During Brian Polian’s somewhat short time at Nevada, he’s had a penchant for scheduling one of the top teams in the country. They’ve scheduled UCLA, Arizona and Texas A&M all in recent years. This year, it’s the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I talked with Patrick Sullivan of One Foot Down, the resident SB Nation Notre Dame blog, to learn about the Wolf Pack’s opponent on Saturday.
1. Notre Dame is coming off a very tough loss to Texas. How do you expect them to bounce back?
I expect the Fighting Irish to bounce back in a big way. The first home game is always something to get the team excited, even after losing the first game. The defense, specifically, will likely perform better on Saturday, although that will largely be due to Nevada having a lot less offensive talent than Texas. Still, it couldn't have looked much worse for the Irish on that side of the ball, and yet we know they have the talent and raw abilities to make some plays. So, it's going to be a matter of putting some things together and correcting mental mistakes (coach Brian VanGorder included).
Offensively, I expect more of the same from ND, with DeShone Kizer getting the vast majority of the snaps as the newly-proclaimed starter en route to leading an explosive offense on multiple scoring drives in the first half. With some stability at the helm with Kizer it should be fun to watch the offense settle in and move the ball both on the ground and through the air.
2. Nevada's offense is very reliant on their run game. How does Notre Dame's front seven look, and what will they do to try and stop James Butler?
The ND front seven wasn't spectacular last weekend, but at least they weren't the secondary, who were abysmal in coverage against freshman QB Shane Buechele. Despite that, senior captain and defensive end Isaac Rochell played a great game against Texas and will certainly continue to blow his man off the ball and wreak havoc in the backfield on many, many plays. Same goes for senior defensive tackle Jarron Jones, who has really become quite adept at getting a great push up the middle and breaking down the center of the opposing offensive line.
Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan will again look to play a strong game in the middle of the defense (13 tackles vs. Texas), and hopefully he will (along with the rest of the front seven) improve in his open field tackling to ensure Butler and anyone else running the ball doesn't break several tackles and explode for a big play, as powerful Longhorns Tyrone Swoopes and D'onta Foreman successfully did countless times last Sunday.
Knowing that Butler is a small, shifty, slippery back with a great second gear, it's definitely going to come down to the defensive line holding the point of attack and the linebackers using their speed to fill gaps and stop him from getting to the second level. Inconsistency stops me from guaranteeing that will happen, but I think guys like Morgan and senior captain James Onwualu will come to play in that regard on Saturday.
3. Brian Kelly announced that both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire would play. Why is he sticking with the 2 QB system, and what does each QB bring that makes them dangerous?
Editor’s note: This question was asked before DeShone Kizer was name the full started by Brian Kelly.
Based on the newest information, it actually sounds like Kizer is going to be THE guy at QB starting this weekend. Zaire will probably still get some snaps at some point (if only during garbage time), and he brings a very skilled running presence and an emotional, passionate leadership to the position, along with a cannon for an arm (effectiveness of that cannon still TBD).
Kizer honestly brings the same kind of skills to the table, except he's a much more accurate and polished passer. He is just about as strong as Zaire carrying the ball, using his 6'4" frame and surprising speed to make plays with his feet. However, again, it's his arm and touch that make him dangerous. If Zaire has a cannon, then Kizer has something even more ridiculous, like a rocket launcher or a tank or a cannon that shoots cannons. He throws an excellent deep ball, both in distance and accuracy, and also has shown a great ability to hang in the pocket, let routes develop, and nail just about any throw on the field.
Nevada should be worried about stopping Kizer, as he is looking more and more like a first-round pick with every game he plays, and his 6-touchdown performance during ND's comeback in Austin is obvious proof of that ability.
4. What are the weak spots on this Irish team that would allow Nevada to pull off the upset in South Bend?
SAFETY. True freshman Devin Studstill will likely start at free safety after filling in very competently against Texas. However, he is still a true freshman, and his running mates at strong safety are junior Drue Tranquill and 6th-year senior Avery Sebastian, both run-stopping safeties with limited speed and a bevy of injuries in their past and present. Studstill's backup at free safety is probably Sebastian, but if Sebastian is hurt or already playing SS, then another true freshman, Jalen Elliott, is probably the next guy in at that spot. Tyler Stewart may not be a star quarterback, but if he can complete some passes over the top, the Irish will certainly have problems.
Another two spots to watch are the center and right guard positions. Junior Sam Mustipher is the center and senior Colin McGovern is the right guard, and both were consistently driven backwards by Texas defensive tackles last weekend. It was the first start for both of them, so no one expected them to dominate some quality defensive linemen, but it was concerning how little push they got. Nevada's defensive line could see some success there as well.
Finally, tackling in general and getting a pash rush are definitely issues for this Brian VanGorder defense. There are some guys who aren't going to miss too many tackles, including Rochell and Morgan, but there are at least a few guys who struggle to wrap up ball carriers in the open field. The pass rush is almost nonexistent, coming almost exclusively from Rochell and Jones. Junior Jay Hayes may be able to help with that, along with true freshman Daelin Hayes, but so far the pass rush from the likes of junior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti has been unimpressive.
Both of these weaknesses come back to Butler having a big day and getting to the second level while Stewart plays slightly above himself and opens things up for the big play over the top. That's how Nevada could take advantage and potentially pull of the upset.
5. Triple prediction: What's the worst possible outcome you see possible? What's the best possible outcome? What do you think actually happens?
Worst Possible Outcome: Tyler Stewart completes a couple deep balls early on, burning Irish DBs who don't turn around. James Butler gets to the second level with ease due to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme by VanGorder, and then makes guys miss in the open field while turning on the jets to gain big chunks of yards. DeShone Kizer gets hurt or gets roughed up, and the offensive line still fails to live up to its potential as Tarean Folston and Josh Adams have modest days running the ball. Torii Hunter Jr. doesn't play due to a concussion suffered on a definite targeting against Texas, and sophomore kicker Justin Yoon misses 4 field goals while punter Tyler Newsome shanks multiple punts in solidarity. Field goal holder Montgomery VanGorder fumbles 3 times. Brian Polian laughs in Brian Kelly's face as the Wolf Pack win on a field goal as time expires, 20-17.
Best Possible Outcome: The Irish offensive line asserts themselves and Folston and Adams each run for 100 yards in the first half. Kizer goes 6-6 for 185 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Malik Zaire gets to play the second half and take another shot at proving himself, albeit against backup Nevada players. Hunter Jr. plays and has a leisurely 3-catch, 101-yard game with a touchdown, and sophomore WR Equanimeous St. Brown (Ed. note: Fantastic name.) finishes with 5 catches, 97 yards, and 3 touchdowns. James Butler is held to 2.0 yards per carry by the Irish defense, and freshman Daelin Hayes gets 2 sacks in his debut as the Irish's pass rush specialist. Studstill and sophomore Shaun Crawford both get interceptions off of Stewart, who is forced to try to do too much since Butler has been rendered ineffective. No one gets hurt at all. Yoon makes all of his extra points (giving us the famous Yoon Bow each time) and never has to kick a field goal. VanGorder always holds the ball perfectly, and his dad finally admits he is indeed Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. Notre Dame wins 77-21.
Actually: I think Notre Dame runs for 150 yards in the first half, Kizer throws a pair of touchdowns, and Notre Dame leads 24-13 at the half. James Butler continues to see success, picking up over 90 yards and a touchdown before the half. Notre Dame pulls away late in the third after a Nevada touchdown brings them scarily within 4, and the Irish pull out a fine yet uninspiring 47-27 win. Oh, also, I yell at the TV insisting that Brian VanGorder tells us whether or not he can throw a football over them mountains.
BONUS: Nevada head coach Brian Polian is a former ND assistant. What, if anything, do you remember from his time there?
Honestly very little. I remember him as the son of Bill, who put together my Indianapolis Colts teams that crushed the majority of their competition for about 12 years straight. So I generally liked him and his old man.
Besides that, I guess I remember him as an okay special teams coordinator, because anyone who brought us this play has gotta be pretty decent.