Patrick Sullivan over at One Foot.. got the mission of exchanging questions and answers with us. You can check out the One Foot Down Article that was posted up for Bryan’s and my responses.
So most of these are Bryan’s questions. Me, I’m about the weather. There is just something about foul weather that brings out the best in the very waterproof Hokies.
1. Last week was obviously a tough week for the Irish, are Notre Dame fans panicking after the tough loss to Michigan?
For at least part of the fan base, absolutely. No one panics like Notre Dame football fans after the team suffers yet another massive embarrassment in a big game against a good opponent. Whether you agree with any of the following or not, I could find you plenty of ND fans who are currently calling for:
- Ian Book to be benched in favor of a guy who has failed to unseat him in practice and has never started a game
- Various ND assistants, including and especially offensive coordinator Chip Long, to be fired/replaced/relieved of their autonomy/duties
- Brian Kelly himself to be bought out/fired (which as a Brian Kelly hater/detractor I admit sounds illogical considering recent results, but there is definitely some truth buried within their argument in terms of Kelly doing a bad job actually winning against top teams and suffering embarrassing losses way more often in his 10 years at the helm than you’d expect from an elite coach at Notre Dame)
- Urban Meyer to be hired (lol)
So yeah, you could say Irish fans are panicking, and rightfully so (to a point). They’d been assured that the Brian Kelly of old -- that constantly had teams unprepared for the moment, especially on the road -- was a thing of the past. Brian Kelly 2.0 had mellowed out, hired the right coordinators, and had the program beating good teams and hanging around with anyone who’s not Clemson or Alabama.
But then the Irish got absolutely stomped by a Michigan team who’d gotten stomped themselves by Wisconsin just a month prior. And as Irish fans struggled to even watch the game all the way through due to the carnage, they had to start questioning, and then panicking about, whether anything had truly changed. Was 2018 somewhat of a mirage? Was the 2017 Miami game repeating itself in the form of Michigan a sign that it will continue to happen again and again and again in important games? Can Brian Kelly ever actually beat the best of the best and truly compete for a title?
The Irish will hopefully win out against a soft back half of the schedule and finish 10-2 for the season, but that definitely won’t erase the stink of getting humiliated against a hated opponent the Irish won’t play again for 14 years, wondering why quarterbacks never seem to progress under Brian Kelly, having no answer to why the offense never seems to adjust its gameplan when things aren’t working, etc.
It is once again a rough time to be an Irish fan, folks.
2. Who are Notre Dame’s top performers on offense? And defense?
If we’re talking about last week against Michigan, this is a simple answer -- no one. Overall this season, the offensive stars have been clear: WR Chase Claypool, TE Cole Kmet, and RB Tony Jones Jr. (if the offensive line gives him room to work) have really been the guys carrying everyone else. Claypool (29 rec, 436 yds, 4 TD) and Kmet (23 rec, 290 yds, 4 TD) are both NFL-bound considering their size, athleticism, leaping ability, and hands. And Jones Jr. (571 yds, 6.5 ypc, 4 TD) has really stepped up amid a dire running back depth situation with Jafar Armstrong’s injury earlier this year and very little help from anyone else.
On defense, I’d say that some of the position groups that were expected to dominate this year for the ND defense have been mild disappointments -- specifically defensive end, where Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem haven’t been bad, but besides the second half against Virginia, they also haven’t been dominant and All-Americans, as expected.
The same can probably be said for the safety position, where Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott have been very good for the most part, but not the All-American caliber duo we were all hyping them up to be in the pre-season. I will say, though, that freshman Kyle Hamilton has been every bit the 5-star, instant-impact stud he was said to be -- the future is bright with him at safety the next two years.
Instead, I’d say the most important and impressive group has been the Notre Dame linebackers, maligned as a huge weakness early on but now the heart and soul of this defense. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a freak athlete at Rover who is all over the place. Asmar Bilal was trashed by just about everyone as someone who should be benched, but has looked great as a senior this year and is currently leading the team in tackles. And Drew White, despite some speed limitations, has been a sure-tackling, smart player who’s stepped up in a number of key moments.
That group overall has definitely over-performed versus expectations, and thus I consider them the top performers on the defense. Virginia Tech should still be afraid of Okwara, Kareem, Gilman, Elliott, etc., but to me the linebackers have been a complete revelation and the glue that has held the defense together, outside of the Michigan game.
3. Has Ian Book progressed since last year? I hear a lot of criticism about him but I don’t see him every week. What’s your perspective on his play?
Short answer: no, he hasn’t progressed.
Longer answer: I truly believe that Ian Book’s biggest advantage last year was how little tape/knowledge the Irish’s opponents had of him. Brandon Wimbush was the guy in 2017 and the beginning of 2018, and so when Kelly switched to Book, it changed what the offense would be doing and threw off opponents (until Clemson, who clearly figured him out).
Add in that in 2018 Book had a great running back with home run ability to work with (Dexter Williams) and some NFL-caliber receivers he doesn’t have this year (Miles Boykin, Alize Mack), and it’s no wonder he looks worse this season.
In 2019, Book’s accuracy has plummeted, he still can’t/won’t throw vertically, and he seemingly abandons the pocket at the first hint of pressure, meaning he’s scrambling away and missing open receivers downfield he could have hit if he had stepped up, been patient, and waited for them to hit their spots.
I’m not convinced backup Phil Jurkovec is necessarily a better option for the success of this current season, considering Jurkovec clearly isn’t doing enough in practice to convince coaches he is definitely a better option.
However, I AM convinced that something has to be changed. If Book won’t throw downfield or the current offensive system isn’t working, maybe it’s time to change up the strategy, Chip Long. And if it’s not the fault of the game plan, then you need to make a personnel change that makes that game plan work (I’m much more of a guy who likes when coaches mold their game plan around their personnel and not the other way around, but still).
With all that said, Ian Book is what he is -- a mobile QB who’s typically decent at short/medium passes but who has major limitations and clear flaws that aren’t being addressed by him/the staff. Something needs to be done, either from a coaching/play-calling standpoint or from a starting QB standpoint, because otherwise this offense absolutely FLAILS when faced with a real defense.
4. Notre Dame is famous for its outstanding offensive line play. How is that unit playing this season? The Hokies are a bit young on the defensive line and I believe the game will be won or lost here.
They started out a little rough in the first game or two, but had really been coming along of late, considering Tony Jones Jr.’s production against the likes of Virginia, USC, etc. But last Saturday, that huge, physical, veteran unit was abysmal -- they got manhandled by the Michigan front seven and the Irish couldn’t run to save their lives, making them a one-dimensional passing offense that couldn’t really pass, considering Book’s poor play and the rain.
Granted, Michigan’s defense is elite and it was a tough task to run on them when they knew the Irish wanted to run in a torrential downpour. With that said, Wisconsin found a way to absolutely obliterate them up front when Michigan knew they’d be running, and in that downpour the Wolverines offense managed to line up and run it down the Irish’s throats -- so ND’s inability to do anything positive on the ground was frustrating.
Against Virginia Tech’s young defensive line and at home, I think the Irish offensive line will perform much closer to what ND fans want to see. They’re a group of former blue-chip line prospects who have developed into strong veterans who should be able to handle a test much easier than Michigan, and who should be very motivated to make up for their poor showing last weekend.
With that said, they ARE a group who’s shown inconsistency and various mental lapses this year, so who knows for sure if they can put it together this weekend after such a devastatingly bad showing a week prior? I think they will, but you really can’t bet on ND football delivering everything you expect at this point.
5. How have the Irish fared against dual-threat quarterbacks?
They’ve fared alright for the most part, but have had some lapses against mobile QBs that really hurt them. Jawon Pass of Louisville did some damage with his legs in the season opener, and Bryce Perkins of Virginia was super productive in the first half against this defense. However, in both cases the Irish defense made adjustments and got after the QB, forcing some turnovers and finally showing their athleticism and speed in closing on the QB in the pocket before he could get out in space.
So, overall, VaTech’s dual-threat guys are definitely a concern -- the Irish have shown some weakness in terms of allowing them to make big plays. But Clark Lea and his unit have shown an ability to turn it on and contain them when it matters, so I think they will ultimately do just that.
6. The Hokies and Fighting Irish have gone head to head for a few of the same players over the years with the Irish usually winning out. A few of those players are Troy Pride, Jalen Elliott and freshman Quinn Carroll. I know Pride and Elliott are now multi-year starters, but how would you describe their careers to this point? Every game I watch, it seems like Elliott is always making plays. Curious to hear your thoughts.
Troy Pride Jr. and Jalen Elliott have both been very good players and multi-year starters on some solid defenses the past two years, so we have been very thankful that the Irish beat out VT for those guys.
Pride is an absolute burner who plays aggressive (sounds like plenty of great Hokie DBs of years past, eh?), and he’s a solid cover guy. However, I don’t think he’s ever been the best corner on the team, as last year Julian Love was an All-American-caliber guy and this year I think Shaun Crawford has shown to be more consistent in coverage. With that said, it’s been critical that Pride developed into the player he is so that when Love left for the NFL after 2018, the corner position didn’t collapse, especially considering the lack of veteran depth behind Pride and Crawford.
Elliott is one of my favorite guys on this defense, as he was a 3-star athlete who was overlooked for the most part in his recruiting class as little more than just a good athlete. His development from that into a two-year starter and a senior captain at safety has been awesome to watch, and he really has become a very good safety with a knack for snaring interceptions and being where he needs to be just about every play.
I’m very grateful those two chose ND and became the key starters they are for Clark Lea’s defense, and look forward to seeing how they finish their careers, and also how guys like Quinn Carroll develop in a similar fashion to become big-time contributors down the line.
7. Do you think the weather is going to be a factor this weekend? The forecast looks like it’s going to be cold and wet in your neck of colonial Virginia.
It’s South Bend, Indiana, so you can never count out the weather as a non-factor -- especially if cold and rain/snow are on the docket. It’ll probably be messy out there.
With that said, I don’t think it will be as bad as the torrential downpour the Irish played in last weekend at Michigan -- that was wild and truly changed what kind of passing game both teams could employ in the first half, before the rain subsided in the second.
Considering the expected conditions, though, I do expect both teams to focus on stopping the run, running the ball themselves, and winning the field position/time of possession battles. I wouldn’t expect a high-scoring game (unless one of the teams is able to dominate the line of scrimmage like UM dominated ND last weekend), and instead would expect some sloppy play/turnovers and a lot of gritty, grind-it-out football.
Wrapping it Up
We’ll return the favor. Check out One Foot Down.... they really are the chatty types... Something tells me that this game is going to be very different than what people are predicting.