On Saturday afternoon, the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers meet at Soldier Field in Chicago for a game that, quite frankly, should be played more often. The Irish come into the matchup with an unblemished 3-0 record while the Badgers are sitting at 1-1 coming off an early season bye week.
We had a bunch of questions about the Irish and thankfully Pat Sullivan of One Foot Down was available to help us answer them. Here is what he had to say about his team and the game this weekend.
I don’t know if you know this, but current Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan used to play for Wisconsin! I know, I was shocked too. How has the new guy fit in for the Irish? How does the offense look?
No way!!! Wow, I wonder if anyone is running a story about this — seems like an interesting and fresh angle!
Honestly, Coan has fit in about as expected, if not a tad better. ND fans were pretty much expecting a veteran game-manager type of QB to bridge the gap between Ian Book and blue-chip freshman Tyler Buchner, and Coan has not only been that steady presence under center, but really brought some things to the Irish offense that they’ve desperately missed at QB for the past ~four years.
Book’s big knock was always that he wasn’t much of a downfield passer and oftentimes tucked and ran instead of stepping into the pocket, letting things develop, and taking a chance on a big throw. Sure, he was fun as hell with his scrambling/running ability, but considering some of the weapons the Irish have had at wideout over the years, it’s been frustrating that ND hasn’t had more of a vertical passing game.
Coan has immediately helped scratch that itch, enabling offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to utilize some very dangerous downfield weapons ND has at receiver and running back for big plays early on this season.
Of course, there’s been a trade-off going from Book to Coan. Coan isn’t a statue back there, but he’s pretty close — and considering Book’s offensive line from 2020 lost four guys to the NFL, it’s been rough for Coan in terms of staying on his feet. The Irish are currently No. 122 in the country in sacks allowed, with Coan having been dropped 14 times combined by the likes of FSU, Toledo, and Purdue. Just at that rate, he will be sacked 56 times this season — not taking into account some better defenses coming his way now — which would be more than double the amount of sacks Book took last year.
This Irish offensive front has been the ultimate limiting factor for the offense, failing to provide even decent protection and also doing a poor job creating running lanes for an Irish backfield that’s easily the most talented Brian Kelly has ever had. Someone with Book’s legs would have been much better suited to play behind such a leaky offensive line, which is why you’ll probably see Tyler Buchner at QB for ND at least a few times on Saturday, assuming his hamstring is healthy — the Irish need to keep defenses honest with a mobile threat at QB, and Buchner can definitely do that (10 carries for 92 yards in limited action so far this season).
Still, overall Coan has been good for the offense and for the production of the passing game, and he’s already proven capable of handling a tough atmosphere (Doak Campbell on Bobby Bowden Night is tough, no matter how bad FSU is) and a game-winning drive (vs. Toledo at home, but still). His presence and the line’s struggles have made this much more of a passing team than a running team, but with all the weapons he has at his disposal, it can still be a very dangerous offense if he just has time to drop back and find those guys.
So, uh, I am terrified of Kyle Hamilton and would prefer if he’d opt to just sit this game out. What about the rest of the defense? Are the Irish stout against the run? Will they give Graham Mertz time in the pocket?
You’re correct to be terrified of Kyle Hamilton — I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who so perfectly combines freakish size and athleticism with unbelievable instincts and knowledge of the game. He’s an absolute joy to watch and I’m so sad this will be his last season in South Bend. I love you so much, Kyle.
Another look at that fourth down stop by Kyle Hamilton yesterday. pic.twitter.com/IcJBAAuNUA— Kevin Sinclair (@KevinSinclair_) September 19, 2021
In terms of the rest of the defense, their strength is absolutely their defensive line and its ability to wreak havoc on passing downs. They’re currently tied for tenth in the country in sacks per game, thanks to DEs Isaiah Foskey (15 tackles, 3.5 sacks), Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, one FF), and Justin Ademilola (10 tackles, 2.5 sacks) coming off the edge, DTs Jayson Ademilola (14 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Kurt Hinish on the interior, and a very deep rotation of reserves who’ve shown they can get to the QB as well. They haven’t had to face an offensive line like Wisconsin’s yet, so we will see if they’re as effective on Saturday as they have been so far this year, but at the very least they should provide some occasional pressure on Mertz.
Against the run, it’s kind of a mixed bag. ND’s got some reliable linebackers playing behind that strong defensive front, but they don’t have a ton of speed after losing starter Marist Liufau to injury before the season began. Still, JD Bertrand is all over the place out there (fifth in the country in tackles), and the ND defense is very capable of stopping the run with how good their defensive line is.
However, DC Marcus Freeman has a habit of using a 3-3-5 defense at times, and that’s obviously not held up well against the run vs. teams like FSU and Toledo, so we’ll have to see if he can get his guys in position to slow down what will be a much more powerful running game than they’ve faced to-date.
On the back-end of the defense, the Irish secondary is fine, but beatable (excluding Hamilton, who is anything but beatable). CBs Clarence Lewis (sophomore) and Cam Hart (converted WR) are still developing and getting better, but are by no means lockdown guys and can be beaten deep by receivers with above-average speed. Also, the safety spot opposite Kyle Hamilton is a liability, so if Wisconsin can pick on Houston Griffith or DJ Brown while avoiding Hamilton, they absolutely should — it will pay off.
Who are two under-the-radar players (one from each side of the ball) that will make Wisconsin fans at the bar sound smart when they tell their buddies “watch out for this guy”?
I’m going to assume the following players are off the table because they cannot be considered under-the-radar for Wisconsin fans (or college football fans, for that matter): QB Jack Coan, S Kyle Hamilton, RB Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, and TE Michael Mayer. Please let me know if that’s not true and you’re unaware of any of those guys, as I’d be happy to inform you in the comments about your former QB or about three guys who will be playing on Sundays within the next 1-2 years.
Excluding the above and choosing two each on offense and defense because I’m an indecisive idiot, I’ll go with either WR Kevin Austin or RB Chris Tyree on offense, and DE Isaiah Foskey or DT Jayson Ademilola on defense.
Austin is your prototypical No. 1 WR and capable of taking over games, but he’s battled injuries until this season and thus is basically unknown outside of the Irish fanbase. He’s finally healthy and has shown awesome flashes so far in 2021, but is coming off a horrible game at Purdue (zero catches, multiple drops, multiple times Coan overthrew him deep after he burned a Purdue corner).
ND fans are desperate to see him put it all together in a dominant, stat-sheet-stuffing performance — really hoping Saturday is the day, you guys. Meanwhile, Tyree is the backup running back, but will play a ton on Saturday because he has absolute game-breaking speed. It’s more likely it will happen in the passing game than running game because the Irish offensive line has been awful, so don’t be surprised to see a screen/swing/wheel go to Tyree for a monster gain.
Foskey I mentioned above — maybe he’s a bit too on-the-radar because he leads the team in sacks, but he’s really the guy most likely to jump off the screen when you watch the Irish pass rush on Saturday. He’s a huge, fast man who will really challenge the Badgers’ offensive tackles. Ademilola, meanwhile, has always been solid at DT, but has really come on this year, especially in collapsing the pocket from the middle and pressuring the QB from there. He’s certainly a guy to watch out for as well, both against the pass and run.
Everything seems fairly even between UW and ND, all things considered, sooooooo what’s your prediction for the game?
As I already established above, I reserve the right to give multiple answers despite you asking for just one. Here, my heart and my brain are saying different things.
My heart says that Jack Coan, whether he actually cares about a “revenge” moment or not, will play a fantastic revenge game where he hits his receivers early and often for big plays as the Irish skill guys’ speed and athleticism enable them to put ND up early. Wisconsin will hang around with its typical power football offense and physical defense, but ultimately won’t have the firepower to keep up, especially as Notre Dame wins the turnover battle 3:1 thanks to some great QB pressure and Kyle Hamilton being Kyle Hamilton. Notre Dame wins something like 31-21.
My brain, though, knows how rough this ND offensive line is and how good the Wisconsin defense is. It knows ND will struggle to establish any run at all, making them one-dimensional with a QB that doesn’t have the legs to make plays when the defense pins its ears back and comes after him. Coan will get hit early and often, the ND offense will sputter, and the Badgers will score early thanks to some boneheaded mental mistakes or missed tackles from the ND linebackers/secondary.
From there, Wisconsin will mostly hold Notre Dame in check aside from one or two big plays, and the Badgers will use their running game to milk the clock and win this thing something like 24-16.
It’s no fun to stick with reason/logic, though. So I’ll officially make what my heart said my prediction — Irish win 31-21 BAYBEEEEEE!
No question here, but it was hilarious that you wouldn’t let Purdue bring their Not Even That Big Drum into the stadium. No notes.
The tiny visitors’ tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium remains undefeated as the pettiest and most amazing architectural feature in The House That Rockne Built. I love it unconditionally.