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Countdown Q&A, Week 5 - Notre Dame

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Boston College at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well, well, well. Among all the chaos of the season and an extra day this week to soak up.....whatever that was we saw last Friday night.....the Notre Dame game kind of snuck up on me. But that's what those little Irishmen do, they sneak up on ya. Before I knew it we had less than three days until we play one of the more notable college football programs in the country for only the third time in history, so it’s only right that me and Patty O’Sullivan (Patrick Sullivan to the layman) do a little ditty and bounce some questions off each other for the fans of the most popular website in Louisville. Lets get sloppy.

While Notre Dame seems to be staying the course on many pre-season projections Louisville went full ‘180 Denny Green’....and they are in fact “not” who we thought they were four games into the season. After taking care of what we hoped was a good Western Kentucky team (they are not), the Cards have avoided the win column like Notre Dame avoids calls from conference commissioners. Inversely from the Cards, what’s gone right for the Irish the first three contests, and what do you look for them to improve?

First and foremost, the thing that’s gone most right for the Irish is that they’ve played three very bad teams. Based on SP+, Florida State was the best opponent, ranked 47th and sitting at 1-3 on the season. After that, you’ve got #74 Duke (1-4) and #103 USF (1-3). Those are three opponents that are a combined 3-10 on the year with wins over Syracuse (#91), and two FCS teams (Jacksonville State and The Citadel), and thus it’s not super difficult to understand how the Irish have outscored their opponents 121-39. They ain’t played nobody, Pawwwwl.

With that said, there have been specific pieces of the team that have been the driving force here. First and foremost is the running game — ranked 4th in the country in yards per carry, tied for 4th in rushing TDs, and 5th in rushing offense — led by a talented, veteran offensive line that may just be the best unit in the country, even with one eye closed. Add in tight ends Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright, who just PUMMEL people with their blocking, plus wideouts like Javon McKinley who know how to do the same on the outside, and the running lanes have been massive at times for what everyone thought would be a running-back-by-committee backfield coming into the season.

New Mexico v Notre Dame Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Three games in, though, and it’s crystal-clear that a full committee isn’t necessary to get the job done. Sophomore Kyren “Bellyman” Williams seized the starting job this fall and hasn’t looked back, having run for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns at a 7.5-yards-per-carry clip through last weekend, showing good speed, fantastic vision, and surprising strength and balance while baring his midriff often for all the world to see.

Blue chip freshman Chris Tyree has been a nice complementary piece as his backup, using his home run speed and better-than-expected toughness/power to run for 188 yards and 2 TDs of his own, while also picking up 7.5 yards per carry. Both backs went over 100 yards last weekend against Florida State (Williams nearly had 200), and the team ran for 353 yards on 8.4 ypc overall.

On the defensive side, there have been bumpy moments, but the overall body of work has been excellent (as would be expected when your task is to stop three dumpster-fire offenses). The ND defense is currently #8 in the country in scoring defense, #16 in total defense (#21 rushing, #25 passing), #18 in yards per play allowed, #9 in pass efficiency defense, #2 in 3rd down conversion defense, #12 in first downs allowed, #9 in tackles for loss, and rated as the #8 defense in SP+. Those numbers are overwhelmingly great, but of course need to be taken with a grain of salt — that performance is the result of feasting on bad/mediocre offenses. With that said, good defenses dominate bad competition, and for the most part, this group has — I’m not mad about it.

Finally, one of the biggest things to go right for the Irish in this young season is how they recovered from their COVID outbreak that forced the Wake Forest game to be postponed until December. Between players who tested positive and those who would need to sit out due to contact tracing, the Irish had 39 guys unavailable just a few weeks ago — it looked very bad. But the team buckled down, did what they needed to do, and by the time FSU came to town, only two players were unable to play.

Wow. We could probably just close up shop after that response but I wouldn’t be doing my faithful readers justice with just a single question. So, as much as I’m not really a fan of Notre Dame in general, I do have a ton of respect for Ian Book and think he’s likely one of the Top 10 QBs in the country on a week in week out basis. We got a taste last year to open the season but in your mind, what makes him so good at what he does?

I think I’d go with his creativity/savvy and just his veteran experience as what really drives his success, as he really isn’t one of the most physically-gifted guys by any means, and he has some weaknesses just like most other QBs out there. He’s only 6 feet tall, he doesn’t have the strongest arm in the world, he can occasionally get into little funks where he misses receivers on passes he should hit, and he certainly has some parts of his game that need improvement (willingness to throw deep and accuracy when he does, abandoning the pocket too early, etc.).

However, the guy always seems to bounce back from any low points to deliver the yards or points the team needs in crunch time, which I definitely ascribe to how long he’s been running the show and the confidence he has in himself and his intelligence and abilities. There was a point last season when Irish fans were beginning to call for him to be benched in favor of Phil Jurkovec (who has since transferred to Boston College), considering how poorly the offense played in a 45-14 loss at Michigan and for much of the following game against Virginia Tech.

However, you could just see something click within him as he led the game-winning drive against the Hokies, using that experience and confidence and veteran savvy to make some fantastic throws and runs and swing momentum back around to the Irish at a time when they were beginning to look desperate and crumble.

Following that moment, he went on to put together the below statline over the final 5 games of the season, ultimately leading the Irish on a 6-game winning streak to end the year that they have now extended to 9 wins in a row in the early days of the 2020 season:

  • Ian Book, Last 5 Games of 2019 Season: 1,206 yards passing, 17 TD, 2 INT; 295 rushing yards on 6.7 ypc

He’s a very underrated runner and when he does scramble, he has been known to make some fantastic plays with his feet or throwing while on the run, showing that inventiveness in finding a way to get the job done. And despite some of the questions about his passing abilities, he still manages to make some beautiful throws to set up his receivers for big plays:

So, overall I agree with you in terms of Ian Book being one of the Top 10 QBs in the country — not necessarily when looking at pure skill/measurables, but with the intangibles he’s proven to have over the past 2+ years, I’m not sure there are that many other QBs I would rather have leading the Irish offense this year than him.

Especially when they have the ability to grow a mustache like this:

You lost me there for a second Patty, but the ‘stache pulled me right back in. Now, while the offense is putting up numbers so big even Touchdown Jesus is telling them to ‘relax’ the Irish have some studs on defense as well, including many players that would likely throw Verne Lundquist into some verbal gymnastics I would pay to see (thank goodness for Mike Tirico). What group on that side of the ball is going to cause the Card offense (who is still putting up solid numbers) the most trouble?

I’d say it’s a close race between the linebackers, defensive ends, and safeties here.

Kyle Hamilton and Shaun Crawford are PLAYMAKERS at the back of the defense, with Hamilton being an All-American caliber player with his length, athleticism, and instincts and Crawford — nicknamed “Golden Mongoose” — being a small, wily, 6th-year DB with a knack for big plays and forcing turnovers (5 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 blocked PAT returned for 2 points in his career) despite fighting through the adversity of three different season-ending injuries in his Irish career.

At defensive end, 5th-year senior captains Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes are fantastic at getting to the QB — especially Ogundeji (2 sacks, 2 QBH) — and redshirt freshman Isaiah Foskey has proven to be a force at the position as well this season, tied with Ogundeji for the team lead in sacks and also leading the team in QB hurries with 4. All three of those guys could cause serious issues if the Cardinals OTs aren’t up to the task.

Finally, the linebackers clean up A LOT of the mess out there, as they would in any typical defense. The group is led by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (would love to hear Verne say this one), whom I would characterize as the most dangerous player on the ND defense and the guy Louisville fans will most often notice while watching the game. The dude is perpetually flying all over the field, making lots of nice tackles, and perhaps destroying a person or two on occasion:

JOK is joined at the LB position by a tackling machine in senior Drew White, a couple other good athletes who can mix it up out there in Marist Liufau and Shayne Simon, plus junior reserve Bo Bauer, who can really lay the lumber. This group is fairly deep, but Owusu-Koramoah is the key piece — he’s good enough to make them the most trouble for the Cardinals offense just on his own (and he very well might).

My man-crush on Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah knows no bounds, so I will say he and the rest of his fellow linebackers will cause the most issues for Louisville. Their speed and athleticism will be key in hopefully stifling the Cardinals running game, and also in wreaking some havoc on passing downs (JOK on the blitz is a sight to behold).

I’m sure it’s exhausting having to deal with all the outside criticism each season in regards to preseason hype, lack of success on a national level, how Rudy was a bad movie, the desire to avoid joining a conference, how many fans act like Notre Dame invented football.....sorry, forgot where I was going with this. Next question. Notre Dame special teams....they any good?

It’s quite alright, I have to imagine it’s overwhelming to think about how awesome Notre Dame football is and how they are constantly being attacked by haters (haters that make plenty of good points, but you didn’t hear that from me).

In terms of special teams, I’d say the Irish are pretty solid. The punt team hasn’t been tested too much, but sophomore Jay Bramblett is fairly reliable. In the field goal game, senior Jonathan Doerer has proven he has the leg and the chutzpah to hit kicks from 50+ yards, but he HAS missed one field goal attempt in each of the last two games. Luckily that hasn’t ended up mattering in the Irish’s 94-26 victory over Some of Florida, but it’s something to keep an eye on considering until recently he’s been pretty damn reliable.

In the return game, Lawrence Keys III started the season as starting punt returner and now no longer holds that position after muffing a punt against Florida State. Kevin Austin, who just returned from an offseason injury and is supposedly the most talented wideout on the team when healthy, has taken the reins there, and he DOES have some speed to make him dangerous. However, the bigger concern for Louisville should be freshman Chris Tyree at kick returner — he was named the fastest kid in his recruiting class at The Opening last year, but despite a couple nice returns so far, he’s seen no paydirt as of yet. Gotta think it’s only a matter of time for the speedster, and so the Cardinals need to be wary of that ability when they kick to him on Saturday.

While this isn’t building up to be the battle I was hoping for five weeks ago we do get to watch football on Saturday, and by golly, that’s something. At the time of this post the Irish are 17 point favorites and climbing quicker than the yodeler on ‘Price Is Right’. What do you see happening this weekend? Not only in general but specifically the seventh play of the 3rd quarter?

I think Notre Dame handles the Cardinals fairly easily, although I could see something similar happening in this one that happened last weekend — Florida State hung around for a while, made some plays on offense thanks to a talented receiver (Tamorrion Terry last week, could be Tutu Atwell or Dez Fitzpatrick this week), but ultimately couldn’t stop the Irish running game and couldn’t score enough on the ND defense to keep up. I think the Irish ultimately juuuuuust edge out that line of 17, winning something like 47-28.

As for the seventh play of the 3rd quarter, I think the Cardinals will be receiving the ball first in the second half, so they will gain a first down on play #1, but then fail to gain another on plays 2, 3, and 4, meaning that they’re punting to the Irish on play #5. Following the punt, I think Bellyman picks up 7 yards on first down, meaning play #7 will be 2nd-and-short for the Irish. I could see Tommy Rees going with play-action here, but instead I think he’ll just hand it to Bellyman again, and he will pick up ~12 yards with a nice cut or two, picking up an easy first down, and then some. Four plays later, the Irish will be in the end zone — you can (Ian) Book it.

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Big thanks to Patrick for providing really in depth answers and understanding that my humor is something that grows on you over time (still haven’t sold my wife on it) and I’m not to be taken seriously often. What you can take seriously though is the Notre Dame coverage over at ‘One Foot Down’ as those guys and gals really love them some ‘Fighting Irish’ and cover the crap out of all sports, including our brother from another mother, Mike Brey and his “we’re gonna go to overtime again this year, aren’t we” basketball squad.

If you’re felling frisky go check out my responses to his questions right here, where I cover some of the issues we’ve seen this season, talk about corn mazes, and even get into some orthodontic discussions. Good times were had.

Go Cards.