SOUTH BEND – In August, most Notre Dame fans felt that September would prove to be the most rigorous test for the Fighting Irish football team. If their favorite squad could exit that month unscathed after a road trip to Michigan State and a home game with vaunted Michigan, it would probably take divine intervention.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, September wasn't so bad after all. Sparty has proved not to be that good after all and the Wolverines have lost as many games as they have won.
Now the 9th-ranked Irish (4-0) face a team in Miami (Fla.) that wasn't supposed to be an incredibly difficult challenge, but looking at the Hurricanes' production of late, may prove to be the most challenging game yet. The teams will meet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago (NBC).
“I just think that they're a team that certainly would like to be balanced,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “(Miami) has proven to be a team that can make big plays. They're a tempo team. They like to go fast.”
Unranked Miami has proved to be a load to contain whether it is on offense or in special teams, and that threat begins with running back Duke Johnson.
The true freshman has scored a team-best seven touchdowns already this season, through the air, on the ground and on kickoffs.
“He's a very good football player,” Kelly said. “And a number of players that we're going to see over the next eight weeks have similar skill sets. I will tell you, we know where he is. We're going to have to be quite aware as to where he is, and make sure that we do a great job in our cover teams.”
The problem for Kelly's defense is that Johnson is not alone. He is paired in the offensive backfield with senior Mike James and junior quarterback Stephen Morris. No Notre Dame opponent yet has possessed this much firepower offensively.
The 'Canes (4-1) have scored at least 38 points in each of their victories and in last week's 44-37 shootout over North Carolina State, Morris dropped a Miami record 566 yards and five scores on the Wolfpack.
“They've caught their last couple of opponents not prepared for that,” Kelly said. “… they've got some big weapons on the perimeter; two outstanding backs and a quarterback that's playing better and better each and every week.”
Notre Dame faced a talented quarterback in Michigan's Denard Robinson and the Irish front seven applied so much pressure on him that he threw four interceptions. Robinson didn't have time to throw downfield often, but Kelly expects that is what Miami will seek to do.
“Obviously they're going to want to stretch the field,” Kelly said. “They're looking for one-on-one matchups. They're trying to stretch the football down the field. Look, a good defensive team has got to be able to play both the run and the pass. So this will be a challenge for us. But it's not just for our four guys in the back end. It is linebackers being in the right place. It's getting pressure on the quarterback. It's just another really good challenge for our defense as we move forward.”
Kelly's secondary has been besieged since Day One this season with injuries after also graduating starters. It is a young secondary. However, Kelly believes with the assistance of a strong front, the Notre Dame safeties and cornerbacks can survive even against Morris and his playmakers.
“We've got a pretty good front seven, which helps that we can now predict down and distance tendencies and put you behind the chains,” Kelly said. “All those factors play into the overall defensive schemes. We don't play a lot of man-to-man coverage, quite frankly. We don't ask our (secondary) guys to be alone by themselves. There are times we have to make one-on-one plays. Even in zone coverage with the ball down the field, we saw safeties out of position or corners not in position. One thing we know about them is they're a good, disciplined group and that goes a long way.”