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Behind the Holy War: Notre Dame Football Q&A With One Foot Down

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the annual Red Bandana Game and another installment of the Holy War. Pat Sullivan (@Psully226) the editor of Notre Dame’s SB Nation’s One Foot Down was kind enough to once again give us the scoop on all things Notre Dame. They’re coming off a(n?) historic win over Clemson, playing ACC football for some reason, and are still besides themselves after letting Phil slip away. He’ll make you laugh, cry, and hate him and his kind just a bit more. Thanks, Pat!

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BCI: Explain this, please:

Now, I’m almost certain there are protocols for attending the game, and I know the school has robust testing. It was an incredible game and I would certainly be as hyped. But from your perspective, was beating a Clemson team without Trevor Lawrence, [THAT BARELY BEAT BC], in double OT, while ALSO being a top-5 team, all during the precarious state that is college football today a storm-the-field worthy moment? Notre Dame did already have to postpone the Wake Forest game earlier in the season as well. Is this how much of a void the fanbase has resided these past several years? Is the state of Irish football so desperate and longing for attention? Is the celebration now a compensation for the inevitable impending doom that awaits in the conference championship game rematch? In all seriousness, what did the win mean for the program?

First of all, let me address the “was this really a storm-the-field worthy moment?” question. A few years back, I may have agreed with you and said something really obnoxious like “Notre Dame football should never rush the field, beating any and every opponent is the expectation.” That version of Pat Rick would absolutely agree that a #4 Irish team shouldn’t storm the field against anyone, barring maybe some sort of miracle, Hail Mary-esque game-winning play.

But that just ain’t me anymore, you guys. I’ve completely converted to the philosophy of “they’re college kids, let them have fun and storm the field if they want.” Why do we treat field/court storming like it’s anything more than a bunch of hyped-up college kids wanting to have a mosh pit of victory? In what world do we need to apply some sort of standards or decorum to that? It’s not that serious, it’s a game — LET YOUNG PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS.

Obviously, the above is an easily defensible position in normal times, but much less so in a pandemic. However, I will give the tiny caveat here that the entire ND student body was tested the week leading up to the game, and any positives or contact-traced folks were quarantined/isolated and not in attendance. That plus most of those kids wearing masks and Brian Kelly instructing his team ahead of time to try to get off the field as quickly as possible after the win makes me feel sliiiiiiiiiightly better about it. Also, can you blame these kids after the example they’ve had set for them?*

*Side note: this Letter to the Editor by a Notre Dame student on Tuesday was ON POINT

They still shouldn’t have done it, but I also can’t blame them or say I wouldn’t have done the same — it’s been a tough, weird year to be a kid in school, and Notre Dame just had its biggest football win in nearly 30 years. I pointed this out last week with Shakin the Southland — Brian Kelly doesn’t usually win games like that one, so the jubilation you saw in that on-field celebration was very, very real and emotional.

Here were Kelly’s records against ranked opponents entering the Clemson game:

So, that win meant EVERYTHING for a program that’s been the butt of every joke, the target of every “overrated” comment, and one of the most heart-breaking-to-follow programs over the past 25 years. It proved the Irish can still compete with the elite of the elite in college football, and that they aren’t always all hype and no substance (I admit they have been exactly that numerous times in the recent past — it’s been frustrating to deal with as a fan).

As for what the rematch will look like in the ACC Championship, we will see (assuming neither team slips up before then). Obviously Trevor Lawrence is a god and the Tigers getting some of those defensive guys back will change things, but I truly believe the confidence ND gained from this win — especially considering how good D.J. Uiagalelei clearly already is — will also push them to elevate their game a bit more, meaning that that December 19th battle could be another classic.

BCI: We really begin with none other than Phil Jurkovec’s revenge game. Boston College’s new starting quarterback donned the blue and gold less just a year ago. How did fans feel about his transfer, and what was the ultimate reaction to him choosing BC? Not sure if you followed Jurkovec’s waiver process afterwards, but do you give any credence to the obviously true conspiracy that Notre Dame was behind the hold up? Be honest.

Notre Dame fans were certainly not happy that Phil transferred — just a couple years ago he was the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class and considered the heir apparent to Brandon Wimbush, another very highly-rated dual-threat QB with a big arm and tons of athleticism. Ian Book was the 3-star depth piece meant to bridge that gap in the 2016 class, so it was very unexpected when he seized the starting job from Wimbush in 2018 and then despite some struggles, never gave it up to Phil in 2019.

Thus, when Phil announced he was transferring, fans were upset for sure that such a heralded talent was leaving before ever being QB1, and the faction of fans who wanted Ian Book benched was even more irate that Brian Kelly let the “more talented” Jurkovec get away. Transferring to BC was icing on the cake, just because we all knew that could mean facing Phil in a game against a historical opponent who’s always been a pain in the Irish’s ass, especially if he got his waiver and enabled this very match-up we now have on Saturday.

However, overall the ND fan base wished Phil well and has been following his games this year and rooting for him — he seems like a good, talented kid who just unfortunately didn’t get a chance to take the reins. We just can’t quit Ian Book, and after Saturday can you really blame us?

As for that waiver and why it took so long:

  1. On the record, there’s no way Brian Kelly had anything to do with it. He likely wanted Phil to go have the opportunity to play elsewhere and wished him well and didn’t stand in the way.
  2. Off the record, hell yeah BK pulled some strings to make BC sweat — this is year 11 for him, he’s not messing around anymore.

BCI: Alright, onto the game. Kyren Williams has been a revelation this season. He’s top ten in rushing yards and the team is in the top 20 in the FBS. What makes Williams so great and how much of a role has the offensive line played in this success?

Kyren “Bellyman” Williams has indeed been an absolute revelation this season, considering he was an afterthought as a true freshman in 2019, granted just 4 carries that he turned into 26 yards before being redshirted for the season. When he was named the starting RB this summer, most of us were pretty surprised, and more importantly we definitely didn’t think he was about to immediately cement himself as one of the more fun Irish running backs of the Brian Kelly era.

At best, we thought he was the first-guy-in for a running-back-by-committee setup that would eventually be overtaken by blue-chip freshman Chris Tyree as the starter. Bellyman had other ideas, though, as he’s now run for 740 yards and 10 touchdowns through 7 games, all while running at a 5.8 yards-per-carry clip. Assuming the Irish have about 6 games left (4 regular season games, ACC Championship, at least 1 CFP/bowl game), he’s on pace for 1400+ yards and 18+ touchdowns. Pretty damn good for someone Irish fans had next to zero expectations for this season.

When you think about what makes him so great, I would be remiss if I didn’t first mention his belly, which has led to him being called “Bellyman” within my small group of friends and around the One Foot Down site. In some sort of wonderful homage to Ezekiel Elliott or maybe Pablo Sanchez, Williams more often than not has his jersey rolled up to show his stomach, and it’s clear he derives most of his power, talent, and charisma from that belly. I explained this phenomenon in an article early in the season.

Besides that glorious gut, Bellyman is really just a fantastic combination of being compact and strong with a low center of gravity while also possessing excellent vision, a lot of wiggle, and deceiving speed that may not be track-star fast, but is definitely fast enough to outrun the Clemson Tigers defense. Along with all that, he seems to relish contact more than shy away from it, nearly always falling forward when tackled and also being an exceptional pass blocker. Never has a blitz pickup highlight video been so beautiful:

To answer your second question, the offensive line plays a massive role in his success. Composed of 4 seniors (two of them being 5th-years) and 1 junior, with all having started more than one full season at this point (most of them multiple full seasons), they are a big, strong, veteran group that knows how to physically dominate an opponent. Clemson was without Tyler Davis up front on Saturday, but don’t let that distract you from how easily they wore down the rest of the Clemson defensive front — those overtime TDs for Bellyman speak for themselves.

Also, I can’t give the o-line all the credit. You will notice on Saturday that Notre Dame’s tight ends are GREAT blockers — especially Tommy Tremble, who appears to make it his personal goal to literally devour the guy he’s supposed to block on every running play.

BCI: What kind of legacy did Ian Book cement by stepping up and beating Clemson? What did he do best against Clemson and how far do you think he can carry the Irish this season?

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say Ian Book completely changed his Notre Dame legacy with his performance on Saturday. He was on track to leave ND as a very successful and winning QB (26-2 record as starter entering the Clemson game), but also as having a reputation for being a limited and flawed QB who didn’t have enough talent to lead the Irish to a signature win over an actually elite opponent. Hell, up until last weekend, there was even a group of ND fans who wanted Book benched (the same group who were distraught when Jurkovec transferred).

Against Clemson, Book took all his veteran experience and savvy and determination and WILLED that offense to success. A helluva lot of college QBs would have crumbled after Book’s 3rd quarter fumble at the goal line and then watching the opponent overtake them over the next 14 minutes and hold a touchdown lead with 1:41 left to play. But Book isn’t most QBs — he’s got a short memory and ice water in his veins, which he’s shown in leading past game-winning drives (2018 Citrus Bowl vs. LSU, 2018 vs. Pitt, 2019 vs. Virginia Tech).

Of course, this was different than those times — this was #1 Clemson in a top-5 battle for ACC supremacy. But Book did his thing out there anyway, using his legs to extend plays, displaying superb decision-making to keep the chains moving, and ultimately excelling in what he’s struggled to do for a while now: stepping up into the pocket and tossing an accurate deep ball, hitting his receiver in-stride for a big gain.

That 53-yard pass to WR Avery Davis with a minute left, which set up the TD pass he would throw to Davis a few plays later, was such a massive step and moment for Book — until Saturday, he had always seemed afraid to even throw downfield, no matter the scenario. The fact that that is how he largely drove the Irish to the game-tying score is pretty poetic, considering how many times we have all bashed him for not making, or even attempting, that kind of throw.

In terms of how far he can “carry” the Irish this year, I don’t think he can, but not because he’s an incapable QB or anything like that. This team is simply built to be carried by a stifling, swarming defense and a physical, punishing running game instead, and so what’s really needed from Book as quarterback are the leadership and decision-making to help manage that while making the occasional play with his feet or his arm to keep the opponents honest. In that case, I think he showed Saturday he can serve that role all the way to a title — but the key will obviously be if the defense and running game can hold up in a Clemson-is-healthier rematch or against the likes of Alabama or Ohio State (or both).

If so, I think Book could honestly be the QB to bring Irish fans their first championship in 32 years — wouldn’t that be something for the 3-star guy who got critiqued and bashed by lots of people for a decent portion of his wildly-successful career?

BCI: The Notre Dame defense stepped up big against Clemson, picking up three fumbles, holding Clemson to 4/15 on third down, and bottling up Travis Etienne. They’ve been excellent all season. Where do their strengths lie and how do they make opposing offenses play left-handed?

Their front seven is really their biggest strength — specifically at defensive end and linebacker. 5th-year senior captains Daelin Hayes (3 sacks, 3 QBH) and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (3.5 sacks, 4 QBH) are unbelievable bookends for the starting defensive line, and sophomore Isaiah Foskey has been Bellyman-esque in his second season, having registered 3.5 sacks and 4 QB hurries of his own after only playing in 4 games in 2019. That trio is VERY good.

Even more sensational, though, is Rover linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (otherwise known as JOK or “Wu”), who may just be the best linebacker in the entire damn country. He absolutely flies to the ball with an incredible mix of speed, power, and tenacity, and has a knack for stuffing the stat sheet (35 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 FF) and delivering BIG plays when needed.

The last major strength I want to call out is the back end of the defense, where the Irish have two very talented safeties. Shaun Crawford is a 6th-year man who’s overcome three different season-ending injuries in his Irish career and despite being 5’9” is an absolute stud (very fun fact: he’s been nicknamed the “Golden Mongoose”).

However, the bigger reason safety is a strength for the Irish is Crawford’s partner-in-crime at the position, sophomore Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton is an All-American-caliber player, and Irish fans already know he’ll be gone after next season and a likely 1st round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, considering his 6’4” frame, incredible length and closing speed, and knack for making big-time plays in defending both the run and the pass.

The rest of the ND defense is nothing to sneeze at, either — the defensive tackles are experienced and have plenty of depth, the other linebackers are a combo of fast and reliable tacklers, and the corners are somewhat unproven but so far have made needed plays and been mostly reliable in coverage. Combining all of that with guys like JOK, Hamilton, Hayes, Ogundeji, Foskey, and Crawford gives you a Clark Lea defense that flies to the ball, suffocates opposing running backs (allowing 2.8 ypc, 8th-best in the country), and rarely gets beat for big plays while making it difficult for opponents to keep the chains moving (#5 in 3rd down conversion defense at 25%).

BCI: Is it weird to be part of an actual conference? Do you think there’s any chance Notre Dame might one day actually join or is the school too … uppity to associate?

It’s incredibly weird — as fans we aren’t used to checking conference standings or thinking about a rematch prior to bowl season or anything like that. It’s also been a rough year to join the ACC — this conference stinks this year, with Clemson being the first real opponent ND faced, 7 games in.

In terms of whether ND would actually join the conference, it’s still a hard, unequivocal “NO.” Other fans can call it uppity if they want, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Any other school would KILL to have the influence and freedom and national reach that Notre Dame enjoys because of their independent football status — why would they throw that away to play 10 games a year against the Georgia Techs and Dukes and Pittsburghs and Syracuses of the college football world?

ND could have played Wisconsin (at Lambeau), USC, Stanford, and Arkansas this season — which is a great combination of traditional and fun/interesting opponents from various regions of the country — in addition to the November Clemson game. This full-ACC membership is so much less fun than that.

As long as the ACC serves as a home for Notre Dame’s other sports, the Irish have no reason to significantly hurt their power and brand and recruiting reach by moving football into a very regional conference.

BCI: Sadly, the Irish have won seven straight against the Eagles. Surprisingly, ND is only about a two touchdown favorite in this one. Will they make it eight in a row, and how do you think it plays out? What should we expect from the team this season and beyond?

I think the reasonable/common prediction here is to say that Notre Dame will likely have a let-down game this weekend after such a tough, emotional victory against Clemson, especially considering Boston College is one of the better teams in the ACC and they themselves were almost good enough to top Clemson two weeks ago.

But I simply don’t think that will be the case. This Irish team seems different in their demeanor/mindset, and I have a gut feeling they will come into this game, on the road against a team they know is pretty good and facing a QB who’s their former teammate, and they’ll keep putting the pedal to the metal and play with a serious attitude.

The BC defense is 53rd in the country in rushing defense and 58th in yards per attempt allowed (4.2), so I think Bellyman and Chris Tyree and maybe even C’Bo Flemister will have a nice day, while Ian Book will throw with renewed confidence against a BC defense selling out to stop the run, finding guys like Javon McKinley, Avery Davis, Ben Skowronek, and Michael Mayer for some nice chunk plays through the air.

Meanwhile, I think Phil Jurkovec will make a few nice throws to keep BC hanging around in the first half, but ultimately will take a lot of hits thanks to pressure from Ogundeji, Hayes, Foskey, and JOK, and he’ll throw a couple picks that end up swinging the momentum toward an Irish rout of the Eagles and an 8th win in a row in the series.

My prediction for the score is Notre Dame 37, Boston College 16, and I refuse to entertain the idea of this being remotely similar to 1993.

Finally, in terms of what to expect from this ND team this season (and beyond), I think they will take care of business down the regular-season stretch, although this game and the UNC match-up certainly scare me as a pessimistic Irish fan always expecting everything to fall apart. If they do so and finish 11-0, that means a December 19th rematch against Clemson with Trevor Lawrence playing, which means we will find out A LOT MORE about this team. Beating any team twice in a season is difficult, let alone when they get guys like Trevor Lawrence back for the second game.

If ND is competitive in that game but loses, I still think they find a way to sneak into the College Football Playoff as the 4 seed. If they get blown out, I believe they’ll end up beating a very-good-but-not-great team in a NY6 bowl, like Florida or Texas A&M or Cincinnati or BYU. And then, of course, if the Irish win that second match-up against Clemson, they’ll be given the #1 or #2 seed in the CFP and at that point I believe they will have a chance against whomever they play, whether it’s Alabama or Ohio State or whomever.

In this wacky and weird 2020 season/year, why the hell wouldn’t Notre Dame end up winning a conference and then a national title? Seems fitting as hell.

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Shouts to Pat for all the insights insights we could possibly ask for here. The visuals were an excellent touch as well. Be sure to check him out on Twitter dot com, and take a look at what they’re saying about us (as well as our end of the Q&A) over at One Foot Down.

I leave you this Q&A from days past: