The Journal Gazette
Saturday, September 25, 2021 1:00 am

Irish face toughest game yet

Kelly likes team's maturity

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame is out of time.

The Irish have spent the first three weeks of the season trying to sort out a reworked offensive line and adjusting to a new defense under first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman. The growing pains have been obvious as they have played close games against three opponents who might or might not end up in a bowl game this season.

When No. 12 Notre Dame takes the field today against 18th-ranked Wisconsin for a Shamrock Series showdown at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Irish will have to be all grown up. The matchup with the Badgers opens a stretch of five games – Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina – that could make or break Notre Dame's season.

Coach Brian Kelly, who will pass Knute Rockne for the most wins in Irish football history if Notre Dame wins today, said he is excited about his team's progress and emphasized the need to keep improving as the Irish reach the meat of their schedule.

“We're watching them grow up in front of us,” Kelly said. “They're learning each and every week. Practice is really important, the way we prepare, all the foundational principles that you guys really don't want to hear about, I'm excited about what this football team because each and every day they're learning how to prepare to be a championship football team.”

Notre Dame (3-0) is facing a Wisconsin team that has Big Ten title aspirations and is looking for a signature early-season win after falling to Penn State at home to open the season. The Badgers (1-1) scored just 10 points in that loss to the Nittany Lions, and quarterback Graham Mertz averaged only 5 yards per attempt while throwing two costly interceptions.

Mertz, a former top recruit, earned the starting job at Wisconsin as a redshirt freshman last season after former starter Jack Coan sustained a foot injury in preseason practice. Coan didn't play last season and then transferred to Notre Dame, where he has thrown eight touchdowns against two interceptions in his first three games. 

The fifth-year senior signal-caller insisted he's treating this matchup like any other game.

“It's definitely going to be weird,” Coan said of facing his former team. “There are going to be a lot of my friends I played with, a lot of guys I still talk to today. But at the end of the day, it's just another football game. I like to think I don't get more excited for one game or the next. But it'll be a pretty cool atmosphere and we're playing a great team, so it'll be fun.”

The Badgers bounced back from their loss to the Nittany Lions with a 34-0 win over Eastern Michigan, in which they ran for 352 yards on 55 carries. The Wisconsin rushing attack is led by explosive Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi and bruising fullback Jalen Berger, who form a potent thunder-and-lightning combination.

Notre Dame's defense improved in a 27-13 win over Purdue last week after giving up four plays of 60-plus yards in its first two games, but it hasn't seen anything like the Badgers' ball-control ground attack yet.

“The ceiling, we have the ability to be the best defense ... in the country,” linebacker Drew White said. “We're not there. We saw it in our first two games, the mistakes and the details. But we're getting those ironed out and we saw a step forward against Purdue. ... I'm really excited for what we're going to showcase.

“We have a job to do. We're playing an opponent that's going to try to run the ball down our throat and we're going to have to stop them.”

Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin

When: Noon today

Where: Soldier Field, Chicago

Records: No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0), No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1)

TV: Fox

Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

3 storylines

Irish offensive line vs. Wisconsin defensive front: Notre Dame has struggled to run the ball this season, picking up only 2.9 yards per carry despite Kyren Williams breaking a 51-yard touchdown run against Purdue last week. The rebuilt Irish offensive line is still developing and is dealing with injuries: starting left tackle Blake Fisher has been out since Week 1, and backup Michael Carmody will be a game-time decision after missing the matchup against Purdue last week. That line - possibly with third-stringer Tosh Baker at left tackle - will have to jell quickly against a Wisconsin front that features talented 320-pound nose tackle Keeanu Benton. The Badgers give up only 1.8 yards per carry.

Notre Dame defensive line vs. Wisconsin run game: The Irish held Purdue to just 2.3 yards per carry and 1.0 outside of one 31-yard run for King Doerue in the third quarter. They'll face a stiffer test in Wisconsin, which, as usual, features one of the better rushing attacks in the country, behind an offensive line that includes starting center Joe Tippmann, a Bishop Dwenger graduate. Running backs Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger will test a Notre Dame front that might be without difficult-to-move nose tackle Kurt Hinish.

Shamrock Series in Chicago: Notre Dame's Shamrock Series, a nearly annual Irish "home" game at a neutral site, began in 2009 and has been a showcase for Notre Dame's brand in venues across the country. The Irish are 9-0 in such games, with wins over Miami, Purdue, Boston College and others, most recently against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in 2018. Notre Dame has played 12 games, including the entire 1929 home schedule while Notre Dame Stadium was under construction, at Soldier Field and the Irish are 10-0-2 there.

Prediction: No. 18 Wisconsin 21, No. 12 Notre Dame 13

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