Entering the third week of the 2023 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish find themselves with a 2-0 record, having outscored their two foes, 98-6. Such dominance is likely to be on the wane beginning this week, given the fact that the Irish will be traveling to take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
This clash marks only the fourth time ever that the two schools have faced each other, with the game serving as North Carolina State’s home opener. Last Thursday, they picked up a 24-14 road win over the Connecticut Huskies to start off Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren’s 11th season at the school. He’s compiled winning records in eight previous campaigns.
Below are looks at some of the key matchups to watch on Saturday:
QB Sam Hartman vs. North Carolina State Defense
Hartman has definitely made his mark early, even if he’s yet to be challenged by the Irish’s two opponents. He’s connected on 33 of 40 pass attempts for 445 yards and six touchdowns. He’s yet to throw an interception and has avoided being sacked, though in Saturday’s environment, he’ll face a stiff challenge to try and keep his success going.
Wolfpack defenders showed themselves to be vulnerable to the big play against Connecticut, allowing a 71-yard scoring run, and also giving up an early touchdown on a 12-play, 75-yard drive. Doeren’s forte is on the defensive side of the ball, so it’s certain that he and his assistants are working overtime to fix those glitches.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Brennan Armstrong
A slow start for the Notre Dame defenders against Tennessee State quickly gave way to the expected dominance in the 56-3 rout. After a 15-play, 55-yard drive for the Tigers netted them their only points of the contest, the Irish allowed just 101 yards the rest of the game. However, the Wolfpack will have more talent and a rabid home crowd, so keeping Armstrong in check is a priority if Notre Dame wants to avoid the specter of an upset.
Armstrong transferred from Virginia after last season and is back with Wolfpack offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Together, the two helped deliver a powerful 2021 season with over 4,400 yards passing and 31 scoring tosses. Anae’s departure and a changeover in the school’s coaching staff resulted in Armstrong struggling last season. His throwing skills as a southpaw present a different look, while he can also be dangerous with his legs, running for 96 yards in the Connecticut victory.
RB Audric Estime vs. LB Payton Wilson
Estime has yet to show any signs of regression and currently leads the Notre Dame rushing attack with 211 yards on 29 carries. That’s 7.3 yards per carry and he’s also caught three passes and scored a pair of touchdowns. In Saturday’s win, he broke off a 50-yard run against Tennessee State, he’s getting solid support from his fellow backs to allow him the occasional breather.
Wilson was the driving force of the Wolfpack defense against Connecticut, leading the team with 10 tackles and also picking off a pass. His ability to bring down ballcarriers was established long ago, but Estime has shown he won’t be easily stopped. He missed most of the 2021 season because of injury but bounced back last year and is already showing he’s in midseason form.
T Blake Fisher vs. DE Davin Vann
Fisher and his fellow offensive linemen have barely managed to break a sweat in the two romps for the Irish. That presumably won’t be the case against the Wolfpack, which prides itself on a strong defense and collected a pair of sacks in the victory over Connecticut. When it comes to the running game, Fisher’s ability to neutralize Vann will only benefit the talented cadre of Irish running backs available.
Vann collected a sack against the Huskies last Thursday and has had at least four in each of the past two seasons. He’s also trapped running backs behind the line of scrimmage, so he has the type of quickness that could cause problems for both Hartman and the running game if he’s able to get the better of Fisher.
WR Jayden Thomas vs. CB Shyheim Battle
In the scrum to establish becoming a favorite target for Hartman, Thomas has the early lead with eight catches for 125 yards and one score. Putting up impressive numbers against North Carolina State would help garner him much more attention from not only upcoming foes but the NFL as well. Any future draft status is in the future, with Thomas still having plenty of time to wreak havoc on secondaries.
Battle had three stops last Thursday night but otherwise stayed under the radar. He doesn’t have great speed for a cornerback, but he can get to the ball. He’s swatted away 21 pass attempts during his first three seasons with the Wolfpack and snagged five interceptions, but handling Thomas will be a stiff challenge based on early returns.