Notebook: Rerun or revival ahead for Quenton Nelson and the Notre Dame O-Line?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Quenton Nelson’s first foray into leadership at Notre Dame involved chicken.

Specifically, the hot chicken Nashville claims as its culinary revelation.

Days before the Irish football team upended LSU, 31-28, in the Music City Bowl at the end of the 2014 season, the then-redshirting Irish freshman led ND to a 25-19 victory in a hot wing-eating contest.

The senior offensive guard’s influence, as one of ND’s captains and arguably its best player, is a bit more profound these days on his Notre Dame teammates, both with his actions and his words.

“When we did our strength surveys, his strength was truthfulness,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday, referring to offseason player leadership evaluations. “He's very truthful, to a point where sometimes he may be a little bit too truthful. We've kind of smoothed the rough edges of that truthful kind of demeanor.

“What it's done really is it's created an accountability. He holds everybody accountable. So if somebody is not doing it the right way, he's not afraid to get up there and tell them, ‘That's not how we do it here at Notre Dame.’ ”

That accountability, particularly where Nelson’s own position group is concerned, will be tested here Saturday when 14th-ranked North Carolina State (6-1) and the nation’s sixth-best run defense clashes with the No. 9 Irish (6-1) and the sixth-best run offense (averaging 317.9 yards).

It’s the third-ever meeting between the schools and the second not played in the outer bands of a hurricane. Kickoff for the first Top-15 matchup against anyone in the last 25 years involving the Wolfpack is 3:30 p.m. EDT, and NBC has the telecast.

It’s also a theoretical rerun of ND’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9 — or a theoretical revival — where the run game is concerned.

The third-ranked Bulldogs, who have the nation’s fourth-best run defense (82.1 yards per game), held the Irish to 55 yards on 37 carries. N.C. State (91.3) should offer an opportunity to show how far the line has come since that game.

And the Wolfpack represent the last run defense ranked better than 75th (out of 129) the Irish will face the rest of the regular season. Wake Forest, which follows N.C. State, is 87th after taking a big rankings hit from playing triple-option bully Georgia Tech last weekend.

Miami (Fla.) is surprisingly 85th in rush defense, with Navy 75th, and Stanford an uncharacteristically porous 97th.

What about the teams the Irish already have faced other than Georgia?

Michigan State (eighth in run defense) is the only one ranked in the top 65. But if you remove Notre Dame’s respective rushing performances against those teams, Temple improves from 81st to 44th, Boston College 114th to 87th, Miami (Ohio) 68th to 43rd, North Carolina 112th to 105th and USC from 78th to 52nd.

Even the Spartans improve significantly, from eighth to third.

The best individual rushing performance against the Wolfpack this season is 73 yards (twice), first by Keion Davis of Marshall, then reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville.

The Wolfpack, led by midseason All-America defensive end Bradley Chubb, starts nine seniors on defense, including its entire front seven. No other FBS school is starting more than seven seniors on defense.

“I think what I'm impressed with is that they're not only physical, but they play hard every snap,” Kelly said of the N.C. State defense. “Again, this is a defense that's very stingy against the run. They do a great job schematically of putting their guys in a very good position.”

Driven to distractions?

Both Notre Dame and N.C. State have reason to be preoccupied this week — the Irish by what’s in the rearview mirror, a 49-14 demolition of arch-rival USC, the Wolfpack by what’s ahead.

N.C. State has a Nov. 4 home date with No. 7 Clemson in a game that could all but clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game for the Wolfpack with a victory.

As for Kelly’s potential concerns about his team soaking in too much positive vibe (rat poison in Nick Saban’s vernacular), he is confident they won’t need a reminder.

“Because our mission from day one is to win a national championship,” he said. “You guys are just catching up to us.

“Look, USC lost the game. They go home and get to play for the Pac-12 championship. That's great. We don't have anything else to play for. We've been in the playoffs since we lost to Georgia (on Sept. 9).

“Every game is a playoff for us. Everybody is talking about getting to the playoffs, getting to the playoffs. Every game we play is a playoff game. Our guys don't know it any other way.”

What might have been?

The conjecture at the time was that if Clemson grad transfer Scott Pagano landed at Notre Dame, he would not only provide a boost to an unproven interior defensive line but likely become the standout on it.

The 6-foot-3, 293-pounder took a visit to the ND campus in March, but ultimately choose Oregon. There, he has struggled, especially with health.

Pagano has appeared in five games for the Ducks, and has totaled three tackles — one fewer than Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon.

He finished his Clemson career with 92 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks while playing 705 snaps in 31 games with 13 appearances in the starting lineup.

He missed three games with a broken bone in his foot late in the 2016 regular season, but returned for the national champs’ two playoff games. Pagano then had surgery on the same foot early in the summer.

Even if he fully recovers, he’ll have lots of competition for playing time on a team that’s improved from 128th to 47th in total defense since the end of last season.

On second thought

On those occasions when Notre Dame has a repeat opponent from one season to the next, Kelly likes to scour the previous year’s film, primarily to make evaluations of individual players.

He is skipping that process this season in light of the weather conditions in N.C. State’s 10-3 survival last October in hurricane conditions, in Raleigh, N.C.

“It wasn't even part of our breakdown, because it really didn't give us anything,” Kelly said. “It was a poorly designed game plan by me. There was nothing there that we really wanted to go back and look at.”

The Irish amassed 113 total yards, with N.C. State laboring for 198. The teams combined for five turnovers, 3-of-29 third-down-conversion efficiency, and 10 punts — one of which was blocked and returned for a touchdown by the Wolfpack that ultimately determined the winner.

“We've changed our punt protection since that time,” Kelly said. “There's really nothing (else) that we could garner from that game. It really didn't show truly who they were or who we were in that game, because you just didn't have the ability to exert force against the ground and be explosive and powerful.”

Odds and ends

Notre Dame’s national championship odds improved dramatically after Saturday’s win over USC. Per Bovada.LV, the Irish odds shrank from 33-1 to 18-1, with only five teams now holding better odds: Alabama 5-6, Ohio State 5-1, Penn State 7-1, Clemson 10-1 and Georgia 10-1.

Running back Josh Adams is finally on the board in the Heisman race, at 20-1, just ahead of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (33-1) and Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph (33-1).

Ahead of Adams are Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (4-11), Stanford’s Bryce Love (3-1), Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (12-1) and Ohio State’s JT Barrett (14-1). Alabama QB Jalen Hurts, like Adams, is at 20-1.

Will North Carolina State's sixth-ranked run defense rain on the parade of Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson (56) and the Irish offensive line on Saturday? (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)