Big game week arrives early this season with Notre Dame in town, and plenty still to be sorted for both the Irish and NC State, though at least there won’t be a hurricane to affect the proceedings this time around.
After going 9-4 in 2022 with what was at times underwhelming quarterback play, Notre Dame has entirely sorted out that issue by nabbing Sam Hartman from Wake Forest. Hartman, who is in his sixth year of college football which ain’t even weird these days, is off to the blazing-hot start you would expect any good quarterback to have against the likes of Navy and Tennessee State.
Notre Dame lacked impact receivers last season, with no wideout posting more than 400 yards. The team’s leading receiver was tight end Michael Mayer, who has since moved on to the NFL.
Jayden Thomas led all Irish receivers as a freshman in ‘22 with 361 receiving yards and has been a favorite target for Hartman early, as he leads ND with eight grabs and 125 yards. That’s not a surprising development given that the Irish lost four of their top five receivers from a year ago, including a guy who transferred to Ohio State and is now playing corner.
The Irish moved running back Chris Tyree to wide receiver for 2023, which speaks both to the question marks at WR and the depth the team has at running back. The receiving group doesn’t have a lot of experience in general and also has lost veteran depth guy Matt Salerno to an injury. (Not that he was likely to make a substantial impact anyhow.)
The Irish’s second-leading receiver is freshman and former four-star prospect Jaden Greathouse, who has five catches for 98 yards, plus a team-high two touchdowns.
While it’s unclear how good that group can be, it may not matter a whole lot on account of Notre Dame’s ground game. The Irish have a legit star running back in Audric Estime, who has 211 yards rushing on 7.3 per carry thus far (he racked up 920 yards on 5.9 YPC last season). His workload figures to increase this weekend as the Irish aim to set the tone up front; this team has a pair of outstanding tackles in Joe Alt—a 6’8 behemoth at left tackle—and Blake Fisher on the right side. Alt may end up an All-American this year.
Defensively, Notre Dame returns a half dozen starters from a unit that gave up 5.2 yards per play in ‘22—that figure ranked 34th nationally. They were above average against the pass in general, and picked off 10 passes, but did allow a rather middling 6.9 yards per pass attempt against FBS opponents with winning records.
They return a good bit of experience in the secondary, led by sophomore corner Benjamin Morrison, who nabbed six interceptions last fall, good for third nationally.
All three starting linebackers return, and those were the team’s top three tacklers in 2022. The leader there is JD Bertrand, who had 101 tackles in 2021 and followed that up with 82 last year.
Up front, the Irish are trying to replace Isaiah Foskey, a defensive end who leveraged his 11-sack 2022 season into a second round NFL draft selection. Notre Dame has a lot of veterans on the line, though, and defensive tackle Rylie Mills is a potential difference-maker in the middle.
I don’t know that this is going to prove an elite defense, but it has guys who can create problems at all three levels. And they’ve done as well as anyone could ask against a couple cupcakes, surrendering a grand total of six points.
To pull the upset on Saturday, NC State is going to have to be better defensively than it was against UConn and certainly cannot make the kind of mistakes that lead to 75-yard touchdowns. If the Irish are able to dictate terms with that ground game, it’s probably going to be a long afternoon for State.