Here are five keys for No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) when it hosts South Florida (1-0) this Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on USA Network).
NO MESSING AROUND
As a 24.5-point favorite, Notre Dame is expected to cruise to a convincing victory. The Irish should dominate on both sides of the ball, win the turnover battle and offer their younger players plenty of action while up big in the fourth quarter. Anything short of that scenario will be perceived as a letdown. Starting fast and limiting mistakes will keep Notre Dame from disappointing. The Bulls offer the Irish an opportunity to build off playing their first complete game.
BETTER WR PLAY
Poor play from its wide receivers looked to be one of the more glaring concerns in Notre Dame’s 27-13 win over Duke last Saturday. No receiver recorded a catch until Joe Wilkins Jr. hauled in a four-yard pass with 50 seconds left in the second quarter. Top receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (foot) remains out, and his backup, Ben Skowronek, may miss Saturday’s game after tweaking his hamstring last week. Receivers like Braden Lenzy, Javon McKinley, Avery Davis and Wilkins will need to step up in their absence. USF cornerbacks K.J. Sails and Mike Hampton are talented enough to challenge Notre Dame’s receivers. But Book must establish chemistry with the group before facing improved competition.
STOP THE RUN
Look for the Bulls to try to establish the run early. They leaned on their ground game last week, recording 39 rushing attempts and 25 passes. USF also rotates three quarterbacks — Jordan McCloud, Noah Johnson and Katravis Marsh. Kelley Joiner (10.9 yards per carry) and multi-purpose 5-foot-5, 172-pound Johnny Ford (nine carries for 71 yards; two catches for 15 yards) are USF’s primary running backs. If the Irish build an early lead, the Bulls will have a tough time keeping up. And Notre Dame’s defensive line should overwhelm USF’s depleted front.
Notre Dame’s performance up front against Duke earned them offensive line of the week honors from Pro Football Focus. But to achieve its goal of winning the Joe Moore Award, Notre Dame’s offensive line will still need to be better. The group allowed pressure on 14 of Book’s 38 dropbacks, according to the Tribune’s film study. Only two opponents pressured Book at a higher rate last season: Michigan (38.7) and New Mexico (37.9). Notre Dame’s front brings the potential to be among the best nationally. Being nearly flawless against weaker competition is a start.
This game should end in a blowout, which would give Notre Dame a chance to answer lingering questions. Whether Lenzy will fill more of a niche role than be a complete receiver this season remains to be seen. Sophomore Brendon Clark still needs to prove just how serviceable he is as a backup quarterback. Other younger players have more to show and are competing for time. Besides the offensive line and quarterback, every position will have a rotation that is continually being evaluating.