BTP: Last season did not go well for Notre Dame, and safe to say Brian Kelly was on a blisteringly hot seat. What in your mind is the biggest reason for why the Irish have been able to turn it around and be one of the best teams in college football so far in 2017?
PS: It all comes down to Brian Kelly's approach to managing the Notre Dame football program. In the past, he's been super-involved with calling offensive plays, inserting himself into defensive strategy, etc., and this off-season he took a step back and overhauled everything, from coaches to culture to how he interacts with the team.
The biggest moves, of course, were the brand new coordinator hires he made. Offensive Coordinator Chip Long was hired from Memphis and given play-calling duties, allowing for this dominant run-pass option offense that has ND tearing through all opponents not named Georgia.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko was hired from Wake Forest, and has been even more successful than Long, as he took an absolutely abysmal defense from 2016, implemented his system, and came out on the other side with the 12th-best defense in terms of scoring, 7th-best in terms of defensive efficiency, 9th-best in 4th down defense, 18th-best in red zone defense, and a group that has led ND to be 4th in the country in turnover margin at +10. His squad has surrendered just ONE rushing touchdown this season, and no opponent has scored more than 20 points in a game. Most of us thought Elko would turn the defense around in a couple years, not overnight. He's a Goddamn wizard.
Matt Balis being hired as the head strength coach was huge as well, and has been evident in how physical the team has been and how easily they've worn down opponents. New Special Teams coordinator Brian Polian has had minimal visible impact on the field, but his hiring was huge for recruiting (this is the guy who brought Manti Te'o from Hawaii to South Bend under then-coach Charlie Weis).
The coaching hires are only part of it, though. Kelly fundamentally changed the culture of the program, naming captains for 2017 way back in the spring, re-configuring the locker room based on personality type (at the suggestion of walk-on Sam Bush), and focusing on spending more time with his players. He even began taking yoga lessons and looking to calm himself a bit, which seemed laughable as late as the Georgia post-game presser, but does seem to be working a bit, in observing his demeanor on the sideline and how he interacts with his players during games. He still yells like any football coach, but there's a noticeable lack of purple in the man's face.
So, I'd chalk all of this up to Brian Kelly finally, at last, making huge changes to how he runs the program after seeing that the old way, which he's been doing for nearly 30 years, just wasn't working at Notre Dame. The criticism and hot seat were deserved, but now all the praise is also justified. The man made changes, and those changes have been very effective.
BTP: Josh Adams has nearly rushed for 1000 yards already this season. What is it that he's able to do that makes him so tough to stop?
PS: Josh Adams just has an incredible combination of size and speed that you can't find in a lot of backs. He's 6'2", 225 pounds, and is a master at shedding tacklers. It's a scary thought, trying to bring down this man in the open field.
Also, though, he has that breakaway speed that has him leading the country in 60+ and 70+ yard runs. His long strides make him look slower than he is, but once he hits that second gear, there's almost no one who can catch him.
It also helps he's got Brandon Wimbush to take some focus off of him, and that he's running behind a couple All-Americans in LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey. Those guys are paving the way for Adams in a way that any running back would kill to have at their disposal.
BTP: Who on the Wolfpack gives you the most concern heading into Saturday’s matchup?
PS: It's definitely the NC State defensive line, led by Bradley Chubb.
Notre Dame's offense is very one-dimensional, and that's even after accounting for the fact that although he's inconsistent, Wimbush can stlll make big throws. If the Wolfpack defensive line can completely shut down Adams and Wimbush and the rest of the Irish backfield, ND may not have enough going for them in the passing game to win.
Chubb and co. will be a fantastic test for a line who has been dominant, but who have under-performed against the best defense they've faced so far -- Georgia.
BTP: How will the Irish look to stop NC State's stout defensive line?
PS: I imagine that will start with the ND offensive line, and I expect McGlinchey and Nelson to come ready to prove themselves with the Georgia game still in mind.
With that said, I also imagine Chip Long will throw some wrinkles into his game plan to account for the tough defensive front, and we might even see one or two Brandon Wimbush deep balls early on, to hopefully soften the Wolfpack defense and force them to not stack the box as much as they'd like.
Then, from there, the Irish will look to ride Adams and Wimbush to victory on the ground.
BTP: Is there a player on the Irish that maybe doesn't get as much attention as Adams, but is equally important to Notre Dame's ability to get a win Saturday?
PS: On offense, it's absolutely LG Quenton Nelson. You should check out this article about him, if only to watch ~12 GIFs of him destroying people. He is the best player on the ND offense and probably on the whole team, and because he's a lineman, he doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for Adams' and Wimbush's success on the ground. Nelson will absolutely be a first round NFL Draft pick whenever he decides to leave school. He's already getting compared to Zack Martin, another former Domer who is currently the best guard in the NFL.
On defense, I'm picking Drue Tranquill. He's a senior at the "Rover" position who has been excellent all year and is the leader of the defense. He's always flying around and making plays, and Wolfpack fans will certainly come to know who he is by the end of Saturday's game. He doesn't get as much attention as others, but he's the heart and soul of the defense. Plus, he made this awesome statement after the Georgia game and it gets me SO PUMPED considering what has followed it.
After Notre Dame lost to Georgia, Drue Tranquill said this, vowing ND would punish teams.— Mike Monaco (@MikeMonaco_) October 22, 2017
ND has since outscored its opponents 200-65. pic.twitter.com/rI3qs2r1sG
BTP: Any major injuries to report?
Not really, no.
LB Greer Martini and RB Dexter Williams were held out against USC, but should both be ready to go on Saturday. The Irish have been miraculously lucky with injuries so far this season (HUGE *KNOCK ON WOOD* HERE), so NC State should see a pretty healthy opponent.
BTP: This is the first time NC State will have been in South Bend. For fans making the trip up, what are some places around South Bend that they should hit up before the game?
PS: One Foot Down actually put out an article about this very topic earlier this year, so I invite you to peruse that, as it is probably the best place to start.
As far as what I would personally tell visitors? Definitely focus your attention on the on-campus sights and sounds. Be sure to go inside the Main Building (the Golden Dome) and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which is an absolutely gorgeous church. Check out the Grotto, walk around the lakes, take pictures in front of Touchdown Jesus, and just get lost wandering around campus during its most beautiful time of year, Fall.
On Friday, definitely check out Trumpets Under the Dome (this will happen on Saturday as well if you aren't there Friday afternoon) and the Midnight Drummer's Circle at the front steps of the Main Building. On Saturday, make sure you spend time in the tailgate lots outside the stadium and check out Step-Off (the band and Irish Guard marching to the stadium for the game) and the band concert preceding Step-Off at Bond Hall. After the game, if Catholic mass is your thing, you can attend at the Basilica as well as in various dorm chapels across campus. A schedule of all official events can be found here.
Bar-wise, The Linebacker is my favorite bar in South Bend, and is a disgusting dive bar just across the street from campus featuring tons of cool sports memorabilia, an excellent/eclectic selection of music, 32-ounce beers, and ~$6 Long Islands that get the job done (my go-to). O'Rourke's and, if you wanna venture farther from campus, Fiddler's Hearth and Corby's, are excellent places to grab a drink as well. Other favorites of people who aren't me include CJ's Pub (also has good burgers), Finny's, New Finny's, and Brothers.
Restaurant-wise, there are a number of solid options. There are expensive places I've never been to like LaSalle Grille, Corndance Tavern, and Cafe Navarre. There are moderately-priced places like Fiddler's Hearth, Crooked Ewe and Evil Czech (both are solid breweries in the area), JW Chen's, and O'Rourke's. Then, of course, there are also cheaper places that are still solid like Rocco's/Bruno's/Barnaby's (pizza), Cambodian Thai, Yats (cajun creole), Nick's Patio (late-night diner), and probably more I can't think of right now. Even eating at the dining halls isn't too bad, and if you do so, you can either go to South Dining Hall (the famous one that people say looks like the Hogwarts Great Hall) or North Dining Hall (the better one, in my humble and unpopular opinion).
BTP: Let's get a prediction. Who wins Saturday?
PS: Irish fans hoping for a repeat of the USC game last week will be disappointed, as I think NC State is a fairly balanced team with plenty of weapons to disrupt what ND likes to do. Bradley Chubb and that defensive line will especially make things difficult for ND in the early going, and Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels will not be completely contained on the first few series.
However, I think as the game moves on, the ND offensive line and Josh Adams/Brandon Wimbush/Tony Jones Jr./Dexter Williams will wear the Wolfpack down and pick up chunks of yardage on the ground as they begin to really move the ball on NC State. With a couple timely turnovers from Mike Elko's defense (Ryan Finley will throw his first interception of the year this week -- I'm calling it now) and one or two big passes from Wimbush to Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson, the Irish will pull away in the second half for a hard-fought, double-digit win, 37-24.
Many thanks again to Pat who brought some fantastic answers to our questions. Again, make sure to give him a follow on Twitter @PSully226!