There are many factors that will determine the outcome of Saturday night’s game at Soldier Field in Chicago - some mental and some physical. Either way these are the points of emphasis that I believe the Irish must master in order to come out on top this weekend against Miami and move to 5-0.
Establish a rhythm
Let’s face it, Notre Dame’s offense, other than one or two drives here and there, is not a quick strike offense. The Irish have been most successful in producing points when they’ve sustained drives over extended periods of time. The running game and short passing game is a large piece of this puzzle. If they can establish the run and be effective with play-action passes when the opportunities arise, it will be beneficial in controlling the clock and keeping Miami’s offense off the field. I also think head coach Brian Kelly is a better play caller as a drive progresses as opposed to trying to score within the first three or four plays of a series.
I’m not saying that Kelly shouldn’t try to stretch the field, but the down and distance should dictate when he takes those big play shots. When I coached, before I called a low percentage play I tried to think about what kind of pressure I would be putting on my offense if the play failed. An incomplete deep route on second and 10 puts the offense in a much tougher spot than an incomplete deep route on second and two.
Protect the football
The Hurricane offense will have trouble driving the length of the field against the Irish defense. The most likely way they would get a short field to capitalize on would be courtesy of a few Notre Dame turnovers. A team makes their opponent drive 80 yards by doing two things – kicking off or punting. I’ll take my chances with the Irish defense if Miami has go 75 or 80 yards every time they try to score, but if there’s one thing in a football game that keeps a 14 point underdog close, its turnovers.
I have no reason to believe Notre Dame won’t keep protecting the ball as they’ve done all season, I just wouldn’t want this, or any game, decided because they turned the ball over too many times.
Don’t just show up
Everybody on Notre Dame’s offense knows how bad Miami’s defense is playing this year. It’s unavoidable as a player to see the points they’ve given up so far this season and not think how easy it’ll be to score. The problem lies in the way the Irish offense has been playing lately - they’re not good enough to just show, give a half-hearted effort, and light up the scoreboard.
Miami’s defense can only get better and in front of a national TV audience with a chance to gain “street cred” you can bet they will give Notre Dame their best effort of the year. It’s imperative that the Irish take them seriously and get after them from the very first snap of the game.
Limit big plays
The concern here is obviously Miami’s passing game and their ability to stretch the field. There’s also the number of chances they take downfield – it will happen early and often. Just like the saying goes, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once on a while”, so will the Hurricane offense. The odds are they are going to complete something over 40 yards at some point in the game, but the key will be only allowing it to happen once or twice.
The Irish have been great against the run this season, but keep in mind Miami’s running backs are capable of making big plays of their own and Notre Dame needs to be leery of that possibility as well.
Stifle Johnson early
Running Back Duke Johnson has been a bright star among many for the Miami offense. Only a true freshman, he plays fast but has patience and trust in his blocking as well. He doesn’t get stronger as the game wears on, he’s strong every snap he takes whether it’s his first or fiftieth.
The Irish defense has to make it a priority to hit this kid early and often. They need to gang tackle, intimidate, and bully him every time he carries the ball. I’ll admit he runs with confidence, but nothing like praying you don’t get the ball anymore to suck the confidence right out of you. Johnson has never played a game anywhere but in warm temperature environments and should know by halftime how much more hard hits hurt when it drops below 45.
Challenge Miami’s screen game
Miami likes to run screens almost as much as they like to throw it deep. They do it well too and their timing is excellent with both their routes and passes. They will get after you with screens to the wide-outs as well as to the running backs and are looking for gains that will only keep them ahead of schedule in terms of down and distance.
There are two things a defense must do to help minimize the effectiveness of screens - the first is get off blocks and be sure tacklers, and the second is play man-to-man pre-snap or disguise their coverage from zone to man. Man coverage is a screen killer because it leaves the offense no room to work and makes blocking almost impossible. Notre Dame needs to be screen conscience all night against the Hurricanes and expect them in any and all situations.
Shake bye week cobwebs
This one’s short and sweet – you’re Notre Dame and right now you’re 4-0, ranked #9 in the nation, wearing new uniforms, and playing Miami under the lights in Soldier Field. If you come out flat there’s seriously something wrong with you.
Embrace the weather
The Miami coaches will have you believe the weather isn’t going to bother their squad and quite frankly it shouldn’t. That being said it’s much easier for a cold weather team to go to a warm climate than it is for a warm weather team to do the opposite. There’s nothing better than a “balmy” 40 degrees to test the mental toughness of the Hurricanes.