For Notre Dame, Nevada an opportunity for positive momentum
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame, on paper, should have no problem cruising past Nevada on Saturday. That’s the starting point for this weekend’s Irish home opener, which comes six days after that double-overtime loss to Texas in which a lot went right, but far too much went wrong.
Brian Polian’s Wolf Pack — not to be confused with the Wolfpack, which Notre Dame will face in its trip to North Carolina State next month — has made bowl games in back-to-back seasons, which allowed Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to talk up the former Irish assistant’s side as one that’ll provide a challenge on Saturday.
“A team that went to a bowl game last year and certainly one that was picked to finish in the top of their league, and we will have to play well against them,” Kelly summed up on Tuesday.
Kelly then took questions for about 30 minutes, and only one of them involved the words “Nevada” or “Wolf Pack” and none referenced any opposing players like running back James Butler or quarterback Tyler Stewart.
Nevada nearly lost its opener last week to a triple option-running FCS side in Cal Poly that went 4-7 in 2015. A 30-27 overtime win was the final score for a game in which you’d expect a bowl-reaching FBS team to cruise (Nevada last year beat an FCS-level UC Davis by 14 to open its season). While it’s easy to write off one week as a slow start, Nevada by S&P+ was the second-lowest rated team to finish over .500 in 2015 (99th, two spots better than Bob Davie’s 7-6 New Mexico).
The narrative here is that Notre Dame shouldn’t have a problem with Nevada, not with an offense officially quarterbacked by a guy in DeShone Kizer who sublimely accounted for six touchdowns in Austin. In reality, this should just be a tune-up for next week’s primetime showdown against a top-10 Michigan State side (S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 92 percent chance of beating Nevada). So through that lens, there are a few things Notre Dame needs to see happen on Saturday:
1. Positive defensive momentum.
This starts with forcing Nevada into passing downs — so second-and-long, third-and-five-plus, etc. Notre Dame’s defense was actually pretty good in these situations against Texas, with the Longhorns only converting necessary yardage on 18.8 percent of those downs. But the problem was getting into passing downs — Texas had a ridiculous success rate of 55.7 percent on standard downs (where a pass isn't obvious, essentially).
That number has to come down for Brian VanGorder’s defense to have any chance of success this season. Nevada does have a solid spread-pistol run game led by Butler, the Bloomingdale, Ill. native who rushed for 1,342 yards last year, so keeping him from chewing up yards on first and second down is the first step toward that necessary turnaround.
Defensive end Isaac Rochell said the changes Notre Dame’s defense needs to make aren’t difficult or significant — it’s just tackling better, not jumping out of a gap, staying on assignment, etc.
“A lot of it’s not rocket science,” Rochell said.
Getting away from the ineffective 3-3-5 scheme Notre Dame deployed against Texas and into more 4-3 base looks will be important, too, given not only Nevada’s power running game but the one Michigan State possesses with LJ Scott.
Freshman Devin Studstill will earn his first start at safety alongside junior Drue Tranquill, who was subbed out of Sunday’s game in favor of Studstill for the second half. Getting both those guys — along with sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian, who Kelly said Thursday is cleared to play against Nevada — a full game of positive reps could be beneficial, too.
Kelly remained steadfast in his confidence in VanGorder and the Irish defense this week, saying everyone needs to “relax” and that it’s too early to draw far-reaching conclusions about that unit. Notre Dame’s defense has 11 games to prove worthy of Kelly’s confidence, starting Saturday against Nevada.
“I’m not going to sit there and sulk or feel bad because we have another game,” Rochell said. “Especially this week, we have a really short week. But the point is we gotta get guys going and not have the mindset that we’re defeated and our season’s over. There’s plenty of one-loss teams that have done great things, won national championships. So the goal doesn’t change.”
2. Get the young receivers comfortable.
Notre Dame’s offense certainly could’ve used Torii Hunter Jr. down the stretch on Sunday, as it had to rely on an inexperienced group of pass-catchers in its efforts to take the lead and win in overtime against Texas. Hunter (concussion) will not play Saturday, so it’ll provide a full afternoon for receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson, Miles Boykin, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool, and tight ends Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar, to grow more comfortable with the Kizer-led offense.
St. Brown and Sanders both looked good in spurts on Sunday, but having high-production games from both of them, as well as a tight end and a freshman/redshirt freshman receiver, would be a positive step in the right direction for a Hunter-less offense.
3. Get the backups some playing time.
The probable low-leverage nature of Saturday afternoon should provide an ideal opportunity for a number of players to get their first extended looks of the 2016 season. On defense, that means defensive end Daelin Hayes, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney and safety Jalen Elliott (who replaced the injured Sebastian in overtime on Sunday), among others. On offense, any of those aforementioned receivers should get in, as well as running back Dexter Williams and right guard/center Tristen Hoge.
Plus, if those guys are in the game, it means Notre Dame isn’t being challenged by Nevada. And with Michigan State looming, that’d be the most positive development possible this week.