Today, our Notre Dame friends over at One Foot Down did a Q&A with us, so we decided to do one of our own. We talked about the game, a “Rudy” situation, cheap beer, expanding the playoff to include...everybody...and the unofficial song of Notre Dame athletics.
1) Notre Dame fans don’t seem particularly thrilled about going to the Camping World Bowl to play Iowa State. Is it more about the bowl game they ended up at, or the opponent?
It’s likely a mixture of both, but with a slight edit. Iowa State as the opponent is not a “historically great” program, so that’s surely part of it. But I think the Cyclones’ record at 7-5 is even more so what is rubbing those Notre Dame fans the wrong way.
If Iowa State had gone something like 9-3 (which anyone who followed them at all knows was so incredibly close to being a reality, considering all the close losses to very good teams), I think Irish fans would probably say that this isn’t an exciting matchup in terms of brand names, but that it’s a solid Power 5 opponent in a decent bowl, and that’s okay.
Instead, it’s that same not-exciting historical brand name, coupled with a record that is just barely above .500, playing against a Notre Dame team that went 10-2. Of course, that view of this game is absolutely an arrogant way of looking at it -- Notre Dame may still be a huge name in the sport, but let’s not act like they should be above playing in this game after the last 25 years of football (and especially in a season when the Irish lost to the only two legitimately good teams on their schedule). But anyway, I think the Iowa State name plus that 7-5 record definitely is a big chunk of it.
With that said, playing in the “Camping World Bowl” the year after being in the College Football Playoff is obviously a let-down, and so I think the bowl and its ridiculous name also play a part here. ND isn’t a stranger to weird/bad bowl games, obviously, considering trips to the likes of the Hawaii Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl in the past 10 years, but Irish fans never fail to think of their beloved team as “above this,” whether that’s true or not.
2) The Irish offense has generally been pretty good this year, but the defense has really shined, currently sitting at 8th in the country in yards per play allowed. What’s been the key to that success?
I have to say that it’s defensive coordinator Clark Lea and his staff, first and foremost. The transition from 2018 to 2019 saw the Irish defense lose DT Jerry Tillery (1st round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft), CB Julian Love (All-American and a 4th round pick), LB Drue Tranquill (4th round pick), and other key starters like LB Te’von Coney and DT Jonathan Bonner. And, to clarify, at most of those positions, the back-fills were unproven question marks entering this season, and many thought the middle of the defense especially was going to suffer with the loss of such key DTs and LBs.
But Lea and his reliable 4-3 defensive scheme simply plugged in a bunch of not-super-heralded guys and kept churning out a productive unit. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White were fantastic stepping in for Tranquill and Coney, and even considering that Clark Lea’s specialty is linebackers, he did a spectacular job developing those 3-star, project guys to get to the point where ND fans were supremely confident in their abilities for the majority of the season (their performance in Athens against the Bulldogs was truly the turning point in that regard, as those two led the way in holding D’Andre Swift to less than 100 yards on the ground).
The rotation of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, Jayson Ademilola, and Jacob Lacey has been very solid filling in the Tillery-sized hole on the front line of the defense as well. That group doesn’t really have any standouts, but does have a bunch of quality depth that can be rotated in and out.
At cornerback, the return of veteran Shaun Crawford -- who’s had to work through a ruptured Achilles and two torn ACLs since his senior year of high school -- and the emergence of sophomore TaRiq Bracy as a solid contributor helped replace the shut-down talents of Love. The addition of 5-star true freshman safety Kyle Hamilton also helped solidify the backline of the secondary.
Combining all of that with a very deep stable of pass rushers (Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes, Jamir Jones, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji all had nice moments in combining for 19.5 sacks this year) and a couple trustworthy senior captains at safety (Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman) has simply made for a nice mix of experienced vets and young talent ready to prove themselves.
So as not to ramble any further about how surprisingly good these guys have been, I’d say the key strengths to know about this Irish defense are their ability to shut down the pass and their penchant for getting the ball back for the offense. The secondary has ND ranked 3rd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (163.7) and yards allowed per attempt (5.7), behind only Clemson and Ohio State in both categories. Additionally, this defense is incredibly opportunistic in terms of creating turnovers (especially fumbles), as the Irish are #2 in the country in fumbles forced, #1 in fumbles recovered, and #5 in turnovers forced overall.
3) Ian Book is a veteran QB that’s led the Irish to a top-25 ranking in yards per play. Is he the engine that makes the offense go, or is he more of a game manager?
I’d say he’s definitely more the engine that makes the offense go, but I also wouldn’t say he’s the most powerful engine you could get for your offense, ya know? *Insert here a car engine analogy that someone who knows anything about cars might say*
He’s certainly more than a game manager, considering his above-average running ability (516 yards and 4 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry) and his penchant for coming up with some very big, clutch plays (his heroics against Virginia Tech come to mind especially, leading a tense game-winning drive that sparked a subsequent 4-game stretch following that win where the Irish outscored Duke, Navy, Boston College, and Stanford 175 to 58).
Furthermore, Book’s passing numbers are pretty darn good, especially for a guy that a lot of ND fans would tell you they aren’t particularly impressed with -- he threw for 2,787 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just 6 interceptions all season, which I would argue is just a biiiiiiit better than what you might expect a “game manager” QB to do.
Does he have some major flaws that showed up against some very good defenses (Georgia and Michigan)? Absolutely. He still isn’t very good at -- or very willing to try -- throwing deep, and he still has a tendency to abandon the pocket and scramble at the first sign of pressure, oftentimes deciding to run before allowing his receivers to finish their routes and potentially get open for big gains.
But Ian Book has still been an above-average QB this season, is a seasoned veteran at this point, and should certainly be a concern for Iowa State as they prepare to stop this Irish offense. They’re not world-beaters, but Book makes them dangerous at all times, for sure.
4) Who are the skill position players Cyclone fans need to be worried about?
First and foremost, Chase Claypool is the priority for Iowa State in terms of skill guys to try to slow down. The senior is a 6’4” wideout from British Columbia who can really run and leap for someone his size, and he has unbelievably good hands and body control that he constantly uses to make jaw-dropping sideline catches. He’s reeled in 59 passes for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, and I expect him to be a VERY good receiver in the NFL after he’s drafted in the first few rounds this spring.
At tight end is Cole Kmet, who many are saying would be the #1 guy at his position if he entered the draft after this season. He’s mostly indicated he will return for his senior year, but that kind of draft stock will be hard for him to turn down, for sure. Kmet missed the first two games of the season recovering from a broken collarbone, and in his first game back only managed to grab 9 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown against a pretty good Georgia defense. On the season, Kmet has 41 catches for 482 yards and 6 touchdowns, and with the way he can move at his size (6’5”, 250 lbs.), he’s a matchup nightmare for the Cyclone linebackers and safeties.
Aside from those two, I would say sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy is a guy to keep an eye on. As a track star who was at one point committed to play football AND run track at Oregon, he’s shown multiple times this season why that kind of speed is coveted so much by coaches everywhere. Lenzy has been involved in both the passing and running games for ND in 2019, catching 10 balls for 247 yards and 2 touchdowns while also running for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns on 10 carries. Also, he wears #25, so Irish fans are LOVING the nostalgia of seeing a super-fast guy wearing 25 (Rocket Ismail, back in the day) making tons of big plays.
Lastly, I’ll mention Tony Jones Jr., the starting running back for the Irish. He’s by no means a home-run back or someone who will make tons of huge plays, but TJJ is incredibly reliable and definitely a guy who can wear a defense down a bit if he’s getting just a tiny bit of help from his line. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry after running for 722 yards and 5 TDs this year, and also has the hands to make a few plays in the passing game to keep the chains moving (13 receptions, 103 yards, 1 TD).
If the Cyclones can contain those four guys, they will almost certainly win this football game.
5) 10-2 is a good season for pretty much every Division I college football program, but there’s been some rumblings going around that the Irish fans’ patience with Brian Kelly is growing thinner. Are we chalking those up to yet another garbage message board rumor, or are Cyclone fans going to have to worry about a Notre Dame head coach vacancy in the next couple years?
I feel like a coward here not taking one side or another, but I will once again claim it’s somewhere in between.
I don’t think Brian Kelly’s job is in danger anytime soon -- he’s gone 32-6 in the past 3 seasons, made a College Football Playoff, and has put the program in a more stable state, with more depth of decent talent, than has been the case since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines (of course, the bar was set very low by Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis...but still).
With that said, the frustration with Kelly is real with a decent contingent of fans, and it’s at least somewhat warranted. The Irish have struggled to beat the best teams on their schedule every single year under Brian Kelly, either ending up with a bunch of “moral victories” in close losses to really good teams like Georgia (2017 and 2019) and Clemson (2015) and Stanford (2015) and Florida State (2014) over the years, or having been absolutely blown out in big games by elite, or even just pretty good teams, like Clemson (2018 CFP Semifinal), Miami (2017), Michigan (2019), Alabama (2012), Ohio State (2016 Fiesta Bowl), etc.
With that said, Kelly has still done a pretty darn good job in terms of beating the teams he should beat over the past few years, and getting the best of regular opponents like USC and Michigan State and occasionally Stanford. I do think he will retire in the next ~5 years, because the job has clearly worn on him and it’s unlikely he can take this team to another level than where he’s gotten them. So, I’d not be shocked at all to see him hang it up sometime relatively soon.
If Matt Campbell has not already moved on to a blue blood coaching job at that point, then yes I would say Cyclone fans might want to worry a bit -- but otherwise I think you’re safe for now, in terms of Brian Kelly vacating the position and Campbell being wooed to fill it. BK is the coach for at least the short-term future.
6) Notre Dame just fired their offensive coordinator Chip Long. What does that mean for the bowl game? Does it help Iowa State, or will the offense look different than it does and film and give the Irish an advantage? Or does it just not matter and analyzing football is pointless?
We’re still waiting to hear exactly what it means in terms of who will be doing the play-calling (it will not be Brian Kelly), but it does sound like QB coach Tommy Rees will coordinate the passing game, running back coach Lance Taylor will coordinate the running game, and the offense will mostly be the same as it has been this season.
So, although this will be a big game for either Rees or Taylor (or both) to audition for the role of Offensive Coordinator, I don’t think this news will really affect how Iowa State should prepare or how the Irish plan to run the offense in this game. Perhaps some of the mistakes Chip Long made schematically might be cleaned up a bit, but overall, it shouldn’t be a materially different offense at all.
7) If you were called upon to come in and play for Notre Dame for one meaningless play, which position would it be, and what level of disaster would it be since college athletes are super-mutants and we’re all a bunch of embarrassing piles of moldy potatoes?
My initial thought here was something like Long Snapper, because then no one on the other team would be allowed to hit me and I would have a good chance of, ya know, not dying. But then I realized that me being the Long Snapper would almost guarantee a fumble on that one play, and so despite it being a meaningless play, that might not be a great idea.
So, then I thought maybe, as a bigger guy, I could be a fullback or a tight end, just “blocking” for one play (read: getting my ass pancaked). But that sounds very painful and likely would mean a concussion, so let’s say no to that one too.
Finally, I think I’ll just choose to be the “safety” on a field goal block unit, so I can stand far away from the action, do nothing (besides pray extremely hard that they don’t run a fake field goal), and watch my teammates try to block from a location where no harm can befall me.
8) What’s the best cheap beer for tailgating, and why is it definitely not Miller Lite?
I know you Cyclone fans love Busch Light with all of your hearts and souls (and I respect that SO much), but I just do NOT consider that a good cheap beer at all, unfortunately.
For me and my close friends, the best tailgating beer by far is Hamm’s Premium, in a landslide. It’s an incredibly drinkable beer for any and all tailgate drinking games and chugging/shotgunning situations, and also I don’t think it tastes as bad as most other cheap beers, despite its ridiculously cheap price (usually something like $13 for a 30-pack).
9) Should the CFP be expanded to six or eight, or should we go full chaos mode and structure it like the FA Cup and allow every single team in the NCAA to compete for a national championship, with the early rounds taking place in Division III, and slowly working our way up to the Power 5? Wisconsin vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater would be a blockbuster quarterfinal matchup.
GIVE ME FULL CHAOS MODE, WITHOUT A DOUBT.
Seeing some tiny school pull a couple upsets and make it to a game against a blue blood FBS power would be absolutely sensational, and although it might take a while, I think we would eventually get some March Madness-level upsets that would really change the way we blindly revere some of the best programs in the country.
If that’s not an actual option, then I think it should be expanded to 8. Give me guaranteed spots for each of the Power 5 conference champions and for the highest ranked Group of 5 team, and then two at-large spots for teams that are clearly good enough to be in the Playoff but just couldn’t beat out that elite team in their conference who won it all. At that point, it’s pretty hard for a team to argue if they got left out that they should have been put in, as they had their chance to not only get in with an auto-bid by winning their conference, but also with one of the two at-large spots.
I think that would be fun and make the CFP even more exciting for casual fans or fans whose team didn’t make it, and make it a little less likely that the exact same two or three teams win the title every year.
10) If you had to designate an unofficial song of Notre Dame athletics that isn’t the fight song or any other songs the band plays at inappropriate times during sporting events, what would it be?
For me it has to be “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, considering I wrote an in-depth investigative piece on the song’s importance to the Notre Dame band, had a follow-up piece on it, and just think it’s hilarious that they still play that song.
If not that, the band often plays “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada and “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, and those two songs never fail to get me going -- I’m all for those being made the unofficial songs of Notre Dame athletics.
If you are looking for a song that perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a Notre Dame fan, then obviously it’s “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, as there is a point every football season where “Hello darkness, my old friend” is simply TOO fitting of a song lyric.