How great did it feel to sit back, let the blood pressure settle down for a Saturday, remember we’re 8-0, and watch another day of the insanity that is college football in 2020 unfold? Ohio State-Indiana was a thriller. Cincinnati almost threw away their outside shot at a CFP bid. Northwestern made a huge statement with a win over Wisconsin (PLEASE let them win out and face us in the playoff). And Clemson-FSU was cancelled due to COVID concerns — or if you ask Dabo, cowardice.
Thank goodness we beat that clown; let’s hope we can do it again because delivering a massive blow to the ego of, in my opinion, one of college football’s greatest modern villains would be so sweet. It’s just absurd that Swinney has managed to craft such a sterling image as a “players’ coach” when he routinely makes shocking statements that more often than not relegate the health, safety and concerns of players far below his program’s financial goals and the monolithic value of “winning.” Andrew loves to play the game “What If Brian Kelly Said This?” — and Dabo is one of the most consistent, shocking offenders. I’d want to say that a Notre Dame coach would be swiftly run out of town for saying half the stuff that leaves Swinney’s mouth, especially in public statements, but the bar for University leadership has certainly been set low this year, so who really knows. And that’s officially enough wasted breath on Dabo for one day.
If a potential first-round playoff matchup pitted us against Ohio State, how scared are we? More scared than we were of the Clemson team that ended up leaving South Bend with a loss? Yes, Justin Fields is one of the two, maybe three, quarterbacks in the nation who’s better than DJ Uiagalelei right now. And yes, they’ve got one of the three most stacked rosters in the country — but they just went to the wire with Indiana and nearly fell from the ranks of the undefeated in just their fourth game this season. The Hoosiers are undeniably a strong team (Penix is a baller (lol)), but there’s no question that we’re the strongest team in the state. A matchup with the Buckeyes would be a tough one, but I don’t hate our odds.
Re-watching the BC game, MAN was Book locked in. He was finding guys open against zone looks, throwing great jump balls to Benny Skowronek in the end zone, and trucking guys in the open field when he took off to make plays with his feet. The way Book dives forward instead of sliding is so unique and fun to watch — he manages to fight for extra yards without actually putting himself at risk (aside from the aforementioned truck). You always want your quarterback to take care of himself and the ball, but picking up first downs instead of 3rd-and-2s helps this team stay ahead of the chains and on its rhythm. Book finds a way to do both (outside of a couple of freak bad breaks with the red zone fumble against Clemson and the bungled handoff to Tyree against BC). He also seems to have cured his happy feet, and it’s a joy to watch — it’s been broken down to death over the past week, but the way he escaped the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and his throwing platform even and ready to uncork a ball to Skowronek for his second touchdown was straight-up spectacular. He’s making game-winning plays consistently, and it’s brought this team’s ceiling to another level.
The development of the skill position players certainly has helped matters — the BC game was a great reminder of how far we’ve come, with Ben, Avery Davis and Javon McKinley making plays. Who would have thought this trio would be such a productive group? When you add in the dominant running game (shoutout to C’bo for a strong showing, let’s hope he stays healthy) and the talent of Mayer and Tremble, this offense’s weapons are decidedly more than just good enough. It might just be the kind of group that can grind out more wins against college football’s elite.
Oh yeah, and the defense wasn’t half bad either — even with Kyle dropping a pick-six and getting another interception wiped off the board by the softest of phantom penalties, they did more than enough to neutralize Jurkovec and lock up the win.
That said, let’s hope for some continued development by the secondary — if we’re honest with ourselves, Phil might have been the second genuinely dangerous QB this defense has faced all year, and he won’t be the last. Between North Carolina’s Sam Howell, a looming ACC Championship matchup against Trevor Lawrence, and the stud QBs waiting in the CFP, we’re going to need the back end of the defense to take another step to fully realize this team’s potential. It’s been an up-and-down year for Tariq Bracy, but if he can regain his usually steady form to support Nick McCloud and Clarence Lewis (who’d probably be this team’s newcomer of the year if it wasn’t for the otherworldly talent of Michael Mayer) and if the safeties, especially Kyle, can get a little bit healthier coming out of the bye, this defense has a shot against anyone.
Being 8-0 has certainly helped on the recruiting trail. Last week was a watershed stretch for recruits flipping to join the 2021 class — we brought high-upside CB prospect Philip Riley back into the fold after a brief commitment to USC, pried arguably the top kicking talent in the country, Joshua Bryan, away from Colorado, and rounded out a stellar 5-man offensive line class by landing former Auburn commit and certified massive human Caleb Johnson. And linebacker Kahanu Kia made it four commits in one week, who like Manti Te’o and Marist Liufau before him comes from Punahou School — he’s rated as a three-star prospect, but how can you not trust Brian Polian and Clark Lea to identify a hidden gem of a linebacker out of Hawaii? All four of these guys have high ceilings, and they’re each an important piece of a class that continues to get stronger. At one point in this cycle, things were looking grim, but it’s hard to be pessimistic about the growing 2021 haul — no, it’s likely not going to be the top-five class BK hinted at, but it’s one that will make the program stronger.
Exactly how much stronger will largely be determined by the big fish this class can land down the stretch — the biggest being Donovan Edwards, the five-star Michigan running back who has long been considered a Wolverine lean (but, lol, they’re blowing it this season) and Oklahoma defensive line commit Kevin Gilliam. Edwards’s recruitment seems to be anyone’s game — rumors seem to suggest the Irish are very much in it, but when a commitment might come is up in the air. Edwards had stated he’d wait to offer his pledge till after his senior season of football, but COVID has delayed the end of the season in Michigan till after the December early signing day — if he waits that long, he wouldn’t be able to sign until February. That said, he’s a talented back that the staff is surely willing to wait on. Gilliam’s a difference maker who Lea and co. seem to like coming off the edge — apparently both ND and OU like their chances with him, so it’s hard to guess how things play out. With David Abiara presumably not signing with Notre Dame when the dust settles, an edge talent like Gilliam would be a massive get.
Landing one or, if I can dare to dream, both alongside a couple more of the high-upside, athletically gifted three-star gems the staff has been so good at identifying late in recruiting cycles — Three-star Indiana athlete JoJo Johnson, who Mickens is likely recruiting for a spot in the secondary is the latest to receive a few Irish Crystal Ball predictions — will make this class a special one. It’s got a strong balance between blue-chip talent like Buchner, Fisher, Spindler and Colzie, and three and four-star athletes who can be molded to fit roles within the Irish offensive and defensive systems. The staff seems to have really found its recruiting rhythm, and it’s putting in the work to capitalize on their ability to identify talent and lock down strong classes year in, year out.
One other fun recruiting tidbit — we’re going for the bros. Within the past week the staff has offered Donovan Hinish, younger brother of Kurt, and defensive end Alex Bauman, brother of Kurt. Both are fairly low-ranked recruits, but you’ve got to like their familiarity with the program and trust that the staff wouldn’t offer them for no reason.
Alright, I’ve put off talking about this long enough — it looks like the health (or lack thereof) of the offensive line will be the story of the final stretch of this season. Jarrett Patterson is done for the year with a foot injury, rumored to be a lisfranc (let’s hope not, because they linger), and Tommy Kraemer is recovering from an appendectomy (ouch). Hopefully Kraemer’s not out more than two weeks (but the dude certainly deserves time to recover), but Patterson won’t be back till next year at the earliest — and it’s a blow. Patterson was a one-of-a-kind sort of center who had built a rapport with Ian Book and had the size and movement skills of a tackle (because, well, he was one). Those guys are rare at any level.
Luckily, we’ve got solid reinforcements. Josh Lugg slots in at right guard and, at this point in his Irish career, shouldn’t miss a beat. And at center, sophomore Zeke Correll steps in — Correll was the crown jewel of a solid 2019 offensive line class, a top-100 player with offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and more. He’s passed up veteran Colin Grunhard as the backup center, which hopefully means he’s ready for the big moments to come down the stretch this season. North Carolina should be a good test, going toe-to-toe with a high powered offense in a matchup where the ground game needs to get rolling. But hell, we’re O-Line U, right? Injuries happen, and it’s next man up — we’ve been spoiled by such a veteran group we hardly had to give a second thought, but it’s time for Jeff Quinn to fully put his detractors to bed. This group remains talented and well coached — let’s hope we see it on Friday.
Finally, we’ve just made November’s donation to the St. Vincent de Paul society of St. Joseph County, a non-profit that works to organize mutual aid (think rent assistance, food and clothing, and more) for folks facing poverty, homelessness and other economic hardship in the South Bend community (you may have also purchased some secondhand dorm-dance garb at their thrift store). In 2020, a year when economic turmoil and a global pandemic have made things even more uncertain for the vulnerable members of our society, this sort of aid is vital. We’re thrilled to be able to do a small part to support their mission, and we remain thoroughly grateful for the support of our NDOB community. Y’all are the best — hope those of you in the $25 tier are enjoying those ridiculous shirts. Stickers coming soon!