On Saturday afternoon in Chicago, Notre Dame faces its first pivotal contest of the young season against the #18 ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Despite entering the contest ranked ahead of the Badgers by six spots in the AP Poll, the Irish are nearly a touchdown underdog on the neutral field of Soldier Field. After three relatively underwhelming performances to start the season, the game offers Notre Dame their first real measuring stick of the season.
Is Notre Dame a good team that just played poorly and is about to hit their stride? Or are the Irish a flawed team that will have their flaws exposed on Fox’s Big Noon Saturday in front of a national audience? We’re about to find out.
What Worries Me This Week
Wisconsin’s secondary is susceptible to the pass, but to take advantage, the Irish need to keep Wisconsin-transfer Jack Coan standing upright to get the ball off. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s leaky offensive line is among the worst in the nations regarding sacks allowed in the early part of the season. The Irish ranked 126th overall in the country in sacks allowed with 15 through three games.
Jack Coan has not helped Notre Dame’s reworked offensive line with a lack of mobility, but the line has allowed entirely too much pressure so far. Michael Carmody, the replacement for Blake Fisher at left tackle, is still a game-time decision, but even if he plays, the Irish line has not shown much week-over-week improvement in pass protection. If Notre Dame can’t give Coan time to pass, the Irish will struggle to put points on the scoreboard.
Last week Notre Dame needed to keep Michael Mayer in to block, which took away a key cog in Notre Dame’s short to intermediate passing game. They’ll need Mayer this weekend to do more than block.
Status of Kurt Hinish
There have been rumors about Kurt Hinish‘s availability for this weekend floating around for much of the week. Brian Kelly was asked about them on Thursday at his media availability, and the Irish head coach was evasive in his answer. Kelly has no reason to give a definitive answer regarding Hinish’s availability, but if he isn’t able to play for whatever reason, the Irish rush defense takes a huge hit.
It is no secret that Wisconsin will want to run the ball. It’s what they do. It’s what they’ll pretty much always done. So the Irish rush defense could be more susceptible without Hinish clogging up the middle and demanding double teams.
Notre Dame beating itself
This week’s biggest worry is more related to Notre Dame beating itself than it is anything Wisconsin will or won’t do. Wisconsin is usually one of those teams that lets the opposition make the mistakes and win ugly. It didn’t work for them against Penn State when the Nittany Lions flipped the script on them, but historically that is what Wisconsin does. And this year, most of Notre Dame’s mistakes have been self-inflicted wounds. If the Irish play clean, I can’t see them losing this game.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Wisconsin’s passing attack
While Wisconsin’s rushing attack could be a significant concern for Notre Dame this weekend, the passing attack shouldn’t be. Wisconsin annoited Graham Mertz as their quarterback of the present and future last year after his 5 touchdown starting debut against Illinois. Since then, Mertz has just 4 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. He has not thrown a touchdown this season yet. And over his final four games of 2020, he threw just one touchdown. That’s one touchdown to 4 interceptions over his last six games.
In Wisconsin’s opening season loss to Penn State, Mertz completed less than 60% of his passes and tossed two interceptions without a score.
He hasn’t been much of a threat on the ground either. On ten attempts, Mertz has -31 yards rushing. That includes -30 yards coming off of 3 sacks, but that still leaves 7 attempts, -1 yard rushing.
Notre Dame’s wide receivers dropping the ball
Notre Dame receivers not named Avery Davis had a weekend to forget against Purdue. Kevin Austin had a few drops and wasn’t on the same page with Jack Coan all game. Braden Lenzy dropped one of the easiest touchdowns he’d ever have had after burning a poor Purdue defensive back that looked like he was running in mud compared to Lenzy.
I don’t expect that to be a problem for Notre Dame this weekend. Austin had the huge catch against Toledo and a big game against Florida State. Lenzy hasn’t entirely been unleashed this year, but something tells me you’ll see Lenzy on an end-around or sweep this week. I also expect Lenzy to get open behind the Badger secondary too. Whether or not he and Coan connect, I don’t know. If the ball is there, though, Austin and Lenzy will rebound this week.
Players to Watch This Week
- Jordan Botelho – Brian Kelly said he will play on defense this weekend after only playing special teams last week. How he is deployed on 3rd downs will be interesting to watch.
- Chris Tyree – He has been bottled up for the most part this year on the ground. Wouldn’t it be something if he ripped off a long run against the first stout run defense the Irish face all year?
- Drew White – He has been quiet so far this year. This kind of feels like a Drew White kind of game though.
- Tyler Buchner – Brian Kelly said Buchner should be ready to play this weekend. If he is, he will likely play a lot. For him to be truly effective against a better defense like Wisconsin, Notre Dame will have to let the kid sling it too.
- Howard Cross – If Hinish isn’t able to go, Notre Dame is going to need Cross to have the game of his young career.
- Houston Griffith – It’s Griffith’s hometown and players tend to have big games in their homecomings.
- Joe Alt – Notre Dame used him as an extra blocker last week with success and might need him again this week to get the ground game going against one of the nation’s best run defenses.
Many Notre Dame fans have looked at the struggles over the last few weeks for Notre Dame and ignored the flaws with this Wisconsin team. Yeah, they are much better than Toledo, but they aren’t Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State. They are a pretty good team that has their own problems that they haven’t solved just yet, either. This could be a really sloppy game for both teams based on what we’ve seen so far. If Mertz was better so far this year, I could understand the 6.5 spread and Notre Dame fans’ concerns. He hasn’t, though, and for that reason, I see the Irish winning this one.
Notre Dame 28, Wisconsin 21