The 2017 season opener is just one day away. It will be the first time we see Notre Dame playing someone other than itself since last November, when the Irish were putting the final touches on a 4-8 season.
Notre Dame enters the 2017 season with a roster full of players far more confident than one would expect of a team coming off the kind of season they suffered through a season ago.
In order to put the stink of last season behind them, Notre Dame must start the 2017 season off with a victory.
Here are the keys to Notre Dame coming out on top against a Temple team that has won 20 games the last two seasons, and one that won the 2016 American Athletic Conference Championship:
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE
1. Get Wimbush Settled In Early: Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush won’t have the same weight on his shoulders as former quarterbacks DeShone Kizer (2016) and Everett Golson (2014) had. Chip Long’s offense demands strong quarterback play just as much as any other, but Long’s offense will not put the same burden on the quarterback. That doesn’t mean that Wimbush isn’t important to the offense, as he very much is. One thing is for certain, although the quarterback won’t have as much pressure to carry the offense, if the quarterback plays at a high level this offense will be extremely difficult to contain.
Temple head coach Geoff Collins and defensive coordinator Taver Johnson will look to take advantage of this being Wimbush’s first start. Collins is a coach who likes to throw multiple looks at the offense, and he’ll bring pressure from all over. Notre Dame must be able to counter that with sound protection and a scheme that takes advantage of the pressures. It’s imperative that Notre Dame allow Wimbush to stay erect early in the game, get into a rhythm and get comfortable in the pocket.
If that happens, Notre Dame’s offense should thrive.
2. Establish The Line Of Scrimmage: There’s always a need for Notre Dame to establish the line of scrimmage, especially when the offensive line is as good as the one it will field in 2017. Establishing the line is even more important in this matchup against Temple, as the Owls are going to attack the Irish front with speed and numbers. If Notre Dame can’t hold up and find ways to run the ball – which was an issue in the 2015 matchup – Temple will have a better chance at holding the offense down.
If Notre Dame can find ways to run the ball effectively against Temple, to limit the negatives that hurt the run game in 2015, and keep the pressures off of Wimbush, the Irish offense will move the ball and score a lot of points.
3. Create And Take Advantage Of One-On-One Opportunities: Collins played a lot of man coverage last season with just one safety deep. Temple coaches have expressed confidence in the current group of corners, and with Notre Dame’s advantage up front expect to see a safety get added to the box and for Temple to stick with its tight man coverage principles.
This means Notre Dame receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Cameron Smith will get plenty of opportunities on the outside. Tight ends Alizé Mack and Durham Smythe should find themselves in a number of one-on-one matchups with the Temple linebackers and safeties. Don’t be surprised to see Notre Dame look to take advantage of the passing ability of running backs Tony Jones Jr. and Josh Adams against man coverage as well.
Should Notre Dame’s pass catchers be able to win a number of these one-on-one battles the Irish offense will get enough big plays to either burn Temple’s pressures, or force the Owls to back off. Either way, the advantage would go to Notre Dame.
4. Avoid Bad Mistakes: Notre Dame simply cannot make a habit this season of the bad turnovers that cost it the last several seasons. No turnovers are good, but bad turnovers are what get you beat. Bad turnovers are those that happen deep in your own territory that lead to points for the opposition, or those that happen inside of or near the red zone that keep points off the board for the offense.
When Notre Dame barely escaped with a victory over Temple in 2015, Kizer threw two first-half interceptions in the red zone. Had Notre Dame converted those into scores – even just one touchdown and one field goal – the Irish go into the half up 24-10 – and the game is unlikely ever close again. Even a pair of field goals gives Notre Dame a 20-10 advantage at the break instead of the 14-10 lead it ended up with.
NOTRE DAME DEFENSE
1. Hit The Quarterback(s) Early And Often: Whether its redshirt junior Frank Nutile or redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, Temple will begin the season with a brand new starter at quarterback. The duo has combined for just 11 career passes, and this will be the biggest environment each has ever played in.
Notre Dame cannot afford to allow whoever lines up at quarterback to get comfortable in this game. The more the Irish defense can swarm and hit the quarterback the better. If it results in sacks, great, but the key is constant pressure and constant hits.
The more the young quarterbacks get hit the less comfortable they will become in the pocket. The less comfortable they get in the pocket the more rushed throws they make and the more incorrect reads they make; all of which lead to greater opportunities for turnovers.
2. Throw Off The Timing Of The Run Game: Getting after the quarterback isn’t necessarily an “attack the pass game” mentality. It’s an overall plan to attack and disrupt the offense. Part of that includes getting penetration in all instances, which will result in hits on the quarterback when the offense throws and throwing off the timing of the run game when the ball is handed off.
Temple has a big and experienced offensive line, and its tailback – junior Ryquell Armstead – is a talented runner. The best way to protect a young quarterback is to ride the run game early, keep the pressure at bay and open up opportunities to attack the defense vertically with the pass game. If Notre Dame can attack the Temple offense and prevent those things it will limit how effective Temple can be offensively.
The goal is obviously to get stops behind the line, but the secondary objective is to force the back to make cuts much earlier than desired. If the Irish front can force Armstead into early cuts, it allows the linebackers and safeties to rally to the ball much faster, as the play has already been declared. If they don’t get penetration, the run game can get rolling downhill, which makes it more effective.
3. Limit Big Plays: Wake Forest outplayed Temple in every possible way in the December Military Bowl. Temple rushed for -20 yards in the game, Wake Forest recorded four sacks and it forced two turnovers. Despite that dominance, Temple scored 26 points and made the game much closer than it should have been in the fourth quarter.
The reason was it was able to rip off a number of big plays in the pass game, as Wake Forest’s cornerbacks had a very hard time handling the talented trio of pass catchers: Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings. Temple will look for ways to attack down the field in this game, and it will get its screen game going early.
Notre Dame cannot allow Temple to get many big plays in this game. If Temple has to go on long, drawn out drives all game it will have no chance in this matchup.
4. Tackle, Tackle, Tackle: Part of eliminating big plays is tackling consistently well. This was a major, major problem for Notre Dame the last three years. Notre Dame cannot miss opportunities to bring down Armstead and the Temple receivers. If the Irish simply play sound defense and tackle in space it will have a very good chance at keeping Temple’s points down.
It will be imperative that linebackers Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Te’von Coney keep Armstead in check, and when the safeties come down in the run game they must be sound.
NOTRE DAME SPECIAL TEAMS
1. No Bad Plays: The first, and really the only goal, for the Notre Dame special teams early in the year is to play a clean game. No turnovers, no big mistakes. Notre Dame gave up five special teams touchdowns last season, which is truly abysmal. All special teams coordinator Brian Polian really needs early in the season is to get his unit to play sound football and not make the big mistakes that cost the program so dearly last fall.
2. Win The Field Position Battle: Notre Dame’s coverage units are facing a Temple special teams that has talented and athletic return men. The best way to help an Owl offense that should struggle to consistently move the ball is to give them short fields due to bad kicks or poor coverage. If the coverage units do their job and force Temple to travel 75+ yards after every kick they will have done their part to secure a victory.