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FSU football opponent Q&A: Notre Dame

Breaking down the latest in a storied series.

Florida State v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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 chatted about securities fraud, rainforests, and memories.

TN: I’ve heard that Notre Dame has eleven (11) players out with COVID-19, not including two new positives this week. That’s awful, and we wish speedy recoveries to everyone (including Bobby Bowden, who tested positive the other day). But we have to ask - is there a chance we see Rudy in this game? Instead of offsides, can he maybe commit defensive pass interference in the end zone a couple times? Thanks in advance.

OFD (One Foot Down): Despite an incredibly efficient sacks-to-snaps-played ratio of 1:2 (1:1 if you go by the movie...which I actually do because Sean Astin rules), I am quite happy to report that we will not be seeing that 5-foot-nothin’, 100-and-nothin’ securities fraudster with hardly a speck of athletic ability this Saturday. In today’s game, he would get his ass handed to him no matter the opponent or situation, so luckily the Irish’s reported depth chart for this week leaves no gaping holes that the coaching staff would have to fill with a 72-year-old motivational speaker.

With that said, if Sean Astin’s version of Rudy wanted to play this weekend, there’s no way I would deny Samwise Gamgee the opportunity to go out there at fullback or linebacker with all the ferocity of looking to deck as many orcs as possible — dude is a monster.

As for the defensive pass interference penalties in the end zone, be careful what you wish for. ND employed that brilliant defensive strategy in 2012 in the season finale at USC, when frosh corner KeiVarae Russell committed P.I. multiple times to deny USC’s Marqise Lee a touchdown, just buying more and more opportunities for that Irish defensive front to gradually shut down the Trojans offense at the goal line and finally secure that glorious opportunity to get stomped by Alabama a month later in the BCS championship game. It’s worked for Notre Dame before, and could very well work again against the Seminoles.

TN: So, Ian Book is still Notre Dame’s quarterback. I see Book only had 144 yards passing against USF while ND’s running backs had a field day and the Irish still hung over half a hundred points. How has Book’s skill-set developed for the Irish? Tell us a little bit about how Brian Kelly’s offense works and its philosophies and how Book fits into that. How do they attack defenses?

OFD: Let me preface this answer (and a few of my other answers in this Q&A) with the disclaimer that I do not know a ton about specific football philosophies or X’s & O’s. I played football through my freshman year of high school and certainly haven’t dived deeper into the nitty-gritty of understanding offensive and defensive schemes since then, but will do my best to explain things as well as my idiot brain will allow. There’s a reason my work for One Foot Down is often more focused on writing about funny names and Taio Cruz/Notre Dame marching band conspiracy theories than breaking down the Irish’s core schemes.

Ian Book has come a long way in his development when you consider where he started, a 3-star recruit from California who everyone assumed was signed to simply be a depth piece for the Irish, considering the blue-chip guys recruited before and after him (Brandon Wimbush and Phil Jurkovec). Book had other ideas, though, beating Wimbush out in the middle of the 2018 season at a point when Wimbush was 12-3 as the starter. From there, Book led an offensive explosion that coupled with a great Irish defense to deliver an undefeated regular season, ultimately causing Wimbush to transfer and calling into question whether Jurkovec would get to play before his redshirt junior season in 2021. After a 2019 season where Book struggled at times but still held on to the starting job, Jurkovec transferred to Boston College. Book outlasted and ousted them both.

Those struggles last year have spilled into this season a bit, as Book came onto the scene back in 2018 thanks to his consistent ability to deliver accurately on short-to-medium throws after making quick, decisive reads (Wimbush had trouble doing so), but hasn’t seemed to develop too much else in his passing skill set since then. He’s still hesitant to throw downfield (and isn’t super accurate when he does), and also has a penchant for deserting the pocket early and scrambling instead of stepping up into the pocket to make the right throw. With that said, Book is a great athlete who can do some serious damage with his legs, whether it’s on designed QB runs or in turning a collapsed pocket into a first down or more. He’s a veteran and a leader and knows the offense, and thus there’s no doubt he’s the Irish’s best option at QB this season.

In terms of offensive philosophy, Brian Kelly’s offense — which is now new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ offense — is a spread offense that’s always been centered around short, efficient passes (Notre Dame loves a good wide receiver screen) and being able to run successfully behind a very good offensive line. The Run-Pass Option was often at the core of how former offensive coordinator Chip Long ran the offense, but Rees has definitely moved away from that a bit in his short time as OC.

Rees just officially took over this season, and so we’re still getting a feel for what his version of Kelly’s system looks like. But it seems pretty clear that, considering both Book’s limitations and even more so, the Irish’s completely unproven wide receiver group, Rees plans to lean on ND’s experienced and talented offensive line and what has turned out to be a very strong stable of running backs led by sophomore Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and blue-chip speedster frosh Chris Tyree. Through two games, the offense has centered around establishing a physical ground game, using multiple-tight end sets and various formations, and relying on Book to be a wily game manager and the offensive line and running backs to do the heavy lifting. I’d expect more of the same this Saturday.

TN: How good is Notre Dame’s defense this season? Give us two or three players that stand out that you think could give FSU major problems on Saturday. I believe the Irish play a ton of single-high coverage, which can often leave the seams exposed. Who is this safety playing the deep middle, how good is he, and how do you think Notre Dame will counter the Seminoles’ ground attack?

OFD: Having only played a couple of bad opponents in Duke and South Florida, it’s difficult to say with certainty how good the 2020 Irish defense is. However, just based on the talent at each level and the as-expected strong results against those God-awful Blue Devils and Bulls teams, I’m confident in saying that the Notre Dame defense is at least as good as last year’s unit, with the potential to reach the level of a fantastic 2018 group that drove that team to a CFP bid.

Obviously taking all of the following with a grain of salt considering it’s a two-game sample and that sample is two bad opposing offenses, the numbers are indeed fantastic so far. The Irish defense is currently 2nd in the country in points allowed (6.5 ppg), 2nd in 3rd down conversion defense (20% conversion allowed), 5th in pass efficiency defense (97.36 pass eff. allowed), 9th in yards per play allowed (4.38 ypp), 11th in total defense (282.5 ypg), 15th in yards per carry allowed (2.87 ypc), and 5th in the SP+ defensive rankings.

In terms of key players on this year’s squad to watch out for, I’ll give you one at every level, starting with linebacker Jeremiash Owusu-Koramoah. He plays the Rover position, a hybrid linebacker/safety role that maximizes his combination of speed and strength and allows him to fly all over the field. He led the team in tackles last season as a first-year starter, and this year is doing so again, having accumulated 10 tackles (2 TFL), a sack, and a forced fumble in the first two contests.

On the defensive line, heading into this season I would have likely picked Daelin Hayes or Adetokunbo Ogundeji, the two 5th-year senior captains that start at defensive end. Both of them are fantastic players and know how to put pressure on the QB. However, through two games, another guy has been most impressive up front — sophomore Isaiah Foskey. Foskey’s a 6’5”, 257-lb DE who only played in 4 games in 2019 to preserve a year of eligibility, but who made his presence known in the season finale at Stanford when he blocked a punt. This season, wearing #7 and looking more and more like a svelte Stephon Tuitt every game, he’s already gotten himself 2 sacks, 2.5 TFL, 4 QB hurries, and a pass break-up. He’s been a menace so far, and will hopefully continue to use his athleticism and strength to make things very difficult on Jordan Travis as he drops back to pass.

Finally, the name to know in the Irish secondary is absolutely, unequivocally sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. He’s a an absolute freak athlete who’s been one of the best defensive players on the team since he stepped foot on campus in 2019, and he’s got a scary combination of ridiculous length (6’4”), great closing speed, excellent hands, and the best instincts I’ve seen on a Notre Dame safety in my 29 cursed years of watching this program.

Boston College v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

He’ll likely be the guy playing the deep middle most of the time (although defensive coordinator Clark Lea does occasionally send him after the QB), and he’s an All-American back there as long as he stays healthy, and an absolute ball hawk to boot (led the team in interceptions last season as a non-starting true freshman). He had his ankle rolled-up-on in the second half against Duke and he missed the South Florida game with that sprained ankle, but his 2 quarters of action in Game 1 reflect just how good he is: 7 tackles (5 solo) and a pass break-up, looking absolutely dominant at the back end of the defense.

In terms of countering the FSU ground attack, I’m not sure Clark Lea will do anything too special, at least initially. The ND defensive line is deep and pretty solid at the point of attack, and the Irish linebackers — especially Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White — are tackling machines who don’t often fail to bring down the ball carrier when they get to him. With guys like Hamilton having the size and speed and sure-tackling ability to be good in run support, I think the ND defense will focus on playing their base defense and look for their best players to continue to play efficient, tough football, limiting big plays and forcing a number of punts to allow the Irish offense to eat up clock with the ground game.

TN: We’ve now passed a decade of Brian Kelly as the Irish’s coach, who was hired in 2010. How time flies. Some people have a theory that a coach’s message can get stale after a decade. Kelly took the Irish to the title game in 2012, struggled for a bit after that, and has Notre Dame playing well with double-digit wins the last three seasons. That’s really good results, but is it frustrating the Irish can’t seem to put together a complete season in order to return as an elite title contender? Do you think this is Kelly’s ceiling as a coach, and are the ND faithful happy with Kelly or is the expectation to be regular contenders for national titles?

OFD: It’s definitely frustrating, at least if you ask me personally. The guy has turned in undefeated regular seasons in 20% of the seasons he’s coached at Notre Dame, but those 20% ended with massively embarrassing blowouts on national stages against clearly-superior opponents.* And in the 80% that weren’t undefeated regular seasons, he’s had 4 seasons that finished 8-5/9-4 and one that finished 4-8. That’s not exactly sparkling (especially by historical Notre Dame standards), and neither is his record against top-ranked opponents — he’s shown a clear ability to beat equal or lesser teams, but rarely do his teams find a way to vanquish the big dogs. I personally do believe that Brian Kelly has reached his ceiling as head coach of Notre Dame.

*Note: Lots of ND fans will respond to that by pointing out that the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 CFP Semis isn’t embarrassing because of what the Tigers subsequently did to Alabama in the title game and because ND All-American CB Julian Love got hurt in the 2nd quarter, but I’m of the opinion that losing by 27 is humiliating regardless of those extenuating circumstances.

And that’s not to say I think he’s a horrible coach or anything — he’s brought the program to a very nice, consistently-solid level of play, recruiting, and player development after a horrible 13 years of Bob Davie, George O’Leary (LOL), Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis. He’s won 10+ games three years in a row after going 4-8 in 2016, and currently has ND sitting in the Top 5 in what could somehow become one of their best chances to compete for a title, just due to the wacky nature of this season and the unpredictability of player availability due to COVID. Despite that, though, I just think he’s clearly proven to not be capable of taking the Irish back to the promised land.

I think I’m in the minority with my opinion here, though. I’d say the majority of the fan base loves Kelly and would prefer he coach in South Bend for as long as possible. They love the 10+ win seasons, enjoy occasionally being in the CFP conversations, accept decent bowl appearances/victories instead of striving to get to the same tier as Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State/Oklahoma, and crave the stability and known quasi-success of Kelly over the unknown of a new coach, who is just as likely to turn out to be the next Willingham or Weis as he is to be the guy who finally ends the Irish championship drought.

I definitely understand all that, but also believe that to not strive for better than what the Irish have now is to accept good at the expense of great — just because there’s risk in trying to be elite again doesn’t mean Notre Dame shouldn’t try. I think 10 seasons is enough data for us to know Brian Kelly will not win a national championship at Notre Dame, and I sincerely hope that Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick is working on a transition plan to lock down the next guy who he thinks will take the program to that elite level. Kelly is approaching 60 years old and doesn’t seem like he wants to be coaching into his 70s, especially in such a high-pressure job like Notre Dame. Ya gotta hope the next coach is the one to finally get this thing done and end the frustration, and that Swarbrick will be ready to bring him in whenever Kelly is finished with what has been a very nice coaching career.

TN: This is an unprecedented season. I know you’re probably very tired of this question but I have to ask - will it be the catalyst for Notre Dame fully joining the ACC, or will the school go right back to being an independent after covid?

OFD: Absolutely not — I don’t think this season will make any difference in terms of Notre Dame’s plans regarding joining a conference full-time.

I think it really comes down to the power and sway and freedom that being independent provides the Irish. Notre Dame is a major voice and decision maker in the college football landscape all on its own, and joining a conference would only weaken their influence. We’ve already seen in 2017 (considered a shoo-in for the CFP prior to their November collapses against Miami and Stanford) and in 2018 (earned the 3-seed after a 12-0 season) that they will be granted a seat at the Playoff table if they have a strong enough season, so joining a conference really doesn’t add much of a benefit.

Furthermore, a bunch of people pointed this out already, but going from their original 2020 schedule to a full ACC slate this year actually made it much easier on ND in terms of strength of schedule, taking away games like Wisconsin at Lambeau and the annual USC and Stanford match-ups, not to mention fun one-time things like Arkansas coming to play the Irish in South Bend.

Independence allows Notre Dame to schedule whomever they want, all over the country, ensuring a strong strength of schedule nearly every season, appearances in several key recruiting grounds across the country every year, and the freedom to do awesome-but-terrifying things like scheduling home-and-home matchups with the likes of Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, and so on. That probably wouldn’t be possible — or at least not nearly as often — if they were forced to play a full conference slate focused in one region of the country.

Playing the 5 ACC games per year that Notre Dame currently does is enough, and despite the circumstances of this season forcing Notre Dame’s hand in playing as a full ACC member, I am positive that it means nothing for when teams are playing normal schedules again a year or two from now. The Irish will remain independent until they can no longer potentially compete for championships while doing so.

TN: I live in sunny and excessively humid South Florida, which is basically a rainforest compared to Indiana. Sometimes I imagine South Bend as a frozen wasteland with people huddled in a church with the interior walls frozen over like in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. I mean, you guys might as well be Canadian. How close is that to reality, and what do college kids in South Bend do for fun in the winter? Chuck pumpkins? Do snowballs leave welts, and how big was the biggest snowman you’ve ever built?

OFD: First of all, please refrain from any mention of “rainforest” around me, as I’m still reeling from the permanent closure of my favorite local restaurant where I live in Chicago, Rainforest Cafe. I’ll give you a pass because you didn’t know, but now you’ve got me sobbing uncontrollably while I type this response. I’ll try to soldier on.

During the winter time in South Bend, the The Day After Tomorrow analogy isn’t too far off. It can be unreasonably cold at times (especially when the wind whips through the quad and makes your eyes water as you try to just walk to class), the sky is a depressing gray hue for months on end, and it’s just a rough time for everybody — especially kids who hail from places like your hometown. I, at least, am from Indianapolis, and thus used to shitty Midwestern winters.

So what do students do for fun in South Bend in the winter? The answer is always: drink, and drink heavily. Not only is that an indoor activity that helps pass the time, but after drinking enough, going outside in the frigid Notre Dame, Indiana air isn’t quite so bad. That beer blanket is real, friends — especially when it’s built by my good friends at Hamm’s or Miller High Life.

I don’t remember much pumpkin chucking from my time at ND, but who knows what the kids get up to these days? I could see a niche group of Zoomers doing some punkin’ chunkin’ to create some glorious TikTok content, but also feel that would probably be more of an October activity, just due to the availability of pumpkins in area retail outlets.

Snowball fights are definitely a thing at ND — specifically right after the first snowfall of the school year, as it’s tradition for students to descend on the quads that evening for a rousing campus-wide battle. Snowballs probably won’t leave welts just because people are usually wearing cushiony winter coats and long pants and boots and gloves and hats, but sometimes snowballs do “accidentally” contain some ice or rocks or other things from the ground underneath the snow, and I can speak from experience that those may leave a mark. I can’t say I ever really came out of a Notre Dame snowball fight sporting any welts or wounds, though, simply because my friends and I were pretty decent at snowball fights. Not great, mind you — I saw some kids wielding trash can lids as shields and just demolishing strangers with close-range attacks — but pretty decent.

I honestly don’t think I can think of any specific snowman I ever built that was bigger than the rest, which means I’m having a very sobering moment right now considering the fact I’ve been constructing mediocre snowmen my entire life. Wow, much to think about over here.

TN: What’s the greatest Notre Dame touchdown that Touchdown Jesus has ever seen?

OFD: This is an absurdly difficult question, mostly because I’m only 29 years old and will definitely not be able to provide an answer that captures the most significant or meaningful touchdown in Notre Dame Stadium history, especially in all the decades that came before me, which I have no interest in meticulously researching to pull together a comprehensive list of candidates.

Instead, I’m just going to define “greatest” here as my absolute favorite, which makes this much, much easier on me.

I could pick something like this touchdown in 1992 against Michigan, when running back Reggie Brooks was knocked unconscious just before crossing the goal line. Or I could go with this touchdown in 2012 against Michigan, when Tommy Rees showed us how fantastically fleet-of-foot he was (that TD ended up being the difference in the game, believe it or not). And of course, there’s Tom Zbikowski’s punt return in 2005 against what was, at the time, considered potentially the greatest college football team of all-time in USC.* That was just electric.

*Please note that this video is part of a series posted to YouTube by Notre Dame, ranking the “Greatest Plays of the Weis Era.” Absolute gold, you guys.

However, in my heart of hearts, nothing will ever beat the game-winning TD catch that Golden Tate made against Michigan State in 2009, reeling in a perfectly-thrown ball from Jimmy Clausen and then proceeding to leap into the MSU band and absolutely, literally dunk on a bunch of nerds. That was simply perfect.

TN: Your turn to tell us who wins, your score prediction, and how you think we arrive there. Any chance the ‘Noles pull an upset?

OFD: To answer the last part of your question first: no, I do not think the Seminoles have a chance to pull off the upset. Heading into this season, I would have definitely said it was possible, but after seeing what FSU did in their first few games, I don’t think they’ll have a chance unless literally everything goes wrong for the Irish, including multiple key players not being able to play (knocking on all the wood in my apartment right now).

I think the Irish will be able to run the ball pretty effectively in this one, with Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and Chris Tyree both picking up big chunks of yardage at times to move the chains, thanks to that big ND offensive line clearing the way. With a healthier wide receiver corps (#1 receiver Kevin Austin will play 15-20 snaps after being out with injury since this summer, speedster Braden Lenzy is good to go, TE Tommy Tremble is a menace to defenses everywhere, etc.), I think Ian Book will make a few throws that jog Irish fans’ memories of why he earned the starting job over a very successful incumbent two years ago. The FSU defense may make a few nice plays here or there that remind everyone of the kind of talent they still pull in, even in down years, but the ND offense will mostly control the tempo of the game.

Meanwhile, the Irish defense will continue to play stifling, no-frills defense. Perhaps the FSU backs and Tamorrion Terry make some plays that keep FSU around for a bit, but over the course of the game Clark Lea will make his adjustments, and athletes like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kyle Hamilton and Isaiah Foskey will make elite-level plays that change the momentum of the game and simply wear down the FSU offensive group.

Give me a final score of Notre Dame 41, Florida State 23, with FSU’s final touchdown coming in garbage time against the Irish second-string defense.

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.