By Neil Patrick Healy
What’s worse for the morale of a fan base than needing overtime to beat a bad FCS team? A body-bag game! Nevada has to travel across the country to take on the University of Notre Dame, and if things play out the way they did against Cal Poly, the Irish are going to have a field day.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSIVE LINE WILL DOMINATE
A recent trend for Notre Dame is the ability to produce elite offensive linemen and get them drafted into the NFL. Since 2014, the Irish have had two first-rounders, one second-rounder and one third-rounder. The 2016 line is no different.
Notre Dame has an offensive line that averages out as the biggest line among the preseason AP top-10 teams. With an average height/weight measurement of 6 feet, 5.1 inches and 315 pounds, the Irish line is bigger than the lines of nine NFL 2015 playoff teams. Senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, junior left guard Quenton Nelson and junior right tackle Alex Bars all have high projections in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. Add junior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Colin McGovern looking to have breakout seasons, and Nevada’s front seven is in trouble.
The Wolf Pack front seven lost an alarming amount of experience and talent from last year’s team and now has to plug in younger and less inexperienced guys to fill the void. If Cal Poly can put holes in Nevada’s defense, then expect the Irish line to carve through it like butter.
IRISH BACKS WILL EXPLOIT NEVADA DEFENSE
Despite do-it-all back C. J. Prosise being taken in the third round of last year’s NFL draft, the Irish return two stud running backs with an abundant amount of experience.
Sophomore Josh Adams had a huge breakout season for the Irish in 2015. The first carry of his career went for a 26-yard touchdown against Texas, he had a 98-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest and he broke the Notre Dame freshman rushing record with 835 yards. Adams will join senior Tarean Folston, who tore his ACL on his third carry of last season but had 889 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore.
Both backs are poised to have big seasons for the Irish, and with an excellent offensive line paving gigantic holes for them to run through, both backs should have no problem exploiting the weak Nevada defense. Expect both Adams and Folston to have over 100 yards rushing. Don’t be surprised if at least four running backs record carriers over the course of the game.
NEVADA’S OFFENSIVE LINE WILL STRUGGLE
Flip to the offensive side of the ball, and the picture doesn’t get prettier for Nevada. Take out sophomore running back James Butler’s 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter last Friday, and he averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry. It wasn’t really Butler’s fault, but the offensive line couldn’t create holes for him to run through. Notre Dame’s defensive front seven isn’t elite, but it has the pieces to be close enough. It is for sure leaps and bounds better than Cal Poly’s, which should be concerning for the Wolf Pack.
Despite getting torched against Texas on Sunday night, Notre Dame’s defense is still going to be the most talented Nevada faces all season. Establishing a ground game up the middle of the Irish defensive line is a tall order considering both defensive tackles weigh more than most of Nevada’s starting offensive line. Junior Daniel Cage stands at 6 feet 1 inch and 315 pounds, and he looks to take the next step as an interior lineman after showing tremendous growth as a sophomore. When Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer says on record that he regrets not landing a player — as he did when asked about Cage — you know the player is something special.
Next to Cage is 6-foot-6, 310-pound sophomore Jerry Tillery, who logged significant playing time as a freshman despite originally being recruited as an offensive tackle. With all that size in the middle, Butler will once again have trouble finding holes to run through. Pair those two with quality defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell, and Nevada will have a hard time doing much on the ground.
NEVADA PASSING GAME WILL SHOW FLASHES
Like I said, Notre Dame’s defense was exposed against Texas. The Irish defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, is already on thin ice in his third year in South Bend, and the internet even had a couple of petitions to have him fired. Nevada’s offense may make some plays simply because VanGorder can’t get it together.
The one bright spot in Nevada’s disappointing opening performance was, oddly enough, senior quarterback Tyler Stewart. The second-year starter made some big plays down the field in the first half and threw two touchdown passes while going 17-for-23 and throwing for 189 yards. Notre Dame’s secondary has more high-quality players than Cal Poly, but there are still some questions after senior starting safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the team for carrying a handgun without a license and possession of marijuana.
I’m sure some Nevada fans watched the Notre Dame–Texas game and thought, “Notre Dame’s defense is bad, so we have a chance.” That’s assuming Nevada has the same talent as Texas does, which isn’t remotely true. Once the running game is largely taken away, Stewart will be forced to make plays with his arm. We saw him complete nice passes upfield, including a 46-yard strike to Victor Gonzalez. There will be a couple of nice throws, but don’t expect Stewart to carry the Pack to victory on his shoulders.
NOTRE DAME RECEIVERS WILL MAKE PLAYS
With the graduation of Chris Brown and speedster Will Fuller being taken in the first round by the Houston Texans in last year’s draft, Notre Dame is essentially breaking in a new receiving core for 2016. The only returning receiver with significant playing time is Torii Hunter Jr. (yes, the son of former outfielder Torii Hunter), but where the Irish lack in experience, they make up for in raw talent.
Sophomore receiver CJ Sanders will be lined up in the slot and could give the Notre Dame linebackers and secondary nightmares. Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown, besides having one of the best names in sports, is a huge mismatch problem for Nevada’s cornerbacks on the outside. St. Brown broke out in a major way against Texas, catching five passes for 75 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, he towers over the Nevada corners, which will have to draw one of the safeties into a double team. Sooner or later that is going to get exposed by Hunter Jr., Sanders or one of the Notre Dame tight ends.
Barring an Appalachian State over Michigan-like upset, Notre Dame will be in control of this game from beginning to end. The talent gap between these two teams is just too extreme for Nevada to take this game away. The game could be a two-possession game going into halftime, but the second half will yield much more drastic results. One of the consequences of scheduling a body-bag game when you’re a school like Nevada is that you’re eventually going to have to step on the field and hope for the best. Nevada Athletics better enjoy cashing that game check.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at neil@sag