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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 14, 2019 1:37 pm

Pregame: No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. New Mexico (1-0)

Dylan Sinn | Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Fighting Irish football is back at Notre Dame Stadium. It's the home opener for the 2019 season, the first time the Notre Dame faithful will be able to see their team live in the season after a College Football Playoff berth. It's warm for a mid-September afternoon in South Bend and the stadium should be full this afternoon as the seventh-ranked Irish take on New Mexico. A win would give Notre Dame its 14th consecutive regular-season victory and set up a top 10 matchup next week with No. 3 Georgia in Athens.

Therein lies the danger for Notre Dame. The Irish are heavy favorites today – the line is close to 35 points, for those who care about such things – and they should win this game going away. That's not a given, however, especially if the Irish look past the Lobos and have their mind on Georgia. All offseason, we've heard that this team is mentally strong and attacks the challenges in front of it. Today is a chance for the Irish to demonstrate that focus and show that they won't take any opponent lightly. It helps that many of the players on this team have a frame of reference for what it feels like when Notre Dame overlooks an inferior opponent. In Week 2 of 2018, the then-No. 5 Irish let Ball State hang around into the fourth quarter before pulling out a 24-16 win. Notre Dame is trying to avoid a repeat of that performance today. I asked wide receiver Chase Claypool about the possibility of looking past New Mexico and what the team has done to ensure it won't happen.

"We haven't been talking at all about trying to get everyone on the field like we did last year (against) Ball State," Claypool said. "We're just saying, 'Let's win this game and then look on to Georgia.'"

New Mexico, a member of the Mountain West Conference, comes in 1-0, with its only game so far a 39-31 win over Sam Houston State. The game provided a preview of how the Lobos will likely try to attack the Irish. On offense, they'll probably try to put the ball in the hands of running back Ahmari Davis as much as possible. Davis ran 16 times for 107 yards and added two catches for 58 yards in Week 1. He's a big play threat and one of the ways in which New Mexico might stay in this game is if he breaks some big runs and shortens the field for the Lobos. Notre Dame's linebackers had a rough start against Louisville in Week 1, leaving some big holes for the Cardinals to exploit. They settled down as the game went on, however, and we'll see if they fine-tuned some of their assignments over the 12 days since that season-opening matchup.

When the Irish have the ball, much will depend on how many carries Tony Jones Jr. can handle. With Jafar Armstrong out and Jahmir Smith limited with a toe injury, Jones will be the workhorse back today. Obviously, Kyren Williams, C'Bo Flemister and even Avery Davis will get some touches today, but the Notre Dame running attack will rise and fall with Jones. He had 110 yards on just 15 carries in Week 1, but we haven't yet seen if he can handle 20-25 carries in a game. He believes he can – he smiled broadly when asked about the possibility this week – but we'll see whether he feels the same way in the fourth quarter today.

The Lobos are likely to bring plenty of pressure against the Irish, as that has been the key to success against quarterback Ian Book. A key to Notre Dame's season is whether Book can get better against extra rushers and continue to get the ball out quickly. This is his first chance to show that he's learned from his mistakes against Louisville.

Even in a worst-case scenario – Davis runs wild, Jones looks tired late, Book is flustered in the pocket – the Irish should win this game. Georgia's next, but there's one test to pass first.

dsinn@jg.net