Douglas Farmer, who writes for Inside the Irish and NBCsports.com, asked me about the big game tonight between No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. So, I answered, and asked him questions of my own.
SMD: How long have you been covering the Irish?
DF: “Including my years with Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, I have spent eight of the last nine seasons paying too much attention to the Irish. Since graduating in 2012, I have filled in at a few different spots in the niche market, now with NBC Sports’ Inside the Irish. I managed to miss last season’s 4-8 debacle.”
SMD: Miami allows only 17.6 points per game, good for No. 12 in the country. Notre Dame is No. 7 in scoring offense at 41.3 points per game. Will the Irish be able to keep up that pace Saturday?
ND: “Perhaps not that pace, but Notre Dame should at least reach the high 20s without too much trouble. The offense has fallen short of 30 just once since the week two 20-19 loss to Georgia, when it managed 28 vs. North Carolina State — an interception returned for a touchdown knocked the Irish tally up to 35.
Coming into the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was a known strength, but common figuring had that unit protecting junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush as the Irish relied on a vertical passing game. That threat has shown itself only recently. This scoring bonanza has come courtesy of the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack with 7.02 yards per carry and 324.8 per game.”
SMD: Speaking of Wimbush and that rushing attack, both he and junior running back Josh Adams ended last week banged up a bit. Will they be healthy enough to continue the onslaught?
DF: “Both should be. At least, that is the report from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Two contrasting caveats should be offered here: Kelly is notoriously optimistic when discussing injury timetables, but neither of those two injuries were overly-concerning. Adams “was not himself” after a week heavy on schoolwork and light on sleep. A blow to the facemask in the first quarter certainly did not help his cause, and he spent the final three frames on the sideline. On Thursday, Kelly described Adams’ week in practice as a typical workload.
“Wimbush bruised his left (non-throwing) hand on a dash for the end zone just before halftime. Live, it looked like a dangerous blow to his knee and/or thigh. Upon review, it could be seen his hand actually absorbed the impact from the defender’s helmet. X-rays were negative and he returned to the game, going 4-of-11 for 116 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter. In postgame interviews, the hand was heavily bandaged, but Wimbush maintained he would be fine, offering just that the injury might bother him taking snaps from center.
“’We were able to do the things we do under center out of the gun or out of the pistol, so it didn’t affect much in terms of the throwing game,’” Wimbush said. “’But maybe handing it off.’
“If Wimbush’s ball security is at all compromised, Notre Dame’s running game will be greatly affected. As good as Adams is and as great as the offensive line is — and they are — it is Wimbush’s run/pass threat that keeps defenses on their heels. Losing that at all would greatly improve the Hurricanes’ chances of slowing the Irish ground game.”
SMD: We’ve all heard a great deal about Miami’s turnover chain. Does Notre Dame have anything along those lines?
DF: “No, no the Irish do not, but by no means has that diminished their penchant for turnovers. The defense has taken away the ball 19 times, leading to 108 points. All but three of those turnovers, in fact, have led to points, and two of those exceptions came in situations just before the end of a half.
“Malik Rosier’s three interceptions against Virginia Tech undoubtedly have Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Julian Love salivating. He already has two pick-sixes this season and came within five yards of another vs. Wake Forest.”
SMD: Considering they played their last three games at home and haven’t been on the road in a month, how will the Irish react to what is sure to be a raucous crowd?
DF: “They will notice it, but it is not all-that new. Kelly compared his expectations to what Notre Dame saw at Michigan State in September.
“That game has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of the season. In only the fourth week of the year, no one gave the Spartans much heed. The Irish had respect only because they lost to Georgia in competitive fashion. If No. 12 Michigan State were to lose by 20 at home now, though, it would warrant many headlines.
“Partly thanks to one of those Love touchdowns, Notre Dame had a 14-0 lead fewer than five minutes into that contest, expanding it to 28-7 by halftime. Removing the crowd’s influence similarly early could be pivotal this weekend.”
SMD: Those fast starts seem to be a pattern for the Irish. Miami is the exact opposite. What do you expect Saturday?
DF: “That may be the deciding factor. If Notre Dame finds an early lead, it is almost certain to hold onto it by leaning on the running game. If the Hurricanes keep this close into the fourth quarter, Wimbush has tried to charter those waters only once, and that resulted in the aforementioned loss to the Bulldogs.
Georgia successfully shut down Adams & Co. (79 yards on 34 carries, a 2.32 average, sacks adjusted). With that in mind, I fully expected North Carolina State’s veteran front seven to do the same. It very much did not (325 yards on 52 carries, a 6.25 average, sacks adjusted). I don’t think Miami can, either, and as a result I will predict the Irish to not only win, but to cover the three-point spread.”
SMD: Your prediction?
DF: “Notre Dame 31, Miami 23.”
Here are Douglas Farmer’s questions to me:
DF: Hey Susan, I appreciate you taking some time out of your week to chat Miami football. As I mentioned to you earlier, I certainly didn’t expect this game to have such importance when the season started. Before getting into the weeds, how long have you been covering the Hurricanes?
SMD: “Since Butch Davis took over in 1995, though I didn’t start full-time until 2000, the year the Hurricanes finished 11-1 and began their 34-game winning streak.”
DF: Miami’s offense ticks away pretty well — 31.5 points and 461.0 yards per game with a relatively-balanced run-pass distribution — even without junior running back Mark Walton (ankle). I expect it to come at least within shouting distance of those numbers Saturday. At that point, it will be a question of the Hurricanes slowing, if not stopping, Notre Dame. That is tough to envision considering Miami gives up 170.0 rushing yards per game and the Irish offense relies on the ground game. How might the defense adjust to buck those two trends?
SMD: “The running yards sometimes come in big chunks – until the ball gets close to the goal line. Then the Canes are very stout. UM held Virginia Tech last week to 2.4 yards per rush. Someone asked UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz before the Hokies game last Saturday if he was concerned about yielding rushing yards. His response:
“’Toledo is the only team that’s had more than five yards a play on us. We had 17 possessions of defense last week and in a normal game there are 13. We played five quarters of football. We three-and-outed them or less eight out of 17 times. Our kids aren’t perfect, but they’re playing pretty damn good by all the metrics.
“There are a couple of things that we would love to do better. Our third down defense started poorly and it’s been improving. Our run defense is suffering from a couple mistakes. People are starting to run their quarterback against us, which to me is a sign of respect that we are shutting down their running back. If you look at where we are and what we are doing and the fact that what it all comes down to is that we’re not allowing points because we don’t give up long runs or passes for touchdowns and then we have the mental toughness to stop people in the red zone.
“We never have panic. That’s why when the ball was fumbled last week and 11 guys had to take the field, we knew we were going to get the ball back. We didn’t know how and we didn’t know who, but we knew we were going to get it done. Like anything else, we always have room to grow. We hope that our best game is always our next game, but I think our kids are playing pretty hard right now.’”
DF: That cause suffered a setback Monday when it was announced senior defensive lineman Demetrius Jackson is out for a stretch due to a right knee injury. Though a backup, Jackson has made 7.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. It may seem lacking a reserve would hardly be noticed, especially along a deep defensive front such as the Hurricanes’, but Jackson certainly provides pressure. How will his absence affect Miami’s defense, if at all?
SMD: “Yes, the absence of Jackson will make a difference, but UM has a couple of highly rated freshmen. One of them, Jonathan Garvin, will get a lot more snaps as he fills in for Jackson. How’s this for a true freshman who hasn’t played a ton? A sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery against Virginia Tech.”
DF: I feel a need to bring up the turnover chain, both as a gimmick and as a tangible piece of an on-field factor. The Hurricanes force 2.5 turnovers per game. How much has that been due to defensive design vs. the inherent chance tied to an oblong ball vs. the motivating factor of a shiny, bulky gold necklace?
SMD: “This defense has been focused from the start, but there’s no denying that the turnover chain has got them having fun. It’s contagious, they all agree. And they all want the chance to wear it. Fifteen players have worn the chain this season.
“Wearing the chain, it’s a big accomplishment,’’ safety Jaquan Johnson said. “We go out there and have to guard an offensive player the whole game, and sometimes we don’t get credit for what we do. When we get the turnover, we get rewarded and everyone sees we’re doing our job. It’s definitely a trending topic.”
DF: Notre Dame fans are skeptical of Miami’s chances this weekend. Much of that stems from the Hurricanes barely slipping past Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and, especially, North Carolina. Miami is undeniably a talented football team. What led to such a by-the-skin-of-its-teeth stretch?
SMD: “Slow starts. The Canes have a second-half point differential of +206 in 21 games under coach Mark Richt. Miami has outscored opponents 390-184 in the second half since Richt took over last year, and have held opponents to 10 points or fewer in the second half in 15 of 21 games. This season, UM has 154 points in the second half and 98 in the first half. Its opponent have 84 points in the second half and 57 in the first half.”
DF: The flip side of those close games is the Hurricanes are much more battle-tested than the Irish. The last time Notre Dame won a close game was … the last time Miami lost a game. Bookmakers expect this to be close. Do you? If so, will those October stresses bear Hurricane fruit now?
SMD: “I would be surprised if Notre Dame blows out UM, though I know people who swear that will happen. If the Hurricanes win Saturday, they will be sparked by what will be the most raucus, insane crowd at that stadium in years. UM players are convinced that the nation underestimates them and never gives them the credit they deserve. That drives them, too. But mostly they emulate the old-time defensive players who expected to win.
DF: “Your prediction?
SMD: “UM, fueled by talent, a home crowd and intense desire to keep this season rolling, wins 27-24.”