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Rose Bowl Preview: Q&A With One Foot Down

Pat Sullivan joins us to take about his take on the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup and whether the Irish fans enjoyed being in a conference this year

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

Leading up to the CFP Semifinal game, I had a nice conversation with Pat Sullivan over at One Foot Down about his thoughts on the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup. His answers were probably the most thorough and engaging I’ve had doing this series all season, so go give him some likes or retweets on Twitter, or something.

You can also check out the other half of our Q&A over on their site. They have an interesting tradition of polling the readers to submit a few questions each week, and it was a lot of fun. I’m absolutely stealing that idea for RBR next season.

1. Notre Dame is now at four straight double-digit win seasons, and you’ve kept the same coach since 2010 (longer than pretty much everyone else in college football). What’s the general fan opinion on Brian Kelly and how he runs the program? You guys happy with him? Or are there constant expectations that you should be just a little better than what you’ve seen in his tenure?

This kind of question asking my personal thoughts on Brian Kelly always gets a rambling response out of me, so I’d like to apologize in advance for the novel below.

The general fan opinion on Brian Kelly is very positive — ever since that fateful disaster that was the 4-8 2016 season, Kelly has gone 43-7 and made two College Football Playoff appearances in three seasons, which is pretty damn impressive considering that aside from you guys, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma, no other program has made it to the CFP more than once. Furthermore, that 2016 dumpster fire forced Kelly to overhaul the culture of his program and change the way he went about hiring his coordinators, which is how the Irish ended up with a fantastic DC like Clark Lea.

Most Notre Dame fans are very happy with all of that, and choose to dismiss the blowout losses in big games under Kelly and chalk it up to “beating the behemoths of the sport is nearly impossible these days, so let’s just be happy about 4 straight 10-win seasons and consistently being in the running for making the CFP.” And I can get behind that line of thinking partially — if we can’t take SOME joy in watching our favorite team go 43-7 over 4 seasons, why do we watch at all?

But I also don’t understand the idea of not wanting to pursue greatness and take the next step so ND can actually hang with ‘Bama and Clemson when they get to that biggest of stages. There seems to be this weird schism in the fan base where everyone feels the need to be either in an Anti-Kelly camp or a Pro-Kelly camp with no nuance or in-between stance, and so you either are considered a cranky old man who hates Kelly and wants him fired for not winning national championships every year, or you worship Kelly as the soon-to-be winningest ND football coach in history and proclaim he should have a statue built outside the stadium, despite his best postseason win being a Citrus Bowl victory over #17 LSU.

I’m firmly in the middle of those two groups, because I both appreciate what Brian Kelly has accomplished but also realize he is NOT an elite head coach, at least if you define “elite” as being on the level of Saban, Swinney, Urban Meyer, etc. He’s been a billion times better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlies Weis, for sure, and he’s got the program in its best, most consistently healthy state since Lou Holtz.

But Notre Dame — as a program like Alabama would know and understand better than any other program/fan base — is a historically GREAT program whose goal and hopeful expectation each season is always to win a national championship. Celebrating the success of the last few years is fine, but at some point we need to confront the fact that Brian Kelly straight-up stinks in big games against great opponents, and isn’t even that good against good opponents:

Brian Kelly in Postseason Games at ND

  • NY6-or-Better Bowl Games: 0-3 record, average margin of -24 points
  • All Non-Regular Season Games: 5-5 record, average margin of -4 points

Brian Kelly’s Records vs. Ranked Opponents at ND

  • Top 5 Opponents at Time of Game: 1-5
  • Top 10 Opponents at Time of Game: 4-11
  • Top 25 Opponents at Time of Game: 22-21
  • Opponents Who Finished Top 5 at End of Season: 1-10*
  • Opponents Who Finished Top 10 at End of Season: 2-13*
  • Opponents Who Finished Top 25 at End of Season: 17-26*

*Note: The 11/7 win over Clemson, 11/27 win over UNC, 12/19 loss to Clemson, and obviously the CFP have not yet been factored into the “End of Season” records, since we don’t have end-of-year rankings for this season yet.

So, to ultimately answer your question — yes, I personally believe things could be better for Notre Dame, and I also think for things to get better it will probably need to come from another coach succeeding Brian Kelly and further boosting the program into that elite tier where Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State all reside. After 11 seasons and BK’s best team this year still clearly falling short of even competing with those programs when they’re at full strength, I think we have enough data to logically conclude that, despite him being a very, very good coach, he isn’t the guy to bring the Irish back to that truly top group, where I do believe ND belongs (at least historically speaking...but also I think they still do belong there, unlike programs that have completely fallen off like Nebraska or Michigan).

Here’s to hoping I’m either wrong on that, or the right person to bring the Irish home will be hired next — Clark Lea, what say you???

2. How did you like playing in an ACC schedule, rather than flying alone as an independent this year? Any hope the Domers might try to make a permanent move?

I think I was asked this every week by the ACC opponent sites this season (and twice by the Clemson site), and am happy to report that it’s become a very easy question to answer because my opinion hasn’t changed a bit over the course of the season.

2020 was a fun, interesting, and overall positive experience with ND playing as a full member of the ACC, considering we as fans got the unique opportunity to care about conference standings, experience the excitement of our team actually playing on conference championship weekend, etc. But at the end of the day, no self-respecting Domer will change their mind on independence — it means too much to us to drop it in favor of joining a conference, plain and simple.

I’ve had opposing sites call this take “uppity” and “snooty” and “elitist,” but I hope you can understand where I’m coming from if you just take a second to see if from our point of view. Notre Dame became a football power because of its independence — the Big Ten blackballed the Irish (mostly due to anti-Catholic bigotry in Michigan’s administration), and were thus forced to play a national schedule against the likes of USC, Texas, Army, Alabama, etc. throughout the years. Independence is what this program was literally built on and how it grew to be what it was/is — that means something in and of itself.

And then today, even after the last 30 years with ND clearly falling from the top tier of programs in terms of performance, being independent still affords the Irish an incredible amount of freedom and individual sway/power in the college football landscape. Would you give that up to go play 10 games a year against the Dukes and Pittsburghs and Syracuses of the ACC, if you were Notre Dame?

Scheduling-wise, it also just limits the fun and unique match-ups ND can arrange as an independent. This 2020 ACC schedule was Notre Dame’s weakest regular season slate in a while, and having to join the conference meant dropping much more fun/historical games like USC, Stanford, Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, and Arkansas. I speak for all Notre Dame fans when I say that was a major bummer, and that kind of boring, uninteresting ACC scheduling would become more of the norm if ND had to play 10 ACC games per year instead of the 5 they currently do. The freedom of being independent has allowed the Irish to schedule games against the likes of Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan over the past 10 years, and in the near future the Irish will see Ohio State, Texas A&M, Alabama, etc. during the regular season. I can guarantee some of those wouldn’t happen if the Irish joined the ACC full-time, and so I stand FIRMLY against that.

So, yeah — it’s been a weird and entertaining year, but Notre Dame has no desire or plans to stop being independent anytime soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense has scored a lot for most of the year. Obviously we saw what Clemson did holding them to 10 points in the rematch... but rematches never go well, so I’ll kind of throw that one out. But what on earth happened in that 12-7 victory over the dreadful Louisville Cardinals?

I think we’re all honestly still scratching our heads about that Louisville game. At the time, I thought Louisville was just a better-than-their-record team who was exposing Notre Dame as a non-top-10 team, but after seeing the rest of the season play out, it’s a wild and weird result from an otherwise impressive regular season for the Irish.

My best guess is that the Notre Dame passing attack hadn’t really started to blossom yet, and the Irish spent more than a few possessions in the first three quarters trying to establish the pass in hopes that that portion of the offense would find a groove and be ready to go against better opponents down the road. But Louisville did a good job putting pressure on Book and making some plays in coverage (4 sacks, 4 PDs), and Book was only able to manage 106 yards through the air on 11-of-19 passing. Also, the Irish called a bewildering fake field goal after a 90-yard drive at the end of the first half, so that helped keep 3 points off the board as holder Jay Bramblett (the team’s starting punter) tried in vain to run and pick up a 4th-and-9 first down.

Fortunately, OC Tommy Rees sprinkled in enough running plays — especially in the second half — to finally impose the Irish will over a bad Cardinals team, allowing Book to run for a go-ahead TD in the 3rd quarter that would ultimately decide the game. But yeah, it’s a very strange outlier in a regular season that saw ND pretty easily handle everyone else not named Clemson.

4. If Alabama manages to shut down the reliable Kyren Williams and the run game, will Ian Book be able to shoulder the offense and pick up the slack through the air? And when it comes to a critical third down, who’s he throwing it to?

I’m gonna go with “probably not.”

Ian Book is a very good quarterback (the winningest in Notre Dame history), but he has his limitations — particularly, he’s at his best when he’s able to get out of the pocket and use his creativity and legs to make plays, but when he’s contained to the pocket, he has trouble finding receivers and is hesitant to take chances by forcing throws into tight windows, meaning he’s often left holding onto the ball when the protection breaks down and the pressure gets to him. He needs to be able to run to be his most effective self.

Clemson laid out the exact blueprint on how to shut Book down in the ACC Championship Game, keeping him in an ever-shrinking pocket and sacking him 6 times while never really allowing him to run (he finished with 10 carries for -35 yards rushing). He still went 20-for-28 passing and didn’t turn it over, but it didn’t matter — he’d been completely neutralized at that point.

I’m positive Alabama will take that blueprint and apply it on Friday, focusing on squeezing Book in the pocket with all the athletes and speed the Tide have on defense, and not giving him lanes to escape through. If they do that and, similar to Clemson, are able to shut down Williams on the ground, it’s going to be a LONG day for the Irish — unless offensive coordinator Tommy Rees comes with a much better game plan and Book is much more willing to take some shots downfield, even if his receivers aren’t particularly open.

On a critical third down, freshman tight end Michael Mayer has become Book’s go-to-guy. The rookie is a monster-sized target with soft hands and great athleticism for the position, and has shown the ability to get the yards after the catch needed in many a 3rd down situation. Other solid options to bet on are Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley, a couple 5th-year, big-bodied, sure-handed receivers who have really proved their mettle this season after LOTS of questions about their abilities heading into the year.

5. Notre Dame has an interesting defensive scheme. There’s basically four linemen in the 270-290 range, two sub-230 linebackers, a 215 hybrid linebacker/safety, a tiny strong safety, and a massive free safety. How does Clark Lea like to use all those pieces in tandem? And why has the run defense aspect fallen apart in back-to-back weeks?

It’s definitely a group that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Clark Lea has done a great job the past few years of recruiting and developing guys to fit his system: strong, athletic defensive linemen; fast, sure-tackling linebackers; and smart, athletic safeties.

Shaun Crawford, the tiny strong safety you mentioned, is a bit of a mislead. His first 5 years in the program he was either injured (has had 3 separate season-ending injuries — hence him being a 6th-year senior right now) or playing as a nickelback/corner, so his being named a starting safety opposite Kyle Hamilton had much more to do with him being an old, experienced veteran whom the coaches trusted most back there rather than him being the ideal fit at safety for the scheme.

Overall, though, Lea’s able to use those pieces as a group to really stifle running games with that athletic defensive front and those fast linebackers, get some pressure on the QB without sending too many guys thanks to the strength of the front four, and otherwise keep receivers in front of the DBs and prevent a lot of big plays thanks to smart, athletic guys like Hamilton on the back end.

The last two games have indeed been rough for the Irish rush defense, though, and I only have a partial answer for you there. The Clemson result made sense — Trevor Lawrence is a big, talented runner who knows how to make the right read, and with two very good runners in that Tigers backfield, the ND defense struggled to corral them both — especially considering how little rest they got, thanks to the ND offense accomplishing next-to-nothing in that game. The Syracuse game, though, was weird. ND was fresh off holding Javonte Williams and Michael Carter to 85 yards COMBINED the week before, so I’m not sure if it was just a mental lapse against a really bad opponent that led to the Orange’s success running the ball, or what else it might have been — very uncharacteristic of that group, either way.

But I am REALLY hoping the Irish don’t make it 3 rough games in a row against the run, because we all know Alabama is already going to get whatever they want through the air on Friday. Allowing Najee Harris to run completely roughshod would mean Alabama might set some records this week. Hopefully they can keep him around 80-100 yards and occasionally tackle him well before he gets to the second level.

6. Speaking of Clark Lea, you think he’s going to be a good coach at Vanderbilt?

I really do — I think he does a fantastic job connecting with recruits and then developing them as players once they’re on the team, which I’d say is probably the most important component of being a head coach. Coordinators can maybe get away with just being X’s-and-O’s guys (obviously Lea is also one of those, defensively), but to be a successful head coach you have to be able to build that culture and those relationships with the kids and really inspire greatness.

Of course, when I say he’s going to be a good coach at Vanderbilt, I mean a good coach AT VANDERBILT. The Commodores won’t be competing for SEC titles anytime soon, but I think he can have James Franklin-esque success there and within ~4-5 years will likely begin receiving head coaching offers from better Power 5 programs — hell, maybe even from Notre Dame, considering Brian Kelly has been there for so long and definitely won’t be there forever.

7. If one guy on Notre Dame’s defense is going to make a massive, game-altering play... Who will it be?

No question, I’m picking the 2020 Butkus Award winner, Rover linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Safety Kyle Hamilton is my second choice here and the Irish defensive ends (Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Daelin Hayes, Isaiah Foskey) certainly have plenty of potential for big sacks/forced fumbles, so I don’t think he’s the ONLY good option. But JOK is simply a FREAK in terms of how he runs sideline-to-sideline, is excellent in both run support and pass coverage, and has a knack for creating turnovers and wreaking havoc (3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 FR TD, 11 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT). He’s always seemingly in position to make a big play, and is good enough to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself.

8. Have any freshmen shown flashes of becoming a superstar in the future years, and will we see them in this game?

I’m guessing we’re exclusively talking true freshmen here, because otherwise Kyren “Bellyman” Williams obviously qualifies as a redshirt freshman who’s clearly going to be a superstar, using his first full year of action to run for 1,061 yards and 12 TDs on 5.4 yards per carry while also snagging 27 catches for 282 yards and 1 TD. Additionally, he’s one of the best pass-blocking running backs in the country, as made evident by this montage of his work in the November Clemson game:

In terms of true freshmen, the conversation has to begin with TE Michael Mayer. He’s a former 5-star recruit who’s lived up to that hype in every way, coming into a program never short on tight end talent and being so good that he had to be played immediately. He’s caught 35 passes for 388 yards and 2 TDs on the season, and has earned the super not-creative nickname of “Baby Gronk.” Once you watch him play, you can at least understand why he’s been assigned such an uncreative, but fitting, nickname.

Running back Chris Tyree is another guy to look out for down the road. He won whatever The Opening’s competition is for fastest player two years in a row as a recruit, and has already shown he’s got some toughness to go along with that home run speed in his time backing up Williams. He’s tallied 480 yards and 4 touchdowns on a ridiculous 7.1 yards-per-carry average, and I imagine he will only get more carries next year as a sophomore in preparation for taking over the starting role as an upperclassman once Williams is done at ND.

One final name to note: freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis. He was a 3-star, unheralded recruit who ended up emerging as a starter on this CFP defense, managing to be 5th on the team in tackles with 31 while notching 7 passes defended and a forced fumble this season. His early playing time probably says a decent amount about Notre Dame’s not-great depth at corner, but he’s done very well in a tough spot as a true frosh who wasn’t expected to see this much action, so I think he could end up being a star down the road if he keeps improving like he already has this season.

9. How do you predict this game turns out?

As a fan, of course there’s always that tiny, optimistic voice in the back of my mind that keeps trying to find reasons for hope. Maybe Alabama is so heavily favored and ND is considered such a lock to get blown out, that they’ll actually have a shot at surprising the Tide and beating them! Maybe Ian Book will play the game of his life and take some risks that pay off in a big way! Maybe Kyle Hamilton will be tasked with staying with DeVonta Smith every time he goes deep and he’ll be able to shut most of that down!

But there’s just no rational way for me to actually believe any of that — I think Alabama is, realistically, going to win this by 3-4 touchdowns. How we get there probably depends on the approach Steve Sarkisian and his staff take, though. If the Crimson Tide try to start by establishing the run and saving a lot of the shot-taking with DeVonta Smith, John Metchie III, etc. for the title game, then I could see ND hanging around for a quarter or two. I’m under no delusion that the ND defense will be able to completely stop the Alabama offensive line and Najee Harris, but the Irish’s defensive strength is in stopping the run, and thus I could maybe see them getting a few stops against a conservative ‘Bama offensive game plan.

If Sarkisian wants to come out and send a message and step on ND’s throats as early as possible, I think the Irish are toast right out of the gate, barring Clark Lea having cooked up some very different, masterpiece of a game plan that completely stymies Alabama’s passing attack. Otherwise, the Tide receivers are going to absolutely expose the ND corners and Shaun Crawford, putting their limitations and weaknesses on full display as they torch them deep, over the middle, and just anywhere in space once Mac Jones gets the ball into their hands. Kyle Hamilton is a stud and will be a pain for Alabama to deal with, but he’s one guy, and will be asked to do way too much to make up for his teammates’ mistakes and limitations. Alabama will score on each of their first few possessions, and if the Irish offense struggles like I expect them to, ND will be forced to play catch-up on offense with the passing game, which is not their strong suit and will only make them dig a deeper and deeper hole as they fail to move the ball and the defense gets exhausted from having to play so much.

Either way, I think it’s safe to say that by mid-third quarter, this game will no longer be in doubt. There was such a lack of inspiration and competency in that ACC Championship Game a couple weeks ago that I simply cannot fathom how the Irish can succeed in any significant way against a Nick Saban team with two weeks to prepare for ND after being handed the blueprint to beating them by Dabo, let alone against a Nick Saban team averaging 0.7 points PER PLAY on offense. That is just absurd, and the Irish don’t have the horses to keep up.

Final score prediction: Alabama 47, Notre Dame 23

10. Be honest: how many times per year do you think about Eddie Lacy double-spinning into the endzone while Manti Teo whiffed? Because it’s at least 1 per month for me, and it still makes me giggle with delight.

I’m having a PTSD-driven panic attack just from having read your question. That was my senior year at ND, so of course I road-tripped down to South Beach with all my friends in anticipation of Notre Dame finally returning to glory and winning a national title. I remember being SO confident that the Irish would win because of their “elite” defense led by Te’o, who you may remember was Heisman runner-up as a freakin’ linebacker that season and had already cemented himself as a Notre Dame legend before the game. He and his guys on that defense (Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, etc.) have got this, no doubt!!!

I even won the opportunity to purchase a ticket to the game in the ND student lottery, and so I have vivid, horrifying memories of plopping down in my seat after an awesome day of tailgating, ready to watch my Irish win the ‘ship. Seeing Te’o look like an absolute child trying to tackle Eddie Lacy was nothing short of devastating, and sitting through that game and then finding out about the whole catfishing thing the following week was the absolute WORST way for that season to come to a close, considering how awesome it had been up until then.

So, to answer your question: I have actively repressed that memory every single day of every single year since that game. So thank you for making me actually acknowledge and revisit it — what a wonderful way to enter this likely annihilation on Friday, emotionally speaking.