Week three of the 2018 Notre Dame football season has the Irish remaining at home to face the Vanderbilt Commodores for the first time in a generation. It’s likely that few, if any, of the participants in Saturday’s matchup had even been born the last time these two schools met in 1996.
Both Notre Dame and Vandy enter the game with 2-0 records, with the Irish coming off a mixed performance against Ball State. Some continuing solid performances were countered by some steps back by players who will need to be more consistent as the schedule starts to get more difficult.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch in this contest:
T Liam Eichenberg vs. OLB’s Charles Wright/Kenny Hebert
Eichenberg has started two games as a member of the Irish, but struggled to deal with Ball State’s different looks. That played a part in both the four sacks of Brandon Wimbush and the six stops of Notre Dame ball carriers before they even reached the line of scrimmage.
Wright got off to a strong start against Middle Tennessee with three sacks, while Hebert’s speed has the potential to make it a long afternoon for Eichenberg. Wright’s effort was a continuation of last season’s nine-sack effort as a junior, while Hebert is a redshirt sophomore has the ability to get into the Irish backfield. That was evident in that opening game when he picked up a pair of sacks and recovered the fumble that he had forced.
T Robert Hainsey vs. OLB Josh Smith
On the right side, Hainsey was equally flustered with Ball State after being felled by the heat in the opener against Michigan. Last year, he shared the tackle slot with Tommy Kraemer, who moved next to him to take over at guard. He still continues to have issues with respect to getting flagged for penalties.
Hainsey can’t afford to have another subpar game against the Commodore’s top tackler. Smith had a career-high 10 tackles against Nevada and has thus far thrived under the leadership of Vandy’s new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. The performance helped shut down a Nevada team that rack put up 72 points in their opener.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Kyle Shurmur
Facing Ball State, Notre Dame had to deal with a quarterback with intriguing potential and struggled during its first series on the field. Thanks to adjustments, that threat was effectively neutralized for a good portion of the game. This side of the lineup has been strong during the Irish’s first two games and will need to keep up the continuing pressure they’ve so far been able to deliver.
As the son of the current New York Giants head coach, Shurmur has spent his entire life surrounded by the sport and no doubt soaked in plenty of his father’s knowledge. He’s been a starter since the middle of his freshman campaign and likes to spread the ball around when it comes to receivers. He tends to stick with intermediate tosses, but does have the ability to go deep, if necessary.
MLB Te’von Coney vs. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Coney once again had a big impact on the Irish defense against Ball State. He led the team with a whopping 14 tackles and managed to pick up one sack, while also stopping two runners behind the line of scrimmage. Since emerging late last year, his presence on the field has been integral to keeping opposing running games in check.
The Vanderbilt running game has largely been a triumvirate during their first two games, with Jamauri Wakefield and Khari Blasingame sharing the workload. However, Vaughn offered strong hints last week that he’s becoming the go-to back by collecting 93 yards and scoring two touchdowns in his first start. The former Illinois transfer has been expected to make that sort of impact since he announced he was returning to the Nashville area.
SS Jalen Elliott vs. TE Jared Pinkney
A solid first game that was largely under the radar changed last Saturday for Elliott when he collected a pair of interceptions. Both picks eventually led to touchdowns, which were important in the tighter-than-expected 24-16 win. He’s thus far come a long way from the former quarterback who looked lost for a good portion of last season as he endured a painful baptism by fire. Maintaining his improved play will help shut down a potential receiving threat.
Elliott will have his hands full since he’ll have to deal with Jared Pinkney, who has the ability to get deep into the secondary. In the Commodores’ first two games, Pinkney has been on the receiving end of seven passes for 130 yards. While there are questions about his blocking abilities, the reality is that he’s a big man (6-foot-4) who has speed and who’s no doubt looking to enhance his NFL Draft status with a big game in front of a hostile crowd at South Bend.