When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take the field on Saturday evening at Louisville, it’ll be the third of four consecutive nighttime clashes. Thus far, the Irish have split their first two encounters, both of which went down to the wire. Another dramatic finish is something Marcus Freeman would like to avoid.
Like Notre Dame’s previous two foes, Louisville enters the game with a perfect record. They raised their mark to 5-0 with a tight win against North Carolina State last Friday night. That positive beginning will have first-year coach Jeff Brohm angling for the upset victory
Signal Calling Experience
The running ability of Sam Hartman isn’t the main asset he’s brought to Notre Dame this season. Yet, his legs certainly spelled the difference with his clutch first down late in the game against Duke. He’s yet to toss an interception in 145 attempts while throwing for 14 scores. He’ll be facing a Lousiville passing defense with flaws, which include a trio of games accounting for 1,091 yards and all seven touchdown passes.
Hartman’s counterpart, Jack Plummer, did face the Irish two years ago when he was at Purdue. Since then, he sandwiched in a year with the Cal Golden Bears before joining the Cardinals this season. He’s thrown for 1,406 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2023. In his weekly press conference, Freeman indicated that Plummer is hard to confuse, though he has thrown six interceptions this year. The stated approach is that the Irish plan on showing him different looks throughout the game, something Freeman acknowledged may not work, given the quarterback’s breadth of experience.
Running Back Duel
Audric Estime’s winning score allowed for a collective sigh from Notre Dame fans, who’ve come to expect the back to deliver in such moments. Prior to those heroics, he’d largely been held in check, notching just three yards per carry. Yet, seems only a matter of time before he breaks off one of his long runs, a consistent sight that helps explain his 7.1 yards on all of his carries for the year. The Louisville run defense did give up 175 yards in their 39-34 season-opening win at Georgia Tech, which gives hope that Estime and his fellow backs can inflict some damage.
Primed for the challenge on the big stage, Cardinals running back Jawhar Jordan has put up similar numbers to Estime this year, albeit over a five-game span. His 510 yards and six scoring runs are highlighted by an average of 7.7 yards on each of his carries. As potentially dangerous as he can be, neutralizing him should help to shut down the Louisville running game. That’s because Plummer’s mobility is modest with just 79 yards rushing and the 12 other Louisville backs accounting for 389 yards. Unlike Estime, the depth behind Jordan doesn’t match up to what the Irish can offer.
One statistical number that Freeman and his staff would love to see take a steep drop is in the area of penalties. In three of the past four contests, Notre Dame has been flagged 30 times for 224 yards. Those penalties make up just under 77 percent of the season total, with false starts being the main culprit. With another loud and unfriendly crowd on tap for Saturday night, erasing that key issue would make life much simpler, whether through a silent count or a clap. One penalty against Duke that will cost them during the first half this week is Jordan Botelho’s ejection for targeting.
Louisville has also had its issues with penalties and is coming off a game in which they were flagged 10 times for 81 yards. One of those calls was for defensive holding and ultimately led to North Carolina State scoring its only touchdown of the night. For the season, the Cardinals have been penalized 34 times for 284 yards for an average of just under 57 yards per game. The Irish will have speed and depth back at the wide receiving position with the expected return of Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse. Whether they can make life difficult for Louisville defenders and force some penalties remains to be seen.
Getting it Done on Third Down
The importance of moving the chains, especially when it comes to third-down situations, could be a key on Saturday night. For Notre Dame, their two biggest struggles in this area came under hostile road crowds at North Carolina State and Duke. In those two games, the Irish only converted nine of 29 times (31 percent), compared to 24-of-40 (60 percent) in the other four contests.
Louisville’s two tightest clashes in 2023 coincided with their worst efforts on third down. Facing Georgia Tech, the Cardinals converted just once in 11 tries (nine percent) before eventually escaping with a 39-34 comeback win. Last week at North Carolina State, Louisville got the first down only four times in 14 attempts (29 percent), compared to the 53 percent (19-of-36) in the other three wins.