SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame has gone out of its way to talk about how normal this week feels. Having a full complement of players in practice for an entire week is usually nothing to write home about, but this year it feels like a departure from every game week that's come before it.
For the first time since Sept. 8, according to coach Brian Kelly, the Irish have no players out because of coronavirus positive tests or contact tracing. Even last week, when only two players missed the game against Florida State, Notre Dame didn't get some important pieces back to practice until the middle of the week when they were allowed to leave quarantine. That led to Shaun Crawford moving temporarily back from safety to cornerback and giving up a 48-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter against the Seminoles. Notre Dame should have no such depth issues against Louisville today; Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jack Kiser are still questionable (and not on the depth chart) after missing the Florida State game and Lawrence Keys III was in concussion protocol this week (though he remains on the depth chart), but these are comparatively minor problems to work through, the kind that every college football team has to deal with each season.
It's important that Notre Dame is at full strength today, especially on defense, because Louisville's offense can cause plenty of problems. Though the Cardinals are only 1-3, much of that has to do with some turnover issues rather than an inability to move the ball. Wide receiver Tutu Atwell was the ACC's leading receiver last season, an All-American who is a true gamebreaker on the outside, while running back Javian Hawkins is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and is arguably the best back in the ACC (non-Travis Etienne division). Hawkins ran 19 times for 122 yards against the Irish last season. Quarterback Malik Cunningham is a true dual-threat, capable of making plays with his arm and his legs and proved as much last season when he threw 22 touchdown passes against only five interceptions and also ran for more than 400 yards. He has two 300-yard passing games this season, though he has yet to really get the run game going, averaging just 1.7 yards on his 49 carries.
Notre Dame struggled against the quarterback run when facing Florida State and Jordan Travis last week – Travis faked the Irish defenders out of their shoes on a few option keepers – and will have to be better this week to slow down Louisville. That was an emphasis this week in practice. The defense will also focus on creating turnovers, which the Cardinals have been only too happy to provide this season: Louisville is 74th out of 76 teams in turnover margin entering today's matchup with a minus-8, including three lost fumbles against Georgia Tech last week. Whether Notre Dame can take the ball away will be a significant determining factor in Louisville's ability to score.
Notre Dame should be able to score plenty against this Cardinals defense. Louisville is giving up 4.5 yards per carry and Notre Dame torched a similarly leaky Florida State defense last week to the tune of 353 rushing yards. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree each broke the 100-yard barrier and the Irish didn't even have to turn to C'Bo Flemister, who had 100 yards against South Florida three weeks earlier. The Cardinals do have a true difference-maker at linebacker in Dorian Etheridge, who already has 8 1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks this season, but this is a defense that just gave up 450 yards to a less-than-impressive Georgia Tech team. It might be another day in which quarterback Ian Book's most important role is making sure he hands the ball off without fumbling. This offensive line is red hot and has another chance to control the game this afternoon.
There's really no way around the fact the Irish should win this game. They might get singed a bit on defense against a Louisville team that has plenty of playmakers, but Notre Dame should get to 4-0 relatively comfortably. The Blue and Gold have to take advantage of these home games while they can because three of the next four are away from Notre Dame Stadium, including trips to Pittsburgh and Boston College. Put this one away early and then start preparing to take the 2020 season on the road.