For No. 17 Notre Dame, Saturday's contest against Rice is a chance to get back on track after a summer of transition and controversy, not to mention the re-debut of quarterback Everett Golson.
After a 9-4 season and a win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, things went a tad south for the Fighting Irish, but playoff aspirations remain in South Bend. Rice is simply on the hunt for its first win over the major program after a 10-win season last year.
At face value, the matchup does not seem all that precarious for the Fighting Irish. But a bevy of details suggest otherwise. Let's take a look at the pertinent info.
When: Saturday, August 30, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 51.5
- Spread: Notre Dame (-24.5)
Team Injury Reports
|Drew Carroll||G||08/06/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||illness|
|Connor Cella||TE||08/21/2014||is expected to miss 4-6 weeks||Out||ribs|
|Ben Councell||LB||08/24/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Rice||Probable||head|
|DaVaris Daniels||WR||08/15/2014||is suspended indefinitely||Suspended||disciplinary|
|Jarrett Grace||LB||08/24/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Rice||Questionable||knee|
|Matt Hegarty||C||08/24/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Rice||Probable||head|
|Mike Heuerman||TE||08/24/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Rice||Questionable||hernia|
|Torii Hunter, Jr||WR||08/09/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||groin|
|Will Mahone||WR||08/02/2014||is suspended indefinitely||Suspended||disciplinary|
|Kendall Moore||LB||08/15/2014||is suspended indefinitely||Suspended||disciplinary|
|KeiVarae Russell||CB||08/15/2014||is suspended indefinitely||Suspended||disciplinary|
|Tony Springmann||DT||08/04/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||back|
|Ishaq Williams||LB||08/18/2014||was dismissed from the team||Out||disciplinary|
Injury reports via USA Today.
Transition and Controversy
Brian Kelly seems to be alone in his consistency as things turn sour around him.
The head of the No. 17 team in the land has a pair of new coordinators to break in beneath him, with Mike Denbrock the new face on the offensive side and Brian VanGorder on the defensive.
The former has plenty of work to do with a new quarterback, while the latter has to walk side by side with Kelly into a potential matchup nightmare without some key players.
First, the offense. After he told Sports Illustrated that he used "poor judgement on a test," per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, Golson missed all of last season.
Kelly announced Golson would be back under center for the Fighting Irish effective immediately, per Dan Murphy of 247Sports:
Back in 2012, Golson completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns to six interceptions. As somewhat of a dual-threat player, he also carried the ball 94 times for 298 yards and six more scores.
He returns matured and ready to lead the team, as captured by Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth:
#NotreDame QB Everett Golson on leadership: “I take responsibility that this is my team. In 2012 we had Zack Martin, Manti."— Rachel Terlep (@eTruth_Irish) August 13, 2014
It sounds great on paper, but Golson has to mesh with a new coordinator in a hurry come Saturday—his defense might need all the help it can get.
The "controversy" portion of the equation comes from the investigation into three of VanGorder's defenders. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore will miss the contest, per the AP, via ESPN.com.
It's not as if the defense was a source of optimism in the first place, as so many young faces are in new roles. Even VanGorder did not sound all that cheery when asked about his unit, per the AP.
"Maybe the best answer to that is, let's keep getting better as we go through the year. We have a lot of work to do. The players know it. But let's keep improving. Let's keep working. I don't know where we are right now. The one thing I do know is there's a lot better football in front of us," he said.
That developing unit will now have to encounter Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson. He's no Taylor McHargue—the man he replaces, who surpassed 7,000 yards of total offense on his career—but the junior is a dual-threat quarterback in the utmost sense.
While he has just 85 pass attempts on his career, Jackson's ability on the ground meshes well with an offense that racked up 405.6 yards and 29.6 points per game last season while ranking No. 12 in time of possession. He has experience, too—he came on in relief of McHargue last season and led the Owls to 10 points and a win against Kansas.
Jackson has his team riding high into the matchup, clearly, per the team's Twitter account:
Driphus Jackson: "I think this team is going out to Notre Dame a lot more confident than we did last season against Texas A&M."— RiceFootball (@RiceFootball1) August 25, 2014
This isn't some pushover matchup to start the season that a big program is accustomed to on a yearly basis.
The problem is only compounded by issues Kelly's team has brought upon itself. It all comes to a head Saturday.
Which team wins?
Rice's ground attack may prove difficult for a depleted, new Notre Dame front seven to handle, but those struggles should be a non-factor if Golson is back to his 2012 form and if his body can handle its first live action in quite some time.
If that's the case, the Fighting Irish should be able to get out to a sizable lead and eliminate the ground game as an option for Jackson and Co.
Rice won 10 games a season ago and can exploit weaknesses on the ground to control games with relative ease, but in a hostile environment with a new face under center, the more talented team will eventually pull through amid the chaos.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Rice 20
Statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.