WT: I know the overall result is far more disappointing than what you were expecting to start this season. There's already been one change with Brian Vangorder being let go, but how hot is the seat for Brian Kelly right now? If things don't improve soon, do you see Notre Dame pulling an LSU and letting him go midseason?
PS: I think the seat is definitely heating up for Brian Kelly, as he's now virtually guaranteed to have his 5th season (in 7 seasons total) with at least 4 losses, and will also likely end up with at least 5 losses for the 4th time.
8-5 seasons to begin his coaching career could be dismissed as him turning the program around, building depth, cleaning up Weis' mess, etc. But in Year 7, those excuses don't hold up. Notre Dame expects to compete for the national championship, and Brian Kelly has shown a surprising inability to do that, except for the 2012 season, which looks more and more like the exception to the rule rather than the norm to be expected.
I thought Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star wrote a good article on all of this last week, basically pointing out that although Kelly may be better than his three predecessors at the job, that doesn't mean he should be getting a pass at this point in his tenure. We know what he can do with this program and we've seen the peak. His days could easily be numbered at ND unless the team shows some major turnaround.
As for a firing midseason, I highly doubt it. I think ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick would wait for after the season to do that (and honestly it would probably take a 6-6 record or worse for Swarbrick to even consider doing it), but I do think Kelly has really dug himself a hole with how this season began and I think it will cost him his job, either after this season or after Year 8, when he will likely be breaking in a new QB and defensive coordinator with a lot of young, unproven talent.
WT: Despite the disappointing record, DeShone Kizer has been sensational so far this season. What is it that makes him such a special player, and what's the best way to try and stop him, if there is one?
DeShone Kizer is just straight-up everything you want in a quarterback. He's got prototypical size (6'4.5", 230 lbs.), great speed and strength running the ball (I think he is still somehow underrated with his ability to make plays with his feet, despite his 707 yards and 16 TDs on the ground in just 17 career games played), and an absolute cannon for an arm that allows him to make all of the throws while still providing the touch needed to precisely place passes right on the money.
Mentally, there may be even more to like about Kizer. He's a confident, passionate leader without ever coming across as arrogant, and I always find myself using the word 'unflappable' to describe his demeanor in crunch time or when ND has a major deficit to overcome. His game-winning pass against Virginia, comebacks against Clemson, Texas, and MSU, and final drive against Stanford all lend credence to that imperturbable nature.
In order to stop DeShone Kizer, you have to force him to try to do too much and win the game on his own. One major key is to take away the running game, as it puts all of the pressure on his arm and he has been known to make the occasional bad decision by forcing tough throws in order to get something going.
A great pass rush is also very important, as the ND offensive line is very strong in pass protection and the more comfortable you let Kizer get, the more likely he is to torch you. He's very good scrambling out of the pocket, no doubt, but if you can keep getting pressure on him and take away the help of the Irish running game, he'll feel the need to do it all and that's when you might be able to get a turnover or two out of him, which could be the difference in the game considering the ND defense's inability to get consistent stops.
WT: Other than Kizer and Equanimeous St. Brown (that is seriously the best name ever), who is one player on the offensive side of the ball that the Pack will need to keep an eye on?
PS: This is a tough question, because the Irish have a bunch of young, explosive talent on offense that NC State needs to watch out for. At receiver, sophomore CJ Sanders is small, shifty, has strong hands, and possesses turn-on-the-after-burners speed. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week against Syracuse, and if you allow him to catch the ball in space, he's always a threat to turn it into a big play, if not take it to the house. Here's a video of him devastating Stanford's special teams last season.
At running back, watch for sophomore Dexter Williams. Fellow sophomore Josh Adams will start and is a big-play threat in his own right, but Williams has really impressed the past couple weeks in a more-involved role, and Pack defenders have gotta be feeling a little nervous about this guy getting any sort of running lanes on Saturday.
WT: The weather certainly appears like it is going to be a factor this weekend with Hurricane Matthew taking aim at North and South Carolina. How will these potential adverse weather conditions affect with Notre Dame is going to try to do offensively (that is if the game is still played)?
PS: As a team who definitely excels more through the air than on the ground, I'm sure heavy rain and winds will cause a few drops that the team normally wouldn't see. We saw it last year against Clemson, when the Irish offense couldn't run the ball on the Tiger defense and couldn't get anything going until late in the 3rd quarter, when they finally started to mount that exciting comeback.
I think the worse the weather is, the more Brian Kelly will call on his offensive line to really pave the way. That unit has been very disappointing this season, specifically with all of the hype of having two future first-round picks on the left side with LT Mike McGlinchey and LG Quenton Nelson. It's unclear if those guys will be able to pull it all together and dominate NC State's front seven like fans were expecting before the season.
However, also don't expect the bad weather to force Kelly to stop calling passing plays. That's his offense and Kizer has proven he can make throws in a monsoon, so I think overall ND would still be able to do most of what it wanted to do offensively, just with less success.
WT: Moving on to the defensive side of the ball, what has made it so difficult for Notre Dame to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks so far this season?
The defense just completely lacks any sort of talent coming off the edge of the line. Gone are the days of Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Prince Shembo wreaking havoc in the backfield in 2012, and instead the Irish have solid interior defensive linemen to get a good push up the middle, but no one on the outside to clean up the mess.
Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan has two of the team's three sacks on the season - the other coming from outside linebacker James Onwualu, who is certainly not a pass rusher either - and both are typically needed in coverage due to their speed and athleticism.
Brian Kelly did mention in his weekly press conference on Tuesday that true freshmen Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara would be used in hybrid roles in this defense, indicating he will probably try to rely more on their speed and athleticism to put some pressure on QBs from end/outside linebacker spots. Those two have shown some promise in their limited playing time, but as of now it's still a mystery if anyone on the defense can get a consistent pass rush and help bail out the secondary from giving up another big play.
WT: Who is one player on the Irish Defense that Pack fans should pay attention to, and why?
PS: Nyles Morgan is the easy choice, as he is the team's leading tackler, only current source of a pass rush, and a guy who can make plays in coverage as well. The Wolfpack need to be aware of him at all times and avoid him at all costs.
One other name I'll mention - Isaac Rochell on the defensive line. He's a big, strong senior captain who plays both defensive end and defensive tackle depending on what's needed, and his push up-front has been one of the only sources of distress for opposing QBs. If they block him and keep an eye on Morgan, then NC State has a great chance to score a lot of points and win this game.
WT: Any major injuries to report?
PS: No new ones to report since last week. Just FYI, though, ND has really only lost one key player to an injury so far this season (knock on wood), with that being starting CB Shaun Crawford (ruptured Achilles). Key CB reserve Nick Watkins has been out all year with a broken arm, and obviously ND lost other key players before the season for academic reasons (TE Alizé Jones) and legal reasons (S Max Redfield) and cool reasons (RG Steve Elmer retired from football to pursue a career in politics). But, especially compared to last season, this has been a healthy year (again, knock on wood).
WT: Let's get a prediction on the game!
PS: I completely agree with you that this will be a close one. Seeing ND let Syracuse score almost at-will doesn't bode well for playing a much better team in NC State, and the Wolfpack's run defense and all-around offense are going to cause major issues for ND.
However, I will forever be a naively-optimistic homer of an Irish fan, so I think that Brian Kelly's offense exposes some weak spots in the NC State defense with Kizer finding his receivers for some big plays, and Greg Hudson continues to make marginal improvements as defensive coordinator for the Irish, resulting in a couple stops that end up being the difference in a fairly high-scoring affair.
Notre Dame 41, NC State 33
Many thanks to Pat for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to check out my answers to his questions over on One Foot Down!