The No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-0) are an overwhelming favorite in their home matchup against Central Michigan (1-1) on Saturday. Unbeaten on the season, the Irish can’t be blamed for looking past the Chippewas from the Mid-American Conference. The key to success for the Irish lies not in underestimating Saturday’s opponent, but in maintaining focus on the task at hand.
As anticipation builds for the highly anticipated showdown against No. 6 Ohio State in South Bend on Sept. 23, the Irish are in a precarious position. On the surface, this week’s contest appears to be a David vs. Goliath scenario. The allure of the clash with Ohio State looms large. But Notre Dame’s ability to remain steadfast against Central Michigan will be a litmus test for their College Football Playoff aspirations.
Following an impressive start to the season, Notre Dame enters its first-ever game against head coach Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan squad. The Irish have won each of their first three games by 21+ points, including last week’s 45-24 triumph over N.C. State on the road.
Notre Dame vs. Central Michigan a David & Goliath Scenario
Notre Dame’s Offense Reaching New Heights
Quarterback Sam Hartman has been one of the most efficient passers in the country this year. He should be able to put up big numbers once again. Fresh off a four-touchdown performance against the Wolfpack, Hartman has already thrown 10 touchdowns without an interception this season. Among Hartman’s key targets is wide receiver Jaden Greathouse. The true freshman is off to a hot start. He has eight receptions for 113 yards (14.1 average) with three touchdowns.
The Notre Dame running game is expected to be heavily utilized. Audric Estime, who rushed for 920 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 13 games a season ago, is off to a blazing start this year. He has already gained 345 yards and scored four touchdowns in the first three games. Estime enjoyed a breakout game against NC State, ripping a career-best 80-yard touchdown run on his fourth carry of the game. Against Central Michigan, the Irish would be well-suited to use Estime to create opportunities for Hartman to make big plays down the field.
What to Expect From the Chippewas
Central Michigan, coming off a 45-42 home victory over the New Hampshire Wildcats, is 1-1 on the season. The Irish faced a dual-threat quarterback in Brennan Armstrong a week ago. They face another one in Bert Emanuel Jr. Emanuel went 7-for-19 with 193 yards passing and two touchdowns in last week’s win over an FCS opponent. He also threw two interceptions. Myles Bailey led the offense in rushing for the Chippewas, carrying the ball 21 times for 108 yards (5.1 yards per attempt).
In their season opener against Michigan State, Central Michigan managed to accumulate only 218 yards in total offense. The offense threw for just 96 yards against Michigan State. It’s worth noting that the Irish possess the 10th-ranked pass defense in the nation. All told Emanuel has thrown for 280 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions for the year. He will need a significantly improved performance against the Irish, which boasts one of the top defensive units in the country.
“I look forward to meeting coach McElwain. I have a lot of respect for him,” said Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman at his press conference on Sept. 11. “He has a good football team. Their offense is explosive. The quarterback makes it all go. He is an athletic quarterback, and he can run it. I think they have some good skilled (players). Our defense will have a good challenge.
The Chippewas struggled against their rival from the FCS a week ago. They step way up in class in taking on the Irish. After giving up 493 passing yards to New Hampshire, the Central Michigan defense will now have to contend with Hartman and a revitalized Notre Dame passing offense. That could make for a challenging afternoon for the Chippewas.
In overcoming their immediate hurdle, Notre Dame must prioritize the present challenge against a seemingly overmatched Central Michigan team over their future battle with formidable foe Ohio State.
“I know someone is going to ask about Ohio State coming up,” Freeman said at his press conference. “It doesn’t take long to put on the film and understand we have a challenge. We get 12 guaranteed opportunities, so we’re down to nine. For us to overlook any opponent would be just crazy. We have to look forward to this opportunity to play at Notre Dame Stadium versus a good opponent.”
Freeman is on point in his assessment of this weekend’s matchup. The importance of staying focused cannot be overstated. Notre Dame must acknowledge the potential pitfalls of underestimating Central Michigan if they are going to entertain hopes of emerging victorious over the Chippewas and the Buckeyes.