SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Lace up the gloves and strap on the head gear.
When No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 14 North Carolina State meet Saturday in a matchup of 6-1 teams, it pits the nation’s sixth-ranked rushing offense against the sixth-ranked rushing defense. The Irish rush for nearly 318 yards per game, the Wolfpack surrender just 91.3 yards on the ground.
”A great head-to-head heavyweight battle right there,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
Not one that many thought could have national championship implications before the season started.
But here they both are, with the first College Football Rankings waiting to be announced on Halloween Eve. Notre Dame, 4-8 in 2016, is fresh from its fifth straight victory, a 49-14 pasting of archrival Southern California. N.C. State, re-freshened after a bye week, comes in with six straight victories, including stunners over Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division rivals Florida State (27-21) and Louisville (39-25).
”They are deserving of their ranking,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ”They can play with anybody.”
Six-foot-4, 275-pound senior defensive end Bradley Chubb already has 6 + sacks and 14 tackles for loss, and he’s one of nine seniors who will start defensively.
The offense – directed by postgrad quarterback Ryan Finley, who has not been intercepted this season – features a pair of all-purpose players in running back Nyheim Hines and H-back Jaylen Samuels.
The 5-foot-9, 197-pound Hines, an All-American track sprinter, is coming off a third straight 100-yard rushing effort in a 35-17 victory at Pittsburgh on Oct. 14 during which he had an 83-yard TD run and a 92-yard punt return. The 5-11, 228-pound Samuels has 10 TDs (seven rushing) and 54 receptions for 453 yards.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, rides Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams, who is seventh nationally with 967 rushing yards and second in yards per carry at 9.21; dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who has totaled 1,410 yards and 18 touchdowns; and a defense that is eighth in turnovers gained (17) and 12th in points allowed per game (16.4).
Some other things to know about the Irish and Wolfpack:
After seven games, Notre Dame has a 1.43 turnover margin (takeaways minus giveaways divided by games played) that is fourth in the nation. The Irish have 17 takeaways (7 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries) against 7 giveaways (4 interceptions, 3 fumbles) and have outscored the opposition 94-10. After seven games, N.C. State is 10th in turnover margin at 1.14 with its 11 takeaways (6 interceptions, five fumble recoveries) against just 3 giveaways (all fumbles).
The last interception thrown by Finley came against the Miami Hurricanes on Nov. 19, 2016. Finley’s 313 attempts without an interception is the longest current streak in the nation but only the second-longest in school history behind the 379 in 2008-09 by current Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. In his 248 attempts this season, Finley has 172 completions (69.4 percent) for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Finley has been sacked just seven times and the N.C. State offensive line has allowed just eight, two fewer than the number allowed by Notre Dame. Meanwhile, both defenses have 18 sacks to their credit, their 2.57 sacks per game ranking 32nd nationally. Fifteen of N.C. State’s 18 have been recorded by linemen, as opposed to 12 + by Notre Dame’s linemen, with Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem having three each.
NEXT TD WILL BE ITS FIRST
In two previous games against the Wolfpack, Notre Dame has failed to score a touchdown. At the Gator Bowl following the 2002 season, No. 11 Notre Dame managed just two field goals in a 28-6 loss to a No. 17 N.C. State team led by QB Philip Rivers. Then last year in the Hurricane Matthew monsoon at Carter-Finley Stadium, the Wolfpack beat the Irish 10-3, winning on a blocked Irish punt returned by FS Dexter Wright.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
The Wolfpack have never made a trip to South Bend in their previous 124 years of playing football. But Doeren has seen the Golden Dome many times. ”I’ve been up there several times to watch them play when I was young,” said Doeren, who grew up in a Catholic household in Kansas. He was there, too, in 1999 as a USC graduate assistant when the Irish beat the Trojans, 25-24.
BEEN THERE BOTH AND DONE THAT
The obvious tie between the two programs is head coach Lou Holtz, who was 33-12-3 as head coach of the Wolfpack from 1972-75 and 100-30-2 from 1986-96 at Notre Dame, where his 1988 team won the school’s last national championship.