This week felt like a normal week of game preparation for No. 4 Notre Dame. During a season that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic at every turn, that is no small feat.
For the first time since Sept. 8, four days prior to their season-opener against Duke, the Irish had no players in isolation after positive tests for the virus or in quarantine for contact tracing protocols.
The No. 4 team in the country was at full strength as it prepared to take on Louisville today at Notre Dame Stadium.
“In terms of routine, this felt as back-to-normal as we've had,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And even more so than the Duke week. This felt like a normal work that you would have during a non-COVID season. Our guys felt a lot more comfortable.
“When you have all your guys back, you feel complete and that you have your team together. And you have depth. You have competition. You have practices that are a lot different because they're structured in a manner that brings that competitiveness out during your preparation. So, that's extremely positive in a lot of areas.”
The Irish come into today's matchup 3-0 following a 42-26 victory over Florida State, while the Cardinals are a disappointing 1-3 after an 8-5 campaign in 2019, coach Scott Satterfield's first season.
“It's a well-coached football team, a team that, in my estimation, could be very easily on the other side of that 1-3 mark,” Kelly said. “If they take care of the football, this is going to be one heck of a football game. We're going to have to play our very best. We are going to have to play better than we did last weekend against Florida State.”
Notre Dame's defense in particular will have to be better. The Irish struggled at times to contain the Seminoles last week and Louisville's offense has shown a knack for explosive plays. The Cardinals are averaging nearly 425 yards of offense and have made great use of run-pass options with quarterback Malik Cunningham, who has already run 49 times this season.
The Irish gave up 96 rushing yards to Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis, mostly on the same type of plays that Cunningham has used effectively this season. The Cardinals also have a pair of big-time playmakers in running back Javian Hawkins, who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and wide receiver Tutu Atwell, who led the ACC in receiving yards and touchdowns last season.
“When (Atwell) comes in, he's a game breaker and every time he gets the ball in his hands, he can go the distance,” Irish safety Kyle Hamilton. “We have to be great with our eyes, know where he's at at all times, and try to figure out how to stop him.”
On offense, Notre Dame will lean on a run game that gashed Florida State for 353 yards. The Cardinals, who have given up 4.5 yards per carry, are wary of a Notre Dame front that Satterfield called “arguably the best offensive line in the country.”
“This is Notre Dame,” Satterfield said. “They recruit some of the best players in the country year-in and year-out. They have depth. It's just an outstanding program. So as you look at them, there's not a ton of weaknesses on this football team.”
Notre Dame vs. Louisville
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Records: No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0), Louisville (1-3)
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM
Protecting the ball: Turnovers could be a decisive factor in this game. Notre Dame allowed Florida State to stay alive last week with two lost fumbles. With an offense as explosive as Louisville's, the Irish can't afford to give the Cardinals short fields. It's a good bet that the visitors are focusing on taking care of the ball, as well. They have a turnover margin of minus-8 this season, which ranks 74th out of 76 teams that have taken the field so far. They're turning the ball over 2.8 times per contest and have lost six fumbles already.
Back in position: Notre Dame's Shaun Crawford has played cornerback most of his Irish career, but moved to safety this summer. He started the first two games of the season at safety, but had to move back to his former position against Florida State because three of Notre Dame's top four corners missed part of the week in quarantine or isolation. Crawford held his own at his old spot, but did give up a 48-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. This week he'll return to safety since cornerbacks Nick McCloud, Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart are back to full strength. That is the best alignment for Notre Dame's secondary and should help them contain Louisville's passing game after giving up 8.1 yards per attempt against FSU.
Enjoy it while it lasts: The matchup against Louisville is the end of a soft season-opening stretch for the Irish. Their first four opponents have a combined record of 4-13 and Notre Dame will have played all four of them at home. By contrast, the next four Irish opponents are a combined 12-5 and Notre Dame will face three on the road. That stretch includes a Nov. 7 matchup against No. 1 Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium. The good news: Notre Dame has won seven straight regular-season games as a top-5 team and enters this week No. 4.
Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Louisville 24