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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Notre Dame

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In 2018’s first edition of Behind Enemy Lines, we sat down with Patrick Sullivan of OneFootDown.com to talk the game against the Fighting Irish.

Wake Forest v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hello, all! After a long off-season, Behind Enemy Lines has returned and I look forward to getting all the information I can as I interview those who cover Michigan’s opponents in this upcoming, 2018 season.

We start things off with a bang as I sat down with Pat Sullivan of OneFootDown.com to talk about the renewed series against the Irish, their current quarterback situation, and what chances Michigan has at winning this game.

Josh LaFond: Talk to us a little bit about who Notre Dame’s starting gunslinger will be. Has a QB emerged, and separated themselves from the pack?

Pat Sullivan: Define “separated themselves from the pack.”

Brandon Wimbush is definitely the starter for the Irish, and will get the vast majority of the snaps on Saturday night. His ceiling is higher than Ian Book’s, and he absolutely gives the offense the best chance to win with his elite running ability and with his very strong, if inconsistent, arm.

However, Wimbush was benched multiple times last year when he got out of control and rattled and couldn’t take care of the ball. Add to that that Brian Kelly has already said both QBs will play this year, and that Kelly has a penchant for flipping back and forth between QBs (Wimbush and Book last year, Kizer and Zaire in 2016, Golson and Rees in 2012, etc.), and it’s very easy to see a couple different scenarios wherein Book sees meaningful minutes.

Maybe Wimbush can’t help but turn the ball over against the pressure of Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, and co., or maybe Kelly just wants to throw a different look at the Wolverine defense. Either way, don’t be surprised if Wimbush, despite being the best option for sure, isn’t the only QB running offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense against Michigan.

Josh: With Dexter Williams suspended for the game against the Wolverines, who will get the bulk of he carries for the Fighting Irish?

Pat: That’s the overwhelmingly-accepted rumor, based on Dexter Williams’ shaky history of getting in trouble and just based on the fact that with ND, where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. So, assuming Williams has a beginning-of-season suspension similar to the one Kelly gave former ND WR Kevin Stepherson last year, the starter will definitely be junior Tony Jones, Jr.

Jones Jr. is a solid, strong, bowling ball of a back who, as the 3rd option in 2017 who battled injuries all season, still managed to pick up 232 yards at a 5.3 yards-per-carry clip with 3 TD. He’s not an exciting game-breaker like Josh Adams was or like Dexter Williams would be, but he’s pretty consistent and a decent receiver out of the backfield.

He definitely won’t be the only guy getting carries, though. Obviously Wimbush will have a number of designed running plays called for himself, and then converted wide receiver Jafar Armstrong will likely get a share of the carries as well. Brian Kelly compared him to Theo Riddick during summer camp - which is pretty high praise, considering how versatile Riddick was in his time at ND. Armstrong has yet to play any meaningful time in his career, though, and considering he came to ND a couple years ago as a receiver, who knows how effective he will be. He’s definitely more of a lightning to Tony Jones Jr.’s thunder.

If ND were to need to turn to anyone else in the backfield, we’re probably talking about true freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister, so I think I speak for all Irish fans when I say that I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Josh: What can the Irish do on offense to try and exploit Michigan’s attacking style defense?

Pat: I have to assume offensive coordinator Chip Long will try to catch Michigan players over-pursuing or being too aggressive with a lot of run-pass options where Wimbush is relied on to make the right read when deciding to hand it off or keep it.

That plus maybe some well-placed play action shots downfield to all the big targets ND has will hopefully allow ND to soften up the Michigan defense and make them play a little more conservative. Springy, veteran wide receivers like Chase Claypool (6’4”) and Miles Boykin (6’4”) and huge, athletic tight ends like Alizé Mack (6’5”) and Cole Kmet (6’6”) will be key in going up to get those balls and help both move the chains and force Michigan to dial it back a bit.

Josh: How about on the defensive side of the ball, what can we expect Brian Kelly and company to implement, keeping the Wolverine offense in check?

Pat: I’m not sure they’ll do anything too special. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea runs the same simple system Mike Elko installed last year, and really I think he will rely on a pretty deep and athletic front line to get some decent pressure and on his veteran DBs and LBs to be in the right place at the right time.

Don’t be surprised to see some basic blitzes featuring linebackers Te’von Coney or Drue Tranquill, or even diminutive nickelback Shaun Crawford, but overall I think ND will rely on a talented, experienced defense to be where they should be and just make plays -- CB Julian Love especially, as he could be a first team All-American if he continues the trajectory he showed last season (20 PBUs, 3 INT).

Josh: How much confidence does the fan base have that they’ll walk off the field with a win?

Pat: I’d say a pretty good amount of confidence. We’re all a little scared of this vaunted Michigan defense, but ND is playing at home in the season opener under the lights with a very experienced team overall -- we expect the Irish to come out strong and motivated and ultimately win this, probably on the backs of their veteran defense.

Josh: I’m going flip the script on you for a second, Pat. And hit you with one out of left field.

Is Notre Dame’s biggest rival Michigan? If not, where do they rank among the Irish’ most hated?

Pat: Definitely not. The USC Trojans absolutely hold that No. 1 spot -- they are the most hated of ND’s regular opponents and the ND-USC series has been arguably the best in college football history in terms of epic games and unbelievably good teams it’s featured.

Michigan is probably up there for the No. 2 spot, though, simply because there aren’t a lot of other opponents that could claim it. Stanford doesn’t have the fan base or historical success to hold the spot, Michigan State isn’t despised nearly as much as Michigan is among ND fans (although you could make an argument here), and Navy is more so a regular opponent with mutual respect involved than with any true vitriol (not to mention, if you beat someone 43 times in a row, it’s not really a rivalry). Purdue isn’t relevant enough at this point, and no one else is really on the schedule often enough these days to warrant inclusion (sorry, Miami).

My hatred and lack of respect for the Michigan football team are both immense and make me want to say that Michigan will never be a rival of ND, but if I had to pick a #2 rival, I don’t know how I can not pick them.

Josh: Let’s help out our readers that’ll be at the game. Give us some suggestions on things they need to check out come this weekend.

Pat: 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 (but is a little pricey), 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).

Josh: Let’s wrap this up with a score and game prediction. Who’s winning this game, man.

Pat: I think both defenses play well in the early going, as Wimbush and Shea Patterson both struggle to find their footing during the first half. Rashan Gary and Devin Bush will show why they’re so hyped up as two of the best defensive players in the country, but so too will Julian Love and Te’von Coney.

As the game wears on, the Irish defense makes a couple more plays than Michigan’s, allowing ND to take advantage, and control of the game, early in the 4th quarter, and then close out the game behind a solid offensive line clearing the way for Jones Jr., Wimbush, and co. as they keep picking up just enough yardage to ice the game.

All that being said, the final score:

Notre Dame 28, Michigan 24


Special thanks to Pat Sullivan for the great interview as well as to Joshua Vowles, both of One Foot Down. Also, be sure to check out Pat’s interview with myself by clicking HERE.

For all things ND related and some expert analysis heading into the game, check out OneFootDown.com and the work that they do.