We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team site to work with during game weeks. This week, we’re chatting with Pat Rick, editor over at One Foot Down, SBN’s Notre Dame blog (you can find Patrick on Twitter here). We discuss expectations past, present, and future, as well as what FSU can do to give themselves a shot in South Bend Saturday evening.
TN: The Irish roll into Saturday at 9-0 and 6th by S&P+. Has this season met or exceeded your pre-season expectations so far? What constitutes a success for Notre Dame over the rest of the year?
OFD: This season has FAR exceeded my personal expectations, and I’d imagine most other ND fans would say the same. We all knew the Irish had a strong defense coming into 2018, but they’ve been even better than expected (albeit against mostly bad offenses so far). Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, and Julian Love have all elevated their already fantastic games, and the junior trio of Irish defensive ends (Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes) have all been magnificent in getting huge, timely pressure and sacks. Safety Alohi Gilman, a transfer from Navy, has also been fantastic and really helped solidify what had been a shaky back-end of the secondary for a while now. The defense was always considered the strength of this team, but they’ve still been better, on the whole, than we all expected. New defensive coordinator Clark Lea has done a great job continuing what Mike Elko started.
On offense, I think I speak for all Irish fans when I say that this offense since Book took over has been a revelation. I’ll explain more in the below response, but essentially, we all thought ND would have a one-dimensional Wimbush-led offense that could run pretty well (though not as well as last year with the losses of Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Josh Adams, etc.) but not pass, due to a lack of consistency at QB and a sizable talent deficit at WR. The offense has instead transformed into a unit that is very balanced and able to throw the ball, featuring WRs like Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool looking like stars and a unit overall that has a surprising lack of trouble finding ways to score when it matters most.
To me, success at this point is ND running the table, making the CFP, and being very competitive when they get there. If the Irish make the Playoff and get their asses handed to them by Clemson, for instance, I do not consider that a success. Alabama would likely destroy ND, so I won’t use them as an example, but if ND doesn’t win or almost win that CFP semifinal game against any other opponent, we will know that ND didn’t belong there despite their undefeated record. To win that semifinal and get a David vs. Goliath shot at Alabama in the title? It’ll probably end like 2012, but it’d be fun as hell to get to that point.
TN: The ND offense seemed to take a massive step forward when Ian Book took over at quarterback. What does he bring to the table? Who are his favorite targets?
OFD: Simply put: he brings consistency, quick decision-making, and unbelievable accuracy. Brandon Wimbush had any and all of the physical tools you could want in a QB, but he was streaky, made bad decisions with the ball (and sometimes just took too long to make them), and was inaccurate on the short passes that are important in moving the chains and extending drives.
Book isn’t perfect by any means (not good on deep balls, occasionally tries to thread the needle too much and risks INTs, etc.), but where he excels is making quick reads and distributing the ball to his receivers with pinpoint accuracy. All of a sudden, the Irish can convert on 3rd-and-medium situations with ease thanks to Book’s ability to quickly get the ball to an open receiver just a few yards downfield, putting the ball right where it needs to be. He leads the country in completion percentage at 75%, and that consistency has really made this offense hard to stop and to force to punt.
In terms of his favorite targets, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are the guys. They’re both 6’4” and strong, with long arms. Claypool is the better athlete and can move pretty quickly for his size, while Boykin is more deliberate speed-wise but has unbelievable hands. These are the two that Book will look to on most third downs.
Other important receivers include slot receiver Chris “Slippery Fox” Finke -- who has been very good this year, just two years removed from being a walk-on who was never expected to play much -- and tight ends Alize Mack and Cole Kmet, who are both huge guys with surprising athleticism for their size, and great hands. Mack sat out last week’s game against Northwestern with a concussion, so we will see if he’s able to fully contribute this week.
TN: Which match-ups against FSU’s defense do you like? Which concern you?
OFD: I think it’s definitely the passing game, and specifically will be Ian Book exploiting weaknesses at linebacker for FSU. I think the Irish tight ends and backs will have a big day through the air -- look for Jafar Armstrong, a converted wide receiver now playing running back, to have some fun, and for Alize Mack/Cole Kmet to make some big catches as well.
I’d say FSU’s defensive line against the ND offensive line concerns me. FSU is 6th in the country in rushing yards per attempt allowed, and the ND offensive line, although decent, has really struggled to run the ball against teams like Pittsburgh and Northwestern. Not sure that kind of performance makes me confident they can push around the 5-star guys FSU has on their defensive front. If they can, however, watch for Dexter Williams to break off some long runs -- he’s the most explosive guy ND has, for sure.
TN: The Irish defense has been downright nasty, checking in at 3rd by S&P+. What has allowed this unit to excel this season, and what do they like to do schematically?
OFD: The sheer amount of talent and experience held by ND’s starters has combined with Clark Lea’s defensive scheme, which is the same as Mike Elko’s from last year, to form a fast, assertive defense that executes well on individual assignments and does’t do anything too fancy. Most of these guys were freshmen playing heavy minutes on that terrible 4-8 team in 2016, so at this point they’re well-versed in what they’re doing and just dominating teams.
Specifically, this defense’s ability to stop the run has been fantastic -- rarely are teams able to gain much on the ground against them, what with Jerry Tillery swallowing people whole in the middle of the d-line and with Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, and Asmar Bilal being such fast, sure-tackling linebackers behind him. Considering FSU’s struggles on the ground this year, I expect more of the same on Saturday. Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick are great athletes, but they likely won’t have anywhere to run.
Furthermore, the pass rush has been very good (at least relative to other recent ND teams), as guys like Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem are teeing off on QBs. This aspect is what especially excites me about Saturday -- what can these guys do against such a poor-performing FSU offensive line with guys at tackle who shouldn’t be starting at the position? It should be fun, from ND’s perspective.
Finally, Julian Love is one of the best cornerbacks in the country, so watching him go up against some really good FSU receivers should be a lot of fun. Not sure he will completely dominate, but he is SO good at breaking up passes and just being technically sound and where he should be, so it will be a tough test for the FSU passing game to try to challenge him.
TN: If Florida State is going to move the ball on Notre Dame at all, how will they do it?
OFD: I think it has to be through the air, considering FSU’s shortcomings in the running game, and it has to be attacking guys like Troy Pride Jr., Houston Griffith, and Jalen Elliott, who are pretty talented guys overall, but who have already shown some ability to be beaten for big plays. Whether it’s Blackman or Francois under center on Saturday, the key for FSU to move the ball will definitely be through the air, attacking the non-Julian Loves of the secondary.
TN: How have Notre Dame’s special teams fared this season? Any unmentioned playmakers FSU fans should keep an eye out for?
OFD: To be completely blunt, Notre Dame’s special teams this year have largely been, in the worst of times, hot garbage, and in the best of times, very meh.
Chris Finke has broken off a couple nice punt returns, but otherwise Irish special teams has mostly involved giving up kick return touchdowns to Michigan and Pitt, getting a punt blocked by Northwestern, and missing the occasional field goal.
If FSU has a few big plays on special teams, it could actually go a long way in keeping this close, because that might be their best bet to get some points/momentum going.
TN: Can you give us a weather update and tell us how, if at all, it will impact the Irish?
OFD: According to Weather.com right now, Saturday night in South Bend will give us temperatures in the low 20s, 5-10 MPH winds, and cloudy skies. I’ve heard talk of snow as well, although right now the forecast doesn’t seem to be showing it. Certainly not out of the question for a November game at ND, however.
If it does indeed snow or is super windy, that could affect Ian Book a little bit, but since his game is so based on short passes that move the chains, he can probably still be pretty effective. I can’t imagine the cold weather itself will affect an ND team that has to live in Notre Dame, Indiana year-round, so that part doesn’t worry me (FSU fans might be a little concerned about it, though). If the game turns into a smash-mouth running contest due to weather, though, I like ND’s chances in dominating that one. I don’t see the FSU offensive line suddenly putting it together in a blizzard.
TN: Finally, let’s have a prediction. How do you see this one unfolding in South Bend?
OFD: Florida State has no lack of individual talent, but at this point in the season, after what they’ve been through and who they’re playing and in this cold of weather, I think the Irish roll.
Give me 48-23 Irish as ND improves to 10-0.
Big thanks to Patrick for his time and insight! Be sure to head on over to One Foot Down for all things Fighting Irish. Our answers to their questions can be found here.