Vanderbilt and Notre Dame are two of the elite academic institutions in America, especially among schools that play FBS football. So it is a bit surprising that the Commodores and the Irish have played each other only twice, in South Bend in 1995 and on a Thursday night in Nashville to open the following season.
The Irish won both of those matchups, and despite a lackluster performance against Ball State last Saturday, they are expected to win this contest as well. But the Commodores have looked sharp in beating two quality Group of 5 programs — Middle Tennessee and Nevada — by a combined score of 76-17. With several other tough games coming up in the next month, the game with the Irish could serve as a building block for Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Notre Dame -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame offensive line vs. Vanderbilt defensive line
The Irish blockers were inconsistent in the opening game against Michigan with a solid first half and a less than special second half. The struggles continued last week against a Ball State defense that returned one starter from a defensive front seven that was 91st against the run in 2017. The fact that ND could only muster 117 rushing yards on 41 carries against the Cardinals is not a good sign, and neither was the constant pressure on quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Vanderbilt has allowed just 75 yards rushing per game and has nine sacks in its two victories. While we don’t really know a lot about the Vanderbilt front based on the level of competition, it is safe to assume that this will be a big step up from Ball State even if the Commodores aren’t on Michigan’s level.
2. Brandon Wimbush
He certainly was harassed during the Ball State game. But regardless, his performance was not up to par. In particular, Wimbush’s three interceptions allowed the Cardinals to remain competitive. The game plan seemed to be to keep the Irish signal caller in the pocket, limiting his dangerous running ability and putting pressure on the Irish pass protectors. The Notre Dame coaching staff will probably ditch that idea against an SEC foe this weekend, creating more opportunities for Wimbush to make plays both running and throwing. Perhaps if he gains some yardage with his feet, it will also boost his confidence in the passing game. Whether the game plan changes or it remains the same, Wimbush must up his play versus Vanderbilt.
3. Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney
Of Vanderbilt’s 34 total pass receptions, 21 have gone to these two players. Lipscomb had a strong sophomore season in 2017 and has built on it by ranking 21st in the nation with 14 catches over the first two weeks. He has been less explosive so far this year in terms of yards per catch, but he’s been a reliable target for quarterback Kyle Shurmur and has continued to find the end zone. Tight end Pinkney has averaged 18.6 yards on his seven grabs (one reception went for 53 yards). A big wide receiver in high school, Pinkney can flex out or hurt you from a traditional tight end set. The Commodores would like to get more from other pass catchers, but these two will be the primary focus for the Irish in pass coverage.
Notre Dame pretty much sleepwalked through much of the Ball State game, and the Irish should play better this week. But what does better mean? As a member of the SEC, Vanderbilt plays in crazy environments, and the Commodores will not be fazed by the trip to South Bend. They have also looked like a competent team over the first two weeks, doing what they should in blowing out two lesser opponents. Of course, Vanderbilt looked competent early last season too, right up to the point where they played Alabama in week three. But this is a more experienced group — especially on offense — and this year’s Irish are not the 2017 Tide. If Vanderbilt can protect Kyle Shurmur from the rugged Irish defensive front, Vanderbilt should be able to get the ball to Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney.
For the Notre Dame offense, once again the line and quarterback Brandon Wimbush are the keys. The other offensive skill players are better than what the Commodores have on the back end defensively, but the only way the Irish can be successful is if the line and Wimbush give those skill players a chance to do damage. This will not be an easy game for the Irish with Vanderbilt making things tough for the Notre Dame rushing game and Shurmur leading the Vanderbilt offense on a couple of long drives. In what is a hard-fought battle, the Irish score late to make the winning margin seem a bit greater than how the game actually played out.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Vanderbilt 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.