Notre Dame Ready to Bounce Back Against Vanderbilt

irish

Rainman M.

Monday, September 10, 2018 4:42 PM UTC

Monday, Sep. 10, 2018 4:42 PM UTC

Notre Dame hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon on NBC. Covering a two-touchdown spread may seem to bettors like an impossible task for the Irish, but only if you’re affected by recency bias.

Betting record on Notre Dame Games: 2-0

Vanderbilt (2-0) at No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0)Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET (NBC)Free NCAAF Pick: Irish -14.5Best Line Offered: Heritage

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In its 24-16 victory over Ball State, Notre Dame couldn’t have looked any worse. The offensive line offered minimal push, missed blocks, and failed to execute simple pulls. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush made sundry errors with mechanics, decision-making, reading defenses, going through progressions, and pass accuracy. Finally, the play-calling was unimaginative and repetitive. On the one hand, it’s tempting to see Notre Dame play like this, shed tears for departed star running back Josh Adams, two first-round caliber offensive linemen, and the offensive line coach, and proclaim it impossible for Notre Dame to cover the spread against Vanderbilt, when it couldn’t even beat Ball State by double digits. On the other hand, that pessimistic line of thinking seems too easily justified to be true.

If Notre Dame’s offensive line had sincerely tried against Ball State, then Ball State’s defense would be better than Michigan’s, which didn’t muster as many sacks or tackles for loss as Ball State did. Notre Dame limited itself intentionally. It did as little as possible to win. Ball State quarterback Riley Neal started off hot, easily moving his team down the field, because the Irish played soft coverage. Once they pressed against the Ball State receivers, nobody could get open for Neal, who ended up completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes. The Irish defense was so strong over 97 snaps that the offense didn’t have to show its hand at all. The main limit that coach Brian Kelly imposed on the offense was to not design any run plays for Wimbush, to force him to stay in the pocket. Wimbush struggled because he’s simply not a pocket passing quarterback. When the Irish needed points, they rolled him out of the pocket and he showed better accuracy on the move than he ever did last year.

Ball State had been circled by the Irish as their easiest game and they expected to breeze through it and give their freshmen more playing time. Despite only winning by eight, they were never really in danger of losing, even if their arrogance proved excessive. It was difficult to be prepared mentally for a 35-point underdog after achieving an awesome opening win at home and it was hard to play well without motivation. But I expect them to bounce back in a statement-like fashion against Vanderbilt. They can’t afford not to for many reasons. They would risk demoralizing their players too severely, establishing bad playing habits instead of developing good ones, wearing out the defense by keeping them on the field too long, and alienating their fans. Most importantly, they could lose. After all, Kelly isn’t known for playing down to competition, doing so last year only against Navy on Senior Day.

If the Irish bounce back, it will need to happen on the ground. Wimbush can still contribute. He’s normally very ball-secure, throwing only six interceptions last season. He has big-play receivers like Chris Finke, who came through with a 43-yard touchdown catch against Michigan. Miles Boykin led all receivers against Ball State with 6 receptions and 119 yards. He’s also a deep-play threat who excels at finding the soft spot in zone coverage. Wimbush is also a threat with his legs, achieving four 100-yard rushing games last season. Still, when the Irish have covered the spread, they’ve ridden their running backs and offensive-line. They enjoy depth at running back with Tony Jones, who averaged five yards per carry against Michigan. Jafar Armstrong complements Jones’ strength with speed and big-play ability. The offensive line boasts 65 returning starts and has solid size, strength, and reach at every position plus experienced leadership at center. The Irish will comprise a shocking change from Middle Tennessee State's dink-and-dunk, up-tempo offense and Nevada's pass-happy, spread offense that Vandy has owned so far.

Vanderbilt will offer little resistance. Last year, the defensive line ranked 91st and 71st in power success rate and stuff rate, respectively, and allowed five rush yards per game. This year, the d-line can only continue to regress after multiple departures especially at defensive tackle. Vanderbilt lacks the size and physicality to compete with the Irish in the trenches.

On offense, the Commodores’ pass attack lives and dies with quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who lacks the proven ability to even keep his team competitive against a team with a strong secondary. Shurmur relies heavily on his tight ends, which isn’t anything new for the Irish, which limited Michigan’s tight ends to four receptions and 21 yards. Vanderbilt has one threatening receiver in Kalija Lipscomb, who, besides the occasional big play, has remained unproven against stronger secondaries. Notre Dame’s secondary, led by Julian Love and his 20 passes defensed last season, is one of the hardest to get open against.

Vanderbilt’s offensive line may improve from last season thanks to its returning experience. But that improvement still won’t amount to much after ranking outside the top 100 last year in power success rate and stuff rate. Its top running back averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Notre Dame is too physical, led by first-round caliber monster Jerry Tillery who achieved two sacks and a forced fumble against Michigan. The linebackers are led by future NFL star Te’Von Coney and his 24 tackles. Both players are known for creating havoc in opposing backfields.

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