Having navigated their way through nine wins to start the 2018 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish need three more victories to solidify a spot in the college football playoffs. While a loss doesn’t necessarily eliminate them, the timing of such a disaster and the sketchy quality of the opposing victor would likely kill such hopes.
The first of this trio of games is the home finale against the 4-5 Florida State Seminoles, a team that’s reeling after three losses in their last four outings. The contrasting fortunes of the two teams are why the Irish enter the game as heavy favorites. However, Brian Kelly is no doubt reminding his players about their inconsistent play against Pittsburgh, a contest in which Notre Dame also entered as heavy home favorites after an emotionally-charged road win.
Some of the key matchups to watch in this game include:
QB Ian Book vs. Florida State Defense
Book again managed to get the job done, doing most of his damage during the second half. Yet again, it wasn’t a spotless performance because of some ill-advised throws that could have spelled real danger if Northwestern could have held on to them. Besides his passing prowess, he continues to show the sort of mobility that can also pick up key chunks of yardage on the ground.
The beleaguered Seminole defense has allowed an average of 53 points in the past two games, so Book has the potential to have a huge night. In particular, the Florida State pass defense has allowed 23 touchdown passes this season, including eight in the past two weeks. In addition, they haven’t been all that adept at forcing turnovers, which Book managed to avoid last weekend for the first time in four games.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Deondre Francois
Delivering consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks is something the Irish have largely been able to do this season. However, they can be vulnerable to a constant barrage of intermediate throws that pick up enough yardage to move the chains. Northwestern’s first score last week saw that drive’s four pass receptions total just 30 yards, but one thing in the Irish’s favor is that the Seminoles’ running game isn’t as effective as the Wildcats.
Francois is expected to play after sitting out last week’s loss to North Carolina State with injured ribs. He doesn’t really favor one receiver over another, with six different Seminoles having 20 or more catches on the year. Florida State hasn’t gotten a lot of production out of their running game this year, so any hopes of an upset likely ride on the effectiveness of Francois’ arm.
RB Dexter Williams vs. LB Dontavious Jackson
Williams managed only 56 yards last week, but did have a key fourth quarter run that blunted Northwestern’s momentum. His two games in South Bend this year have seen mixed results, but he’s yet to have two consecutive games of gaining less than 100 yards. The Florida State run defense is their strong point, but Williams still has the potential to have another big game.
The fact that the top two tacklers for the Seminoles are in the secondary is an indication that this unit is capable of being lit up. Jackson is the leader among the front seven and is capable of delivering a big game, having amassed 14 tackles against Syracuse earlier this year. He’s got five stops behind the line, but will have his hands full with Williams and the rest of theIrish running game.
CB Troy Pride vs. WR Tamorrion Terry
Pride has had a quiet past two games after returning from injury, but has been consistent when it comes to defending against the pass. He’s got nine in that category this year, working well with Julian Love on the corners, but gives away four inches in this matchup.
Terry isn’t the leading receiver for the Seminoles, with just 23 catches on year, but has nine in the last two games. In addition, he’s a dangerous deep threat who’s averaging 22 yards per grab. He’s also reached the end zone a team-high seven times in just his first collegiate season. He’s got the size to go up and grab throws from Francois.
T Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Brian Burns
Eichenberg has been the more consistent of the Irish starting tackles and is working in sync with left guard Aaron Banks to protect Book’s blind side. At 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Eichenberg has the size to keep Burns under control. If he’s able to do that, the Seminole defense gets that much weaker, something the Notre Dame offense can exploit.
Burns is the Seminoles’ top pass rusher and has collected a pair of sacks as a weak-side rusher in three different contests this year. Standing 6-foot-5, he’s also a threat to block one of Book’s throws, something that can be neutralized if he’s held in check. He’s been moving up NFL draft charts with his play, which makes it imperative that such an approach be a focal point of the Irish line play.