Notre Dame comes to NC State on Saturday. You may have heard. One Foot Down's Patrick Sullivan was kind enough to join us for a Q&A about the Irish, a team with a familiar face at quarterback, a 2-0 record, and College Football Playoff aspirations. Check out Patrick's answers to our questions below, and check out our answers to his questions here.
1. It seemed like head coach Marcus Freeman got off to a bumpy start last year, how are fans feeling about him now? Too early to tell, or things pointed in the right direction?
There aren't too many ways it could have been bumpier -- after playing a close game against Ohio State in the opener that somehow never felt that impressive (especially on offense), Freeman's program lost to Marshall at home, struggled to beat Cal at home, and then after looking like they might be figuring some things out with wins over UNC and BYU, lost to a putrid Stanford team at home in mid-October to cap a 3-3 start to the year. Add in that the awesome recruiting tear Freeman had been on was being dampened by a couple top recruits decommitting/wavering, and Irish fans were super restless, if not downright PANICKING.
Freeman righted the ship by going 6-1 to finish the year with wins over then-16th-ranked Syracuse, then-4th-ranked Clemson, and a nice win over 19th-ranked South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. 9-4 wasn't ideal, but it was at least a nice reversal of momentum and cause for hope (especially considering this was Freeman's first ever foray into being a head coach).
So as of now, I'd say it's still a little early in that Irish fans will need more from Marcus Freeman before they label him the Chosen One or anything, but he's so likable (especially compared to Brian Kelly, who was an absolute CHORE to support/defend as an ND fan) and he's shown the ability to learn from mistakes, grow within the role, and improve his approach as a head coach (8-1 in his last 9 games).
Add to the equation that his team just absolutely SMOKED a couple of patsies in the first two games of this season (not impressive on its face, but it IS what a good team should do against that level of competition), and Irish fans are optimistic for 2023 and beyond. However, we're all still holding our collective breath a bit with this specific team until the Irish finally take on a P5 opponent on Saturday and then probably still will hold our breath some more until they host Ohio State on 9/23 in their first massive test of the year.
2. What do you think Freeman's ceiling is given Notre Dame usually plays a tough schedule every year? I personally think Notre Dame's ceiling as a program -- whether under Marcus or otherwise -- is to build themselves into a Clemson-esque program (with an added upside driven by a willingness to go get transfers, unlike Dabo). The Irish simply will never be able to pull in 5-stars left and right like Georgia, Alabama, or Ohio State, but they CAN stockpile a bunch of really good talent, reel in a few 5-star caliber recruits as difference-makers, attract some proven transfers to fill holes, and then they'll just need a championship-level QB to actually compete for and win a title. That last part especially is easier said than done -- Trevor Lawrences and Deshaun Watsons don't grow on trees (thank God there's no Deshaun Watson tree, though). Sam Hartman is one of the greatest ACC QBs of all-time, at least statistically, and we still don't really know if he's going to be enough to drive this team to even a Playoff bid, let alone give them a chance to win once they're there. I also don't know that the Irish have championship-contending starting talent at a few positions, like linebacker and safety.
But, I think in time Freeman is a good enough recruiter, a good enough coach, etc. to at the very least get to Brian Kelly's level of success, and I think he's way more capable than Kelly ever was of humbling himself, learning, growing, and ultimately being able to take the Irish to that next level where they aren't getting embarrassed on every national stage they play on. 3. How are you liking the Sam Hartman era so far? Any concerns for the transfer QB through two games? We're all trying not to get too excited about wins over a really bad Navy team and a bad FCS squad -- this Irish team, including Sam Hartman, is still very much untested and unproven in 2023. However, with that said, Hartman has looked FANTASTIC in his first two games, and that's even after you just get over the contrast of having him as your QB after watching Drew Pyne man the offense for an entire season (woof). He's currently 33-for-40 on the year (82.5% completion) for 445 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He looks comfortable, hasn't yet been spooked by pressure, and just does things that you'd expect from a 6th-year quarterback. The only real concern to-date is his decision to make a diving/flipping effort to score a rushing touchdown against Tennessee State last weekend. Ideally he would NEVER do that and never scare us all to death, but I'd at least ask him to save that risky move for the biggest of games and maybe not do it against FCS opponents.
4. Where do you think ND gives NC State the most issues? Offensively, there's no question the answer to this is up front, and on the ground. My knowledge of NC State's 2023 squad is limited, but I caught a little bit of their game against UConn last week and have done the most basic of research, and I know the Wolfpack have a solid secondary. Considering ND's receivers are still a work in progress and trying to establish themselves now that they finally have a good QB throwing them the ball, I don't think the Irish will be dominating through the air on Saturday. But the Irish offensive line and running backs are two of the deepest position groups on the team, and knowing NC State doesn't exactly look stout against the running game, I think that's where ND can thrive on Saturday. They have a near-guaranteed 2024 1st round pick at left tackle in Joe Alt, and right tackle Blake Fisher is going to play on Sundays as well. The interior OL is a little less talented (5th-year center Zeke Correll) or a little less experienced (guards Pat Coogan and Rocco Spindler, both first-year starters), but very promising nonetheless. I think this group will really bulldoze some folks this year, including at least a couple times against NC State this weekend. Meanwhile, the Irish's stable of running backs is FOR REAL. Starter Audric Estime is a monster (211 yards, 2 TDs, 7.3 YPC so far this season), and his backups are all fully capable of doing great things as well. Sophomore Jadarian Price was rumored to be on the verge of winning the starting job as a true freshman in 2022 before tearing his Achilles, and seems to be pretty darn healthy now. And true freshman Jeremiyah Love is a burner who's already shown how good he's going to be for the Irish (86 yards, 9.6 YPC, 1 TD). Add in Gi'Bran Payne as a solid, reliable back with good vision, and ND has 4 different guys who can do damage behind that big and talented Irish o-line. On the defensive side of the ball, ND is pretty deep and moderately talented in the front seven, but I'm not convinced any of those guys are elite or necessarily going to give NC State tons of issues (hoping I am very wrong and they sack Brennan Armstrong approximately 95 times). But the Irish cornerbacks are reportedly VERY good, with sophomore Benjamin Morrison as a potential All-American candidate (and likely 1st rounder in 2025) and senior Cam Hart finally healthy with a great deal of length and experience. I think those two will make things difficult for Brennan Armstrong, or at the very least force him to extend plays with his feet in order to find many open receivers. 5. Conversely, where do you think they might be the most vulnerable? Starting on defense this time, I think ND's starting linebackers are all old and experienced and pretty good, but not quite as quick or strong as Irish fans would like. They can oftentimes struggle to get off blocks and have a tendency to get burned in coverage, so I think they can potentially be exploited, especially in the passing game. Safety is also a position with either unproven guys or underwhelming experienced guys for ND, so Armstrong might be able to take advantage of them over the top if he can find receivers deep without Morrison or Hart being involved in coverage. Finally, I think this Irish defense has struggled to corral mobile QBs in 2022 and also a bit last week against Tennessee State, so Armstrong's ability to scramble, take off and run, etc. could expose some deficiencies in containment/speed/tackling in the Irish front seven that maybe haven't been too evident yet due to the bad opponents to start 2023. Offensively, ND's receivers look much improved over how bad they looked last season (albeit with a bad QB last year, which I'm sure didn't help), but they haven't had to face corners like Aydan White and Shyheim Battle yet this season, so I could see them struggling a bit to get separation and Hartman thus not having a ton of open guys to throw to when he drops back, which will be an issue. He might have to look for WR1 Jayden Thomas and true freshman Jaden Greathouse a lot, because it's not clear who else can definitely get open. Also, I do think offensive guard is still a relative weakness on the ND offensive line. Coogan and Spindler are talented but inexperienced, and so I think Payton Wilson, CJ Clark, and others in the NC State front seven could find some success shooting gaps, getting penetration on the inside, and collapsing the pocket from the middle. 6. The Fighting Irish offensive line vs NC State's defensive line will be a big storyline in this game. How do you see that key matchup in the trenches playing out? Like I mentioned, I think it comes down to how ND's interior OL plays against NC State's DTs and LBs. I expect Joe Alt and Blake Fisher to largely handle their business on the outside, even with Davin Vann being a formidable opponent at defensive end -- if they don't handle their business, the Irish will have a LONG day and I will be very impressed with the Wolfpack defensive ends. So, it will be up to Correll at center and Coogan/Spindler at guard to see if they can step up and get a push in the middle to open nice running lanes for Estime, Price, etc. In that same vein, NC State needs to try to get some sort of pass rush on Hartman so he can't just sit in the pocket and pick them apart with his arm. Hartman hasn't been sacked yet this season and has shown the ability to beat the blitz with smart and quick decisions, but the Wolfpack can probably cause a little more chaos and be a little more creative than Navy and TSU, so they will need to find a way to disrupt him and make him much less unflappable.
I don't think ND will be able to run it as easily as they have been to start the year, but I do think ND wins this battle up front and finds some solid success on the ground on Saturday while also largely protecting Hartman from the rush -- especially knowing Hartman is pretty adept at moving around in the pocket to avoid the rush and buy time for his receivers to get open. 7. On a separate note, given the changing landscape of realignment we're in, do you foresee Notre Dame joining a conference any time in the near future? What factors are preventing them or what factors would propel them to join? In the near future, I don't think so. Notre Dame has been pretty clear that they intend to stay independent as long as it won't keep them out of CFP consideration and as long as they can get a decent TV contract on their own. Obviously they could make more money in a conference, so money alone clearly won't drive their decision -- especially since their nationwide brand was built on independence and playing such a non-regional schedule (although, I guess now they could play a coast-to-coast schedule while in the Big Ten or ACC...). I always try to explain it this way -- why wouldn't they want to retain independence? The Irish get a lot of shit from opposing fans for being so pretentious and pompous for wanting to be independent (and to be fair, we ND fans are often way too pretentious/pompous, but not for that reason). But any school who can be independent while still having one of the most valuable brands in the sport, commanding their own TV deal, and somehow still getting a powerful seat at the decision-making table for college football would absolutely try to keep that situation going as long as possible. Add in their history of independence and how being black-balled by the Big Ten led to ND's rise to prominence under Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy (because they were forced to travel to play teams like USC, Army, Texas, etc. instead of sticking to Michigan and that crew in the Midwest), and there's an emotional/nostalgic component to remaining independent too. I think the Irish will continue to cling to this until they're absolutely forced to join a conference in order to be in the discussion for postseason play, or in a scenario where their TV deal with NBC doesn't rise as it should with the market for TV deals these days -- because even though they may not make a move right now just driven by money, it will be a factor and could become the only factor if NBC doesn't pony up with the next contract. 8. Finish the sentence, "Notre Dame beats NC State if..." ...if they run for at least 150 yards and win the turnover battle while holding Brennan Armstrong to 50-75 rushing yards at most. 9. On a scale of 1 to absolutely ecstatic, how happy were Notre Dame fans seeing Brian Kelly get rocked by FSU the other night? Oh baby, we were "Brian VanGorder celebrating a sack in his 2014 defense's shutout of Brady Hoke's Michigan team" levels of ecstatic. Brian Kelly is an unlikable liar of a coach who has a solid floor in terms of program stability and consistently beating bad opponents, but whose ceiling is low/limited when it really matters and has almost no ability to admit his mistakes or learn from them without someone forcing him to do so. I could honestly write another few thousand words about him and how much we all dislike him on the ND side, but I will save you the time and not ruin your day with that kind of energy. You don't want to hear that right now, and I'd rather try to move on and focus on how enjoyable it is to have a head coach we aren't ashamed to root for or defend these days, and who I think has much higher upside in the long run than Mr. Fake Southern Accent. 10. And finally, give us your score prediction for the game, who wins and why?
I'll take Notre Dame by ~17 points -- let's say a final score of 31-14.
I believe the Wolfpack will struggle to stop the ND running game, and that Sam Hartman will make a few really nice throws and be smart with the football overall (although I also have a bad feeling his first pick of the season is coming in this game). I also think the NC State offense's lack of explosiveness will make it tough for them to keep up, as I would argue that a fast, explosive, vertical offense is the kind that will find the most success against this Irish defense (think Caleb Williams/USC).
Armstrong will make some plays and probably scramble his way into some really frustrating first downs when it feels like the Irish should have gotten off the field, but I also think the Wolfpack will struggle to run the ball consistently and that the Irish secondary -- especially the corners -- will do a good job keeping NC State receivers in front of them and limit big plays.
Through ~3 quarters I think this one will be closer than Irish fans would like after outscoring the opposition 98-6 to begin the year, so it may be jarring and nerve-wracking from that perspective. But ultimately I think the Irish will wear the Wolfpack down with a healthy dose of Audric Estime and Jadarian Price and put it out of reach in the 4th quarter to give us a final margin that makes it look like more of a dominant performance than it actually might have been.