The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is currently sitting at No.12 in the country after compiling a 3-0 start off of solid play by graduate transfer and former Wisconsin starting quarterback Jack Coan. Behind Coan's efficient play, the Fighting Irish are averaging over 33 points per game and are looking to achieve back-to-back appearances in the College Football Playoff.
This Saturday, the Fighting Irish and the Badgers will both travel to Chicago for one of the best non-conference matchups of this young 2021 college football season. Both teams have had shaky starts to the season and have a lot to prove in this battle of top 20 teams in the Associated Press Poll.
To better ascertain just what type of team the Badgers can expect to see down at Soldier Field, we at The Daily Cardinal reached out to Nate Wheeler, a junior and legacy student at the University of Notre Dame studying chemical engineering. Wheeler, a native of the Twin Cities, is in his first year covering football for the Observer, the student-run paper at the University of Notre Dame.
"Although the Irish sit at a perfect 3-0, this season has been anything but smooth for this team so far," Wheeler said. "In Notre Dame's opener against Florida State, the Irish squandered an 18 point lead in the fourth quarter, letting the Seminoles force overtime. The Irish then needed a game-winning field goal to squeak by in a 41-38 win."
Wheeler noted how that game was easily Jack Coan's best of the season for the Irish, as he threw for four touchdowns and over 350 yards.
Wheeler stated that week two was the worst performance of the year for the Irish, as they needed to score a touchdown with under two minutes left in the game to avoid being upset by Toledo.
"Toledo's front seven disrupted Coan's rhythm all game, and he rarely had time to throw in the pocket," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also identified the Toledo game as the first time the Irish turned to true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner.
"Buchner provided the spark that the Irish needed at times in that victory, providing a different look to the Irish offense with his ability to run the football," Wheeler said. "Although Buchner took a handful of drives for the Irish, Coan, ultimately, was the one to lead the Irish on the game winning drive."
When speaking of the matchup between Notre Dame's offense and Wisconsin's front seven, he noted that the Wisconsin defense should challenge the Irish.
"Putting Buchner in changes the flow of the game, and the Irish might need his running ability behind center if they are going to be successful against a strong Wisconsin defensive line."
Buchner also spoke on how the offensive line has been the most disappointing part of the year for the Irish so far. He identified that the line has "failed to give Coan adequate protection in the pocket and struggled to get the run game going at times." Wheeler further mentioned that the injury of true freshman left tackle Blake Fisher has pushed other players onto the field who have struggled at times, but he expects some of those issues to be sorted out this Saturday.
At running back, Wheeler recognized that the Irish have one of the most dynamic duos in the country at running back in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. "Williams is elusive as ever to bring down,” he said. “Tyree's speed is top notch."
"They could have a hard time finding running room on Saturday against a stiff Wisconsin defense," Wheeler acknowledged, "but if they find a hole, they have the skill set necessary to turn a small gain into a big play."
The passing game is also a strength of this Notre Dame team, especially considering the play of the sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and his connection with quarterback Jack Coan. Mayer "is the bread and butter of the Irish offense at times," Nate said. "His nickname is ‘Baby Gronk’ for a reason, and he seems to always get open and is never an easy tackle."
Defensively, things have been much less solid for the Irish and is the area that could potentially keep Notre Dame out of contention for the CFP. "The Irish have a new defensive coordinator in Marcus Freeman, and head coach Brian Kelly has admitted that there have been some growing pains as the players adjust to the new system," Wheeler said, as he noted that big plays have been an enormous problem through the first quarter of this season.
Additionally, Wheeler acknowledged that the star of this defense is safety Kyle Hamilton, who has three interceptions on the season for the Irish. Wheeler expects the Irish defense to build off last week's solid performance against a Wisconsin offense that has struggled so far this season.
In closing, the Observer's football beat writer stated that Saturday has a ton on the line for the Irish.
"It doesn't feel like Notre Dame is 3-0 based on the way people are talking about this team,” Wheeler said in regard to all the hate the Fighting Irish have received this year for just scraping by lackluster teams, “And the Irish will have to prove something against a quality Wisconsin team this weekend if they are to be taken seriously as a playoff contender going forward."