending to rely on picking apart defenses through short passes. That approach has helped him connect for 11 touchdowns through the air in 2017.
Finley is actually coming off his first game in which he’s failed to complete 60 percent of his passes. Yet any chance that North Carolina State has of springing a road upset will be connected to his performance, so preventing him from chipping away little by little has to be part of the defensive gameplan.
Josh Adams vs. Jerod Fernandez
Adams once again broke off a huge run in the win over Southern Cal, an 84-yard scoring run that effectively put the game on ice. His level of consistency in the first seven games for the Irish has officially vaulted him into legitimate consideration for the Heisman. Capturing that hallowed prize would make him the school’s eighth recipient of the award.
Keeping a close watch on him will be the Wolfpack’s leading tackler in Fernandez, who’s brought down 56 opposing ball carriers this season. North Carolina State’s defense in general ranks among the elite in college football when it comes to stopping the run, with Fernandez leading the charge.
The combination of Notre Dame’s drive to a playoff berth and Adams’ own individual pursuit of postseason accolades can be enhanced with another big day against a quality opponent. Reaching the century mark for Adams would be a clear sign that he won this battle, though he’ll presumably be content with a simple victory for the Irish.
Notre Dame Weak Side Offensive Tackle vs. Bradley Chubb
Depending on the play calling, Notre Dame’s tackles need to be especially vigilant when lining up. That’s because either Mike McGlinchey, Tommy Kraemer or Robert Hainsey will be pitted against one of the nation’s most aggressive defenders in weakside senior end Bradley Chubb.
Coming into this year, Chubb had collected 16 sacks in his collegiate career and notched 22 tackles-for-loss last season. This year, he’s already compiled 6.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles-for-loss, numbers that are just one portion of his overall presence. For good measure, he’s also added seven hurries, broken up a pair of passes, forced a fumble and also blocked a kick.
The Irish trio, along with the other facets of the offensive line have helped inject new life into the running game and allowed some breathing room for the growing pains experienced by Brandon Wimbush. Avoiding breakdowns like what happened in the Georgia game will help keep Chubb in check.
Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Mike Stevens
Opponents of North Carolina State have focused more on attacking through the air, which very well could mean that Brown has the potential to finally put together a big day. His touchdown reception against the Trojans got the rout started, but he’s still seeking a breakout game. His downturn in production is simply connected more to the resurgent Notre Dame running game.
Stevens got a late start on his 2017 campaign after suffering a knee injury during the Wolfpack’s preseason camp. He’s played in each of the last three North Carolina State games and collected his first interception of the year in the October 14 win over Pittsburgh, a contest that marked his first start of the year.
In the final game of a three-game homestand, the Irish welcome the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to South Bend. Wake enters this weekend’s action with a 4-3 mark, with a home game against the Louisville Cardinals on tap.
The Demon Deacons have dropped their last two road contests and have lost all three of the previous matchups against Notre Dame. The last two of those took place at South Bend, with the Irish faithful hoping that history repeats itself.