Unless we’re talking about Oklahoma in a playoff game, bowls are so hard to predict that it feels foolhardy to try and triangulate how things will turn out. In between games 12 and 13, there’s ample time for winter malaise to undo the sense of focus and motivation that’s mostly defined a team for months on end. There may be turnover on the coaching staff, there may be players who understandably decline to participate to protect their future livelihood, and college kids on vacation may behave like college kids on vacation. Despite falling short of a marquee postseason slot, Notre Dame did have their full roster participating, but there was a sense of modest unrest when Chip Long was relieved of his duties just before early signing day. Brian Kelly also noted that the team was, let’s say, a bit sluggish in their initial bowl prep, so things weren’t looking all that great. It seemed like a golden opportunity for an overlooked opponent on the rise, one that hadn’t lost by more than 10 points since November of 2018, to make a statement against a college football blue blood. But it wasn’t, not even for a minute.
There was talk of Brock Purdy using this game as a springboard to 2020 Heisman hype, which was admittedly a bit ridiculous even in the wake of a very good sophomore season. Clark Lea’s defense had other ideas, dictating how the game would go from their very first drive and fully clamping down to close things out in the second half. Purdy managed to throw for over 200 yards, but with an early fumble and no touchdowns to his name, turned in a largely middling performance. Maybe Notre Dame’s pass defense really was that good after all?
Of course, getting an early lead and maintaining it via solid, bend-don’t-break defense is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the Irish rendered the Cyclones’ run game obsolete (1.67 yards per carry!). Keeping up the season to date’s performance as the nation’s best fumble-forcing defense is also quite helpful. I feel so strongly about the job Clark Lea’s done I need to express myself via meme because no writing can quite do it justice. (I will hedge by noting that I really enjoyed Michael Bryan’s advanced stats breakdown if you’re looking for an in-depth but easily accessible statistical breakdown of the team’s performance.)
Speaking of coordinators, let’s have the Tom Rees conversation. The offense was a bit herky jerky at times, but that’s probably more reflective of this team’s built-in limitations than it was specific play calls (although I could do without those slow developing run plays straight to the sideline for the rest of my life). As we’ve come to expect, pass blocking was excellent, and run blocking was…up and down. On the whole, it wasn’t the flashiest performance, and the red zone woes kept things a little closer than necessary, but Rees clearly has an intuitive grasp of his personnel and called a good game against a good defense. It doesn’t fully turn the tide in the OC discussion one way or another, but it’s inarguably a data point in his favor.
I want to spend some time calling out individual performances, because there were really so many that added up to a fantastic team win.
- Let’s start with the absolute lad Jonathan Doerer, who had one of his best games to date, connecting on all four field goal attempts and making sure I never had to sweat too much while sitting on my couch. He hit 85% of his attempts on the year and we can’t thank him enough for turning into such a superbly reliable specialist.
- Chase Claypool, man. It’s funny that he started that season-defining drive against Virginia Tech with a drop, because after that miscue he grabbed probably the two most crucial catches of the year. All in all it’s been one of the most important performances by a Notre Dame receiver this decade. On Saturday he averaged 21 yards per catch and was the best (offensive, at least) player on the field by a cavernous margin.
- I’m only tempering that superlative out of respect for what Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah did on the other side of the ball. It’s hard to argue with the selection of Claypool as game MVP, but Wu was an absolute force of nature, leading the team with nine tackles (four for loss, including three sacks), plus that forced and recovered fumble. If it’s possible to have a breakout performance at the end of a breakout season, that was it.
- One of the happier storylines of this season’s back half was Chris Finke getting back into form and turning back into an ever-reliable second option, and it makes me wish the coaching staff was more upfront about the lingering injuries he was dealing with in those uneven first few games. He had six big catches in his final appearance in an Irish uniform, a fond farewell for the Slippery Fox.
- Alohi Gilman set the tone right from the start with a vicious strip fumble after a tough opening drive for the ND offense. No surprise that he was the one to wake everyone up.
- That Tony Jones touchdown run! What! I did not expect to have visions of Dexter Williams’ 97-yarder dancing in my head on Saturday but that’s what we were treated to, with a vicious stiff arm to hold off the remaining Cyclone defenders the cherry on top. Bellissima.
- TaRiq Bracy was never going to be the reason for concern regarding next year’s secondary, but that performance went a long way to quieting any discomfort Irish fans might have about their future starting corners. The end zone pass breakup against a considerably larger receiver was one of the more important plays of the day that won’t get talked about a whole lot.
- Ian Book wasn’t perfectly sharp, but turned in a performance that Brock Purdy would have loved to have replicated. He made the right decision on just about every throw, and was as accurate as he’s been since that laugher against Bowling Green. If you aren’t excited about his 2020 return after a quiet torching of a top 25 defense, kindly don’t @ me.
- Khalid Kareem was banged up throughout but spent so much time harassing Purdy in the backfield that his final output of just one tackle feels like a truly ridiculous aberration. He easily could have had three or four sacks, but instead was able to force Purdy into a bunch of questionable throws, and really made his presence felt in a game where no one expected him to push through an injury. Defensive line depth is currently excellent but boy we’re gonna miss this guy.
I could go on (honorable mention to Asmar Bilal and Drew White), but you get the picture. Iowa State was a trendy upset pick on a national scale and Notre Dame put that to rest with ease, which is just what you do when you’re in the midst of your program’s best run in decades. That second loss really limits the ceiling for this season’s grade but I feel like a strong B+ is where we landed.
We’re now at a spot where eleven wins in thirteen games is a little bit ho hum, which I can’t force you to be happy about but I really recommend it. It’s not often that we get to end the year outscoring opponents by 141 points over the final five. There’s so much to be excited about next year (Kevin Austin, come on down), but we’ve got plenty of time to savor this extremely fun nightcap on another largely successful season. See you in Dublin.
Photo via Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports