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Countdown Q&A: Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Tennessee State at Notre Dame Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another season is upon us, and therefore it’s time to embark on the whimsical journey of the weekly opponent Q&A. Sometimes we only gain a little insight, but often our football brethren from across the country share a wealth of knowledge about their respective teams and what we may see when they roll the ball out there in the next few days.

The Cards next opponent is the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. For the second week in a row the Cards get an old ACC quarterback foe walking onto the field sporting a different uniform. While Brennan Armstrong looked like a shell of what we had seen from him previously, Sam Hartman is without questions a much more talented QB who has significantly better weapons than NC State. Yes, I remember the six turnovers...we cover it below, but that was an outlier for him last year and this year thus far. There are a handful of guys I trust to be straight up with us about Notre Dame and the program overall, and my guy Patrick from ‘One Foot Down’ falls into that category. I dropped a wide range of stuff on Patrick this week and he delivered with thoughtful and informative answers. Well worth the time. Lets get to it.

Before we get too deep into this week’s game, let me go high level. I think there is a certain amount of optimism that surrounds the Notre Dame football program each and every season. Some of it is warranted based upon results and roster makeup, while at other times I think it’s just part of the college football universe, that fans and media alike anticipate Notre Dame to always field a team that competes at a Top 15 level. How do you gauge that as a fan? Is it nice to always have those expectations or does it make it challenging to live up to that each season?

I think you’re absolutely spot on with your take on this, and I truly appreciate the way you worded it as opposed to the same tired “Notre Dame is always overrated” take. Because yeah, they often are at least to some extent, but plenty of the blue bloods in this sport get overrated to start most seasons, and even if they do tend to get overhyped a bit, Notre Dame has still been a top-10-ish program in the country for the last ~7 years (68-15 since the beginning of the 2017 season), so it’s not like the Irish are someone like Nebraska who’s completely fallen off the map.

It can definitely be weird and tough as a fan, because our expectations are already so high, and then the over-optimism from the media just pushes that further, setting us up for nearly inevitable disappointment at some point in the year, no matter how the season goes. For instance, going 11-2 and making the Fiesta Bowl or even going 9-4 and beating an SEC team in the Gator Bowl in Marcus Freeman’s first season (with Drew Pyne starting most of the year at QB) would be at least somewhat successful seasons for nearly all FBS programs, but Irish fans weren’t super satisfied with 2021 or 2022 simply because of the expectations we all place on this program each season to go compete for a national championship, however deluded that thought might be when teams like 2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU, 2020 Alabama, and 2021 and 2022 Georgia exist.

On the flipside, though, I won’t act like the over-hyping of the Irish is all horrible or emotionally devastating. It certainly biases people to consider the Irish a top team before they’ve really proven it, which used to help a ton in the BCS era with the importance of polls (and thus the importance of preseason rankings), and even now it still helps a bit, although the College Football Playoff committee’s approach is at least less based on preseason rankings than some of the polling used to be. Also, the overhype also obviously leads to a lot of exciting matchups for Irish fans to watch, especially early in the year. ND fans rarely have to wait for their team to prove much of anything before getting a College Gameday matchup or at least a primetime, national TV game between two ranked teams, which is obviously very fun as a fan.

So ultimately, I think it’s a gift in terms of helping provide excitement for big games during the season and providing some helpful bias for the Irish as they try to build a playoff resume, but it also pretty much annually will devastate ND fans to some degree, just because we often let ourselves believe — despite all the evidence to the contrary the last 30 years — that this Irish team is going to be different and bring us back to a spot at or near the top of the sport. We as ND fans are Charlie Brown, and the Irish football program is Lucy holding the football for us to kick. Same thing every time, but somehow we keep hoping again and again.

Quick side question again; going back to the Cincinnati days, and then Notre Dame, and now LSU....Brian Kelly is undoubtedly in my personal Top 5 of most despised college football coaches. Curious what the average ND fan thinks of him at this point? He did some good things for the program but uncertain how he is viewed in South Bend nowadays.

The vast majority of us are right there with you — we absolutely despise him and are so relieved to have a likable, fun, respectable person as head coach of the Notre Dame program these days. Marcus Freeman rules and I really hope he continues to find more and more success and can hopefully get ND back to the Playoff and more within the next couple years.

Michigan State at Notre Dame Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It was a massive chore having to root for Brian Kelly when he was the Notre Dame head coach, because we would feel the need to defend him even though he was super unlikable and arrogant and cringeworthy (at this point we’ve all seen his fake southern accent and him dancing up on recruits), rarely took accountability for anything, and could never actually win a big game, specifically in the postseason. Also, despite how successful he was from 2017-2021, I still believe he should have been fired after that dumpster fire of the 2016 season. It was that bad, and things only turned around in 2017 once Notre Dame forced him to make wholesale changes to how he ran the program and whom he hired as assistant coaches (e.g. not just hiring his friends and instead bringing in guys like Mike Elko and Clark Lea).

There is a small contingent of ND fans (whom I would describe as mostly a bunch of dinguses, although I’m sure there are exceptions) who will still root for him even after the way he left the Irish, and who remember him fondly for rebuilding the Irish program after the Davie/Willingham/Weis years. Sure, he did leave things way better off than what the Irish had been before he arrived — I won’t shortchange him the credit for that — but the bar was so low after that string of clown-show coaches that it’s kind of ridiculous to hang your argument’s hat solely on that. Kelly also still managed to give us that 4-8 2016 season and losses to teams like South Florida, Tulsa, Navy (multiple times), Northwestern and Duke, so it’s not like all he did was win in his long tenure at ND.

But putting aside how “successful” he was (several seasons were technically vacated for an academic scandal back in 2013, if you’ll recall — I no longer feel the need to defend him on that either), the bigger thing for me is once again just how much of a prick he seems to be, and how he never really seemed to “get” Notre Dame. He was constantly complaining about what makes ND different and using things like academics and facilities and other differences between ND and other schools as reasons he couldn’t truly compete with the big boys (being proven super right down there in Baton Rouge without those limitations, eh Brian?). Instead, he should have been selling some of those differences as advantages and unique reasons to go to Notre Dame. That’s what Freeman has been doing (he seems to appreciate ND for what it is way more than Kelly ever did), and he’s been recruiting the same or better than Kelly did in his time at the helm, so clearly some top recruits will respond to that type of sales pitch.

TL;DR: most of us can’t stand Brian Kelly and root for his utter demise each week, but there’s a small pocket of ND fans who appreciated that he left the program healthier than he found it. That’s the objectively wrong opinion, but that’s apparently what they’re sticking to.

Alright, preseason this was the dream scenario for Louisville fans. Start the year 5-0, bring Notre Dame into your building as a Top 10 team, night game, and take a shot at another milestone program win in Brohm’s first season. In order for that to happen I think there are many things which have to go right for Louisville, the first of which being consistent offensive production. Cards have struggled to put together two good halves this year, so what should we expect from what appears to be a very good ND defense?

This Irish defense is interesting because they’re indeed very good (7th in the country in SP+, T-14th in scoring, T-9th in yards per play), but honestly don’t have that many elite/star/future NFL stud players in the rotation. The one position that isn’t true is cornerback — sophomore Benjamin Morrison is a likely 2025 1st round pick and easily a top-5 corner in the country (what he did in helping shut down Marvin Harrison Jr. a couple weeks ago was just stupendous), and his counterpart Cam Hart is an experienced veteran and captain who’s long, fast, and has good ball skills given he was originally recruited as a wide receiver. The two of them are very tough to beat and drive ND’s elite pass defense stats (1st in the country in completion % allowed, 3rd in passer rating allowed, 4th in pass yards allowed per game, T-8th in yards per attempt, T-5th in passing TDs allowed).

But aside from cornerback, this ND defense is just a really deep, experienced group without many massive standouts. The defensive line is really good at holding the point of attack and clogging running lanes, and DT Howard Cross III has recently been awesome (had 13 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles against Duke), but they lack a great edge rusher and despite getting decent pressure on opposing QBs, they rarely hit the QB and even more rarely pick up sacks or force fumbles. Starting DE Jordan Botelho being suspended for the first half of this game after picking up a targeting penalty late in the Duke game also doesn’t help that already iffy rush off the edge.

ND’s linebackers are all old, savvy vets who are assignment-sound and good against the run, but lack the top-flight speed/athleticism to not be liabilities in coverage most of the time. I think Louisville could exploit them a bit by getting them one-on-one on Jawhar Jordan or a receiver/quick-ish tight end, and just beating them with some speed. If the LBs aren’t spying on Plummer, I could see him finding space to beat them for first downs on scrambles as well.

Finally, ND’s safeties are pretty average, and so I think Jack Plummer could find some success over the top, especially if he can find receivers not blanketed by Morrison or Hart. Xavier Watts has become a pretty solid starter back there at safety, but the converted wide receiver still occasionally makes some mistakes, and whoever’s next to him won’t be someone necessarily excellent. Nickelback Thomas Harper (an Oklahoma State grad transfer) has had some really nice moments this year, though, so if he’s in there it really bolsters what the Irish secondary can do.

So, in conclusion, I think this defense is susceptible to deep threats over the top, mobile QBs who can evade the pass rush and keep the chains moving, and also probably backs who can beat the Irish linebackers to the edge with superior speed. ND mostly held Ohio State’s running game in check two weeks ago, but you can see on TreVeyon Henderson’s huge TD run that the right athlete back there can break one and change the game. Jawhar Jordan has to be licking his chops and hoping for that opportunity.

On the other side of the ball, I’d be lying if I said that the buzz around here isn’t a bit of underlying confidence that Sam Hartman might walk into Cardinal Stadium seeing ghosts. The last time he was in the building he was credited with six (6!) turnovers in a single quarter, and appeared spooked at the pressure. This Louisville defense hasn’t been getting home as often this year, and I think Hartman is a better quarterback than that single game performance, so what do we see from the signal caller who moonlights as a bearded male model?

Pointing this out is going to jinx him, no doubt, but Sam Hartman somehow has not thrown a single interception in 2023. ND played a Week 0 game and hasn’t taken a bye, so we’re literally halfway through the Irish season and he’s simply thrown 14 touchdowns and no picks whatsoever (although there have been a couple close calls). He’s almost certainly the best quarterback the Irish have had in almost 15 years, when Jimmy Clausen had an awesome junior year throwing the ball to Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph that was completely overshadowed by Charlie Weis going 6-6 in his final season thanks to a horrible defense.

Thus, with this game and then USC coming up, I do think that Hartman is probably due to toss at least one pick just with some of the throws he might be asked to make to drive the team down the field in big moments. With that said, though, he’s been very smart about where he chooses to throw the ball, and Gerad Parker’s offense hasn’t really asked him to take too many risks that could end in INTs, especially considering the reliance on the running game and on short/intermediate passes to tight ends, and also considering ND’s offensive line does a pretty good job of protecting him (T-19th in the country with just 1 sack allowed per game). I actually wish they’d take a few more downfield shots, even if it meant a couple picks here and there, as I think Hartman’s deep ball prowess is being underutilized and could really make this offense much more lethal.

So, I do think you guys are going to see a bit different Sam Hartman than one who turned the ball over six times in a quarter, just because he has way better blocking and more talent around him, and thus is being asked to carry the offense less than he was at Wake. But, I also don’t think he’ll make it through the entire season without throwing a few picks, so if the Cardinals can bring some heat and get to him quickly on passing downs, I bet they can force him into some risky throws and potentially a pick or two.

While describing memes in text format is never a great idea, I’ll attempt to do it anyway. I’m sure you’re familiar with the image that shows a man and his wife laying in bed and she’s looking over at him in disgust with “I bet he’s thinking about another woman right now” and the man is off in his own world with a random topic on his mind. If that’s me in the meme, I’m laying there thinking about how the Cards rushing defense is going to play against Audric Estime. What makes Estime so good, and how have teams attempted to slow him in the past?

Audric Estime is just an absolute monster — he’s a 5’11”, 227-lb ball of muscle and power with great feet and some surprising acceleration when he finds room to move. Also, he typically runs the ball with a good deal of violence and aggression, making him tough to bring down and usually allowing him to fall forward and pick up positive yardage when tackled. This season he’s already run for 672 yards (1st in the country), 112 yards per game (9th), and 7 touchdowns (T-8th) while averaging 7.1 yards per carry on his 95 rushing attempts. No one else in America with 80+ attempts is averaging more yards per rush.

However, the one thing I’ll say about Estime is that, despite his power and aggression, he does still have a tendency to dance around looking for a hole when there isn’t one clearly there. Other Irish running backs have found more success at times since they tend to be more decisive and hit the hole faster than Estime, so I would say that if Louisville can really muck it up inside the tackles and clog some running lanes, they could make him hesitate and limit the damage he does. Forcing him to try to run outside is definitely a solid strategy too. Again, he isn’t slow, but ND has other backs way more suited to beat defenders to the corner (Jeremiyah Love and Jadarian Price), but they don’t give those guys too many carries, typically (again, something I wish they did more — those guys can play, too).

So yeah, it’s going to be tough to completely slow Estime, but Louisville can really limit him by beating up the interior of the ND offensive line (definitely where they are weakest, considering how good Joe Alt and Blake Fisher usually are at the tackle spots) and making Estime try to win with speed and running a bit more horizontally rather than getting up field and hitting the second level with a full head of steam. Easier said than done, obviously, but definitely doable if the Cardinals defensive line and linebackers come to play.

Notre Dame is coming into Louisville on the heels of back to back primetime games against Ohio State and Duke, and both of them came down to essentially the final play of the game. Is there any concern that the psyche of a bunch of 18-22 year olds is impacted by that emotional roller coaster of the last couple weeks? Any concern about sandwiching this game between those battles and a rival USC coming to town next week for a Top 10 matchup?

Absolutely — it was even a concern last weekend after just one such game (and especially considering how devastatingly sad that OSU game finished). There were reports of ND players being sick to their stomach, not sleeping, etc. after the way they lost to the Buckeyes. So, after having to then go on the road and play another emotionally draining and overly physical game against a ranked team the very next weekend, I don’t know how Irish fans could NOT be worried about the psyche and emotions of a bunch of 18-22 year olds this Saturday. Louisville absolutely is good enough and has the game-breaking talent to topple an Irish team half-recovering and half-looking ahead to their undefeated rival with the reigning Heisman QB.

I will say that I think the Cardinals being undefeated and ranked and this game being the Irish’s third straight in prime time probably will help get the Irish players a bit more focused on this current week and opponent. I would almost be more worried if Louisville had lost 13-10 to NC State last weekend, leading the Irish to dismiss them because of how the Irish ran away from NC State back in September (although that game was super close for 3 quarters, too). So I think the Cardinals pulling that out and remaining undefeated helps the Irish’s motivation and focus here for sure.

Also, the Irish were missing the majority of their wide receiver room last week against Duke, and so Hartman should benefit this week from getting WRs Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse back, as those are two of his favorite targets out wide (Thomas is also a great blocker on the edge for the running game). Plus, TE Eli Raridon may be coming back following his ACL tear last year, and although it’s not clear if he’s really ready to play (and how much if so), he’s another huge and talented TE to add to Mitchell Evans and Holden Staes to give Hartman way more receiving options this week than last. Those returns are worth a morale/confidence boost as well as just a general offensive performance boost, which could offset some emotional/psyche issues.

One of the things that excites Louisville fans about Jeff Brohm is that almost like clockwork each year they sneak up on someone and win a game they likely shouldn’t on paper. While only being ranked one week in 2021 during his entire time at Purdue, Brohm still had numerous Top 25 wins, but more importantly went 3-4 against Top 10 programs during that stretch. Does a nearly 50% success rate against Top 10 teams with inferior talent create some cause for concern?

Ohio State v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It absolutely creates cause for concern, especially because Brohm always does it with an explosive offense and lots of speed and skill talent everywhere. That’s the exact type of team that can give a veteran, physical ND team issues, and I’m currently just having a waking nightmare imagining the Irish on the receiving end of a 2019 Purdue steamrolling of Ohio State, with Jawhar Jordan playing the role of DJ Knox (128 yds, 3 TD) with multiple huge TD runs, Jamari Thrash doing a Rondale Moore impression (12 rec, 170 yds, 2 TD), and Jack “David Blough” Plummer throwing for nearly 400 yards against a team he’s now VERY familiar with as a QB.

With that said, I think what makes me feel a bit better about that is that the Irish have really good cornerbacks and have shown the ability to mostly limit big plays so far this season, and the offense has gotten a couple rough outings out of the way and should be poised for a bit of a rebound game after facing two very good defenses in OSU and Duke.

Notre Dame was not done any favors by having Louisville overachieve a bit this year, nor them scheduling the game at night, but it appears when the lights are bright (week night game, opener, etc) Plummer has struggled a bit early with pushing and took some time to settle. There is no doubt the crowd will be into it, but once the whistle blows do you think the Cards have the guys to spring the upset? How does this one play out?

I think they do, because I think Plummer is just good enough and mobile enough to hurt the Irish with both his arms and legs (he scrambled for several first downs against ND last year with Cal, so I’ve seen it firsthand), and more importantly he has some really dangerous skill talent around him. I could see a revved up Cardinals crowd feeding off a couple of early big plays from the Louisville offense and maybe an early 3-and-out or turnover from the Louisville defense, and the Cardinals hanging with ND or even leading in the first half.

With that said, I also think Notre Dame still has a sizable advantage up front on both sides of the ball, and thus the Irish will be able to put Plummer under some duress and force him into some bad throws, while I think the Irish offensive line will manage to create some running lanes for ND RBs and also give Hartman enough time to find guys like Evans and Staes and Greathouse for nice gains to move the chains. That edge in the trenches will allow ND to slow the tempo more than Brohm would probably like and eventually wear Louisville down, and thus I think mid-to-late in the second half we will see Notre Dame take control, maybe even forcing a couple turnovers to shift momentum (especially when Botelho returns from his targeting suspension in the first half).

I’m going to say ND wins in a single-digit game where they only really completely seize control in the 4th quarter, beating the Cardinals 33-24 on a fun night in Louisville.


A huge thanks to Patrick for his time and his answers which really laid out some nice talking points and areas that the Cards may be able to attack with your weekly tailgate buddies. If you sound like the smartest person at the tailgate, your welcome, and thanks to Patrick for his insight. Feel free to give Patrick a virtual ‘thanks’ with a follow right here, and the rest of the crew at ‘One Foot Down’ right here. I talked with the guys over at OFD this week as well and you can check that out here. I’m pumped for this one....understatement.....I’m bursting over this one, as I think the stars are aligning for the Cards to spring the upset. My football brain looks on paper and thinks this is a 7-10point victory for Notre Dame, but as the clock creeps closer, it just feels like one we can steal. I’m going to recant my thoughts with the OFD Q&A...thats was so Tuesday of me, and I’ll go Cards 27-20.