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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Must Handle "Double-Edged Sword" to Contain Wolfpack QB Brennan Armstrong

September 6, 2023

The toughest task for No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday will be containing North Carolina State’s dual-threat quarterback Brennan Armstrong. In the season opener against UConn, he completed 17 of 26 passes for 155 yards and led N.C. State in rushing with 19 carries for 95 yards and two touchdowns. 

To do so, the Fighting Irish defense needs to fix some of the sloppy defensive miscues they displayed last weekend. 

Notre Dame finished with more pressures (20) than the number of times Tennessee State’s quarterbacks Deveon Bryant and Draylen Ellis dropped back to pass but only recorded one sack.

The Irish also missed 11 tackles, many of which enabled Bryant to escape the pocket and extend plays.

“It's something we didn't do a great job with (against) Tennessee State,” Freeman said. “He got out of pocket a couple of times, both quarterbacks. and so we've got to do a better job there. But it's just a mentality and a mindset, like, we have to be aggressive, but we can't be out of control where we end up behind the quarterback.”

To prepare for Armstrong, returning defenders studied Notre Dame’s 38-27 loss to No. 6 USC in the 2022 regular-season finale, where dual-threat quarterback Caleb Williams went 18-22 for 232 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 35 yards and three more scores. 

The Irish sacked Williams twice in that contest, but the Trojan signal-caller avoided several sacks and forced four missed tackles. 

His elusiveness that game likely secured the Heisman Trophy, but the Notre Dame pass rush still lacked discipline at times and lost track of Williams when fighting off blocks. 

“If you're backside, just being able to come back and not taking a play off, jogging,” Josh Burnham said. “Everyone's got to do a part running to the ball. By the time they do all these jukes and jabs jobs, you're right there and you can be the one that ends up making the tackle.”

Of course, the players were almost able to watch their own game film on Armstrong. 

Notre Dame just missed him the then-Virginia quarterback on Nov. 13, 2021. 

Against BYU two weeks prior, Armstrong tried to escape a collapsing pocket by running up the middle, only to be tripped up by one Cougar defender and body-slammed by another. 

He left the game in the fourth quarter with a rib injury.

The Fighting Irish rolled an Armstrong-less Virginia 28-3, limiting the Cavalier offense to 278 yards of offense, 4.3 yards per play and picking off backup quarterback Jay Woolfolk twice.

Would the final result have remained the same even if Armstrong had suited up for Virgina that Saturday? Probably not, but at the very least, it would’ve been more competitive. 

Armstrong was a special player that season. In 11 games, he completed 65.2 percent of throws for 4,449, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His 404.5 passing yards ranked second in the FBS. Virginia averaged 37.5 points in those contests, which would’ve ranked 11th in 2022. 

He also ran for 251 yards and nine scores, but Armstrong seems to be at his best when he uses his legs to extend plays rather than scrambling.

“A lot of people talk about Brennan Armstrong and being able to run the ball. He can throw it, too, right?” Freeman said. “He's got a good arm on him and is just a unique left-handed quarterback. Our back end will be tested this week.”

Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae departed for Syracuse following the season after head coach Bronco Mendenhall stepped down. 

Then Armstrong’s numbers fell to pedestrian levels in 2022. In 10 games, he completed 54.7% of his passes for 2,210 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ran for 371 yards (3.0 YPC) and another six scores.

He transferred to N.C. State in the offseason, joining with Anae, now the OC in Raliegh, N.C.

It’s only been one game, but Armstrong is already pleased with the reunion.

“From a quarterback perspective? Just the freedom I have,” Armstrong said. “I think Coach Anae knows what he’s getting out of me, and I kind of know what I’m getting out of him. That’s a great connection between us, too.”

So which version of Armstrong will Notre Dame face on Saturday? The All-ACC quarterback from 2021, the ho-hum version from 2022 or something in between?

Either way, the Fighting Irish must be better prepared for Armstrong to throw and pass. 

“(He) has enough arm strength to get the ball down the field, but he has the legs to create, and obviously [he’s] a problem in the run game,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden said. “So, designed runs, draws and scrambles can all break your back. If you play a good down in coverage, and all of a sudden he gets out, he can create on the run.”

The Irish are riding a 28-game win streak over regular-season ACC opponents.

But if Notre Dame can’t keep Armstrong in the pocket and force him to try and escape up the middle — just like BYU did on the play where Armstrong got injured — then the Irish could be in trouble on Saturday. 

“It's the mindset of your guys that are rushing him,” Freeman said, “and we can't have guys behind the quarterback. We can't give him vertical lanes to step up in and escape from, but it's a double-edged sword because I don't want four guys spying on a quarterback.”

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