Vorel: Why Notre Dame can't afford to overlook Temple

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

A new football season brings with it a trio of undeniable facts.

Here’s the first one: in the history of Notre Dame football — actually, strike that — in the history of college football — you know what, let’s take it even further — in the history of life on the planet Earth, a player or coach has never — not once — admitted to overlooking an opponent before playing the game.

That doesn’t mean it never happens.

It has happened before, and it’ll happen again.

“We weren't looking forward in January to Temple,” two-time Notre Dame captain and graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey said on Wednesday. “We were looking forward to each training session we had, and then spring ball hit and then summer hit, and now we have Temple on our minds.”

Temple. Only Temple. Temple, and nothing else.

Which brings us to fact No. 2: Notre Dame’s 2017 season opener — regardless of what you’ve heard — is not on Sept. 9.

Crazy, right? All offseason, the conversation in and around South Bend has centered on Notre Dame’s anticipated clash with SEC powerhouse Georgia. While it seems the Georgia game has been sold out since the day Notre Dame Stadium opened in 1930, tickets were available in 12 different sections for the season opener against Temple as recently as Monday.

The fan base, at the very least, seems prematurely focused on Sept. 9. Message board threads have stretched into infinity. Email inboxes (mine, specifically) have been clogged with anxious questionnaires.

Will Notre Dame’s inexperienced defensive line stand up to the two-headed Bulldog that is running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel? Will Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush rise to the occasion? Will the many recruits scheduled to attend the primetime showdown leave Notre Dame Stadium impressed?

I’ll counter those questions with another:

Will Notre Dame be 1-0 at kickoff?

OK, time for fact No. 3: if Notre Dame overlooks Temple, it will lose to Temple. Simple as that.

The Owls, who descend on South Bend at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, won 10 games last season (which, by the way, is two more than Georgia). And, sure, the guy that lifted the program to new heights — head coach Matt Rhule — is gone, having accepted the head job at Baylor. And, sure, this team is also tasked with replacing its quarterback and much of its defensive line.

But, even with a set of inherent flaws, Temple is dangerous … especially if overlooked.

Consider that, in the last three seasons, Temple has never finished lower than 17th nationally in scoring defense and 20th in total defense. A year ago, the Owls ranked third out of 128 FBS programs in both total defense (282.5 yards per game) and passing defense (152.1 yards per game).

Moreover, the standouts from that exemplary Owl secondary — safeties Delvon Randall and Sean Chandler and cornerbacks Artrel Foster, Derrek Thomas and Cequan Jefferson — all return. Plus, Temple’s first-year head coach — Geoff Collins — brings a recent history of defensive success, having guided a Florida defense that finished second in passing defense, fifth in total defense and sixth in scoring defense last season.

What does all that mean? Well, Notre Dame may struggle to find success in the passing game on Saturday — in Wimbush’s first career start, no less.

On the other side, Temple possesses a verified workhorse in 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior running back Ryquell Armstead, who exploded for 919 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns in 2016. Armstead will be surrounded by both strength and experience, as the Owls also return three 2016 offensive line starters and five linemen with starting experience.

Now, can anybody pinpoint perhaps Notre Dame’s most vulnerable area defensively?

Bingo. Run defense.

On Saturday, defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive line coach Mike Elston will lean on junior Jerry Tillery, senior Jonathan Bonner and a handful of interior defensive linemen with zero game experience — Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum — to hold the point of attack.

Can they do it? Sure. Will they?

That all depends.

Notre Dame is more talented than Temple, more explosive than Temple, deeper than Temple — and, they’re at home.

If they’re more focused, the Irish will win … maybe handily. But if they’re focused on Georgia, a redemptive season will start sinking before it starts.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, right, looks on as players run blocking drills during the first day of fall camp for Notre Dame Football Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN