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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Keys to the game: NC State

Irish graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman (10) holds the shillelagh among his teammates after Notre Dame's 42-3 defeat of Navy on Aug. 26, 2023 at Aviva Stadium.

Notre Dame football is off to a 2-0 start for the fifth time in the last six years. They’ve accomplished this feat, though, against two teams with markedly lower season expectations.

This Saturday should be the Irish’s first true test of the campaign for multiple reasons. For one, the quality of opposition will be considerably higher. NC State has won eight or more games in each of the past three seasons. Furthermore, the contest will be Notre Dame’s first true road game of the year. The Navy game in Dublin brought plenty of unique travel quirks, but the crowd was still largely pro-Irish. In Raleigh, Notre Dame should encounter a considerably less friendly environment.

Here are three areas the Irish need to find success in to continue their winning ways in 2023.

1. Win at the line of scrimmage

This applies to both sides of the ball. In spite of the winning result, NC State’s run defense did not excel in the Wolfpack’s first game of the season against UConn. On the first drive last week, the Huskies ran the ball eight times as part of a 12-play, 75-yard march down the field that concluded with the game’s opening score. The Wolfpack also conceded a 71-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Notre Dame’s offensive line should be a much stronger unit than UConn’s (both figuratively and literally). If they can create an early push against NC State, the Irish will be more than happy to lean on their productive running back stable to control the tempo. The name of the game for the Notre Dame offense thus far in 2023 has been efficiency. A strong ground attack will lay the foundation for such efficiency to continue.

On the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, Notre Dame’s pass rush will face its biggest challenge yet. Navy’s triple option attack brings unique challenges but doesn’t necessitate much in terms of creating pressure when the quarterback drops back. The Wolfpack threw the ball nearly 30 times against the Huskies. A retooled Irish pass rush will need to create pressure in order for defensive coordinator Al Golden’s unit to stay among the nation’s best.

2. Contain Brennan Armstrong

Going hand-in-hand with a need to put pressure on NC State’s quarterback is the need to have an answer for him once he evades that pressure. Brennan Armstrong is more than just a traditional pocket passer — he can hurt opposing defenses with his legs as well.

Against UConn, Armstrong actually had more carries (19) than completed passes (17). He made the most of those runs as well, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He ended the day with two scores on the ground. 

Notre Dame's linebackers had something of a slow game (as slow as any Saturday for a linebacker ever is) last weekend after an assignment-heavy Navy contest. They’ll be tested once again against the Wolfpack. Armstrong will, either by design or chaos, get out of the pocket at least a few times against the Irish. It will fall on Notre Dame’s trio of graduate student linebackers to keep him from breaking off any chunk yardage gains once that happens.

3. Continue to spread out the passing attack

Notre Dame won’t have a Biletnikoff Award contender in their receiver room this year. But at least five receivers have caught passes in each of the Irish’s first two games. Even though no single receiver is racking up catches at a prolific rate, almost all of them have gotten involved in some capacity over the last two weeks.

This can be a major strength for Notre Dame under quarterback Sam Hartman. One of the greatest benefits of having the veteran graduate student under center is how deliberate he is about going through his progressions. Hartman doesn’t leave receivers open often. If the Irish can keep sending out a wide array of receivers, it will make preparation for opposing secondaries that much harder. Defenses can’t cover Tobias Merriweather the same way they cover Jayden Thomas. They can’t use the same plan to contain Chris Tyree in the slot as they would Jaden Greathouse in that same role.

If all of Notre Dame’s receivers can get involved in the passing attack in some capacity, it will make Hartman’s patience in reading the field that much more dangerous. More involved receivers mean more headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. And more headaches for opposing defensive coordinators means more open targets for Hartman to find.