Everything you need to know: Louisville v. Notre Dame

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV / Radio: ABC / 93.9 The Ville

Spread: Louisville +6.5, O/U 53.5 (Fanduel Sportsbook)

Last Time: 

Louisville and Notre Dame last met in 2020, with the Irish taking a 12-7 win in South Bend. The Irish held a 6-0 halftime lead, but trailed Louisville 7-6 in the third quarter after a one-yard touchdown pass from Malik Cunningham to Marshon Ford on U of L’s first drive in the second half. The Irish retook the lead on the next drive, with Ian Book scoring on a 13-yard touchdown run. Notre Dame iced the game in the fourth quarter with a 14-play drive that took up the final 7:55.

Notre Dame leads the all-time series 2-1, winning the last two games in the series back in 2019 and 2020.

Heading in: Notre Dame

Notre Dame is led by second year head coach Marcus Freeman, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach in December 2021 after Brian Kelly left to take the head coaching position at LSU. Freeman had a rocky start in 2022, going 3-3 in the first six games. But the Irish rebounded to win six of the final seven games in the 2022 season, including wins at Syracuse, and against Clemson and South Carolina.

The Irish enter Saturday night with a 5-1 record and ranked 10/11 in the AP & Coaches Polls, respectively. Notre Dame holds notable wins over NC State and Duke, the latter coming last week in Duke’s first ever College Gameday spotlight.

Notre Dame Offense Outlook

Marcus Freeman had to replace two big names in the offseason. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees left his alma mater to take the same position at Alabama, and quarterback Tyler Buchner joined him there after a stellar performance in the Gator Bowl. He elevated Gerad Parker from the team’s tight end coach to take the offensive coordinator position; Parker shares local ties, having played at Kentucky from 2000-04 and graduated from Lawrence County HS in Louisa, Ky.

Then came arguably the biggest acquisition in the entire transfer portal cycle. Notre Dame landed Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, and so far it has been a net positive for the Irish and then some. Hartman is completing 66.2% of his passes and has thrown 14 touchdowns with zero interceptions in the first half of the season. Not much has honestly changed for Hartman from his time in Winstom-Salem; he’s still a calm, collected quarterback that can make throws at all levels of the field and he’s an effective runner when necessary. He hasn’t had to run as much due to Notre Dame’s effective running game and their strong offensive line, but Hartman is as experienced and collected as it gets.

Their strength in the offense, though, lies in the running game. Audric Estime is the name most have probably already heard of with this team, and it’s definitely merited. He’s currently ninth in FBS in rushing yards per game (112 YPG) and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry with seven rushing touchdowns. Estime is a powerful runner that somehow runs above his 6′, 225+ lb. body. He’s strong with good balance and vision, and paired with their offensive line, that’s a tough combination to stop. Notre Dame uses a lot of different backs, including speedster Jeremiyah Love (31 car., 220 yards, TD), but Estime will be the focal point of the offense. Helping their cause is left tackle Joe Alt, who will likely be a top prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft and is just an absolute animal at the line of scrimmage in both pass and run blocking.

Hartman never lacked any playmakers at wide receiver in Wake Forest when he played there, and he definitely has a few at his disposal at Notre Dame. One of them is tight end Mitchell Evans, who will likely draw a lot of mismatches against Louisville’s secondary on Saturday. Notre Dame will line him up everywhere, including in the slot and outside, on offense to try and create opportunities down the middle for Hartman, and he’s been on a hot streak with 13 receptions for 209 yards in the Irish’s last two games (#4 Ohio State and #19 Duke). Holden Staes is another stout tight end that could pose a threat in the red zone, leading the team in touchdown receptions (four). They also have speedsters like Chris Tyree (11 rec., 269 yards, two TDs) to stretch the field. Freshmen receivers Jaden Greathouse (12 rec., 166 yards, three TDs) and Rico Flores, Jr. (11 rec., 141 yards, TD) add young depth to Notre Dame’s receiver corps and should be big time players in the coming years for ND.

Players to Watch: QB Sam Hartman (66.2% completion, 1,458 passing yards, 14 TDs, zero INTs); RB Audric Estime (95 rush, 672 yards, seven TDs); TE Mitchell Evans (18 rec., 272 yards); LT Joe Alt (2022 consensus All-American)

Notre Dame Defense Outlook

Former Miami (FL) and Temple head coach Al Golden returned for his second season as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, and much like last year, the Irish have a very stout group on that side of the ball. The Irish currently rank 11th in FBS in total defense (271 YPG), 14th in scoring defense (13 PPG), and boast a +5 turnover margin (T-13th in FBS).

They haven’t been able to generate a ton of negative plays (89th and 90th in FBS in sacks and tackles for loss, respectively), but they make up for it with strong chemistry and knowing their assignments. When you have two strong defensive minds in Freeman and Golden leading that group, it’s no surprise to anyone that’s been watching Notre Dame football the last couple of seasons.

Their defensive line is pretty solid, and interior lineman Howard Cross III will be the name to watch after an outstanding performance last week at Duke. Cross had 13 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and two forced fumbles against the Blue Devils, which earned him Walter Camp National Player of the Week Honors. Cross generates a lot of disruption inside and should be able to test Louisville’s interior linemen with their pass and run protection. Leading sacker Jordan Botelho will have to sit out the first half of Saturday night’s game due to a targeting call last week, but he and Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste will likely be the key guys on the edge for ND.

While Cross has been the team’s leading tackler through six games, the Irish defense is loaded with playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary. JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser are the next two leading tacklers (32 and 30, respectively), they fly everywhere and can make plays in the run game. Of those two, I would say Bertrand is the more well rounded linebacker with regards to pass coverage, but Kiser is a solid player in his own right.

Benjamin Morrison had six interceptions last season and is off to a strong start once again in 2023, with an interception and four PBUs through the first half of the season. Morrison is an outstanding man corner and a strong playmaker on the ball, he could be in line to be a first round pick in 2025 and an All-American if he continues his strong play outside. He and safety Xavier Watts (27 tackles, two INTs, three PBUs) will likely draw huge responsibilities with trying to keep Louisville’s explosive passing game contained. Cam Hart has been a really solid CB2 (eight tackles, three PBUs) and could be key to keeping Louisville’s other receivers (Chris Bell, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, etc.) from having an impact in the game. Their passing defense has been among the very best in FBS through six games, allowing 46.9% completion percentage (best in FBS) and three touchdowns to six interceptions on 5.4 yards per attempt (eighth in FBS).

Players to Watch: IDL Howard Cross III (13 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, two FF last week); CB Benjamin Morrison (11 tackles, four PBUs, INT); LB JD Bertrand (32 tackles, two TFLs, two PBUs)

Keys to the Game

  • Can Louisville continue to get a receiver outside of Jamari Thrash to break open the game?

Two weeks ago against Boston College, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce had his second 100-yard game with two touchdowns en route to a blowout win. Last week, Chris Bell led the team in receiving yards (85) and scored the team’s only touchdown in their win over NC State, and that touchdown catch ultimately swung the momentum in Louisville’s favor to pull out a tough road win.

For Louisville to pull off the upset on Saturday, they will need to continue to have their receivers showcase their depth and make plays. Jamari Thrash is of course due to have a monster game at any point with his explosive ability, but guys like Huggins-Bruce, Bell, and Kevin Coleman are what helps make Louisville’s offense so potent. With Thrash likely to draw some double teams, having one of these guys break open would be huge for Louisville to keep drives extended and put points on the board. Bell’s size and physicality could be huge for Louisville’s vertical passing game, especially in the red zone with making contested catches (again, as evident by his game-defining catch last week).

  • Can Louisville keep Sam Hartman from converting third downs?

Louisville’s biggest focus will likely go towards stopping the Notre Dame running game, and rightly so. Estime is a powerful runner that can easily create third-and-short opportunities, whether that’s for himself or a play action pass from Hartman.

But when Louisville is able to get stops in the running game and force Notre Dame into third-and-medium or third-and-long spots, they have to be able to make plays in the passing game. The matchup with Evans does pose some serious concerns for me, as Louisville hasn’t had to face a tight end with the playmaking ability he and Staes have. If Louisville isn’t able to generate pressure and force Hartman into mistakes or throwing the ball away, Notre Dame could make this a long night for the defense.

  • Can Jack Plummer avoid the costly mistakes?

It’s taken me over 1600 words to get around to this, but I’ve avoided calling this a “redemption” type game for Sam Hartman. Hartman had six turnovers in the third quarter last year against Louisville, but because it’s rare for anyone to turn the ball over that much in a game, it’s highly unlikely that it will happen again on Saturday night.

In some sense, someone could call this a “redemption” type game for Jack Plummer as well. Last year at Cal, Plummer had his season lows in completion percentage (43.2%) and passer rating (93.9) against Notre Dame, but the Bears also had a fourth quarter lead and nearly pulled off an upset in South Bend. With better talent around him in this Louisville offense, Plummer should have a better game but he needs to play a clean game for Louisville to spring the upset. Any turnovers against a fundamentally sound Notre Dame team could be costly for the Cardinals, especially since the Irish have just two turnovers (tied for third in FBS).

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