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Notre Dame Q&A with One Foot Down

We asked some questions of our Notre Dame-covering sister site ahead of this weekend’s matchup

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Post-bye week, our North Carolina Tar Heels will begin the tough part of their schedule with a ranked matchup on the road in primetime. UNC, sitting at 4-3, would dearly love a win both to establish the bona fides that have been lost this season and to put themselves back on track towards getting a good bowl game. To learn more about their opponent this week, I sent some questions to Patrick Sullivan, AKA Pat Rick, an editor at SB Nation’s Notre Dame site One Foot Down, and was rewarded with some really great, detailed answers. Thanks so much to Pat for his time, and here’s what we’re hearing from the other side about the Fighting Irish:

THB: A 6-1 record and #11 ranking in the country is nothing to sneeze at, but it does seem from afar like the Fighting Irish have played some inferior competition closer than they’d have liked - one-possession wins against FSU, VT, and Toledo. Is there any fear of this success being fools’ gold among Notre Dame fans?

PS: Absolutely not, and let me tell you why: because we already know it’s fool’s gold. If the Seminoles taking the Irish to overtime on opening weekend didn’t tip us off to how overrated ND’s preseason ranking was this season, the last-minute drive needed to beat Toledo at home said it all (and the struggles against Virginia Tech were icing on the cake). The Irish lost somewhat convincingly to the only currently-ranked team they’ve faced (Cincinnati) and have otherwise built up 6 wins on the backs of teams with a combined record in non-ND games of 21-16. There are a lot of paper tigers in college football this season (shout out Iowa and probably some or all of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, probably even Cincy), and unfortunately the Irish were one of them. Their rightful ranking is probably somewhere between where they are now and 15 — a good team, but definitely not elite or a playoff contender.

Hell, we as Irish fans knew before the season began that the team would be taking a step back this year after the run to the CFP in 2020. When you lose the winningest QB in program history, 4 of 5 offensive line starters, 2 of your top 3 receivers, an All-American linebacker, both starting defensive ends, half your starting secondary, and your defensive coordinator, you’re either going to be worse the following season, or you’re Alabama.

With that said, I don’t think Irish fans expected this team to have some of the struggles/weaknesses it has very clearly shown to have. For the first time in years, the offensive line is one of the weakest position groups on the team — various former blue-chippers and pre-season All-Americans have combined to collectively perform as potentially the worst offensive line of the Kelly era. The Irish are averaging 2.99 yards per carry (#122 out of 130 in the nation), which is the lowest mark of any of Brian Kelly’s 12 ND squads (the next-lowest being 4.0 in BK’s first season, 2010) — and it’s actually improved over the last couple games!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Furthermore, pass protection — though also improved significantly over the last couple games following a couple tweaks that were made to the starting lineup (Joe Alt at LT and Andrew Kristofic at LG) — has been abysmal, especially considering the starting QB, Jack Coan, has been doing his best statue impression all year. ND is also #122 in the country in sacks allowed per game (3.57), and they’re currently on pace for 46 total. To put that in perspective, Brian Kelly has never had an offensive line give up more than 30 sacks in a season, and you’d have to go back to the disastrous 2007 offensive line (the Charlie Weis team that went 3-9 and allowed 59 sacks) to find a larger total.

The frustrating part is the Irish have probably their best collective group of running backs in Brian Kelly’s time at the helm, and a QB accurate and experienced enough to thrive behind a really good offensive line who will give him time, but who CANNOT find consistent success when pressured. Regardless, this was never going to be a CFP-worthy Notre Dame team. At this point, we’re all just hoping they continue to take care of business against their less-than-scary schedule, finish 11-1 or 10-2, and find themselves in a NY6 bowl where they can maaaaaybe finally win one of those for the first time since the Lou Holtz years.

THB: The Notre Dame offense is only 96th in the country in Yards per Play and Kyren Williams isn’t having the same success on the ground that he did his first two years. What’s been the secret to putting together a respectable scoring offense regardless, and are ND fans happy with the offense so far this year? What can UNC fans look for as far as the offense’s strong points and weaknesses?

PS: The picture I painted of the offensive line in the question above was pretty bleak, yeah? So this is a great question, considering the Irish are indeed somehow still a top-50 scoring offense (just barely, but still) and have won 6 of 7 despite that offensive line. The big secret, quite honestly, is mainly on the other side of the ball.

When defensive coordinator Clark Lea left to take over the Vanderbilt program, Brian Kelly went out and snagged the hottest up-and-coming DC, Marcus Freeman, beating LSU out for his services. Lea’s defense the last three years was very much a bend-don’t-break scheme, and so when Freeman came in with his much more aggressive defensive philosophy, he certainly opened the Irish up to allowing more big plays (hence the FSU and Toledo drama), but the group is also forcing more turnovers than before. And that’s putting the offense in a great place more often than not — Notre Dame is 3rd in the country in % of points off turnovers at ~32%. Essentially 1/3 of the Irish’s scoring has been set up by the ND secondary picking off opponent passes (#5 in the country in INTs) and the ND pass rush forcing fumbles (#58 in the country in FF).

The secondary, and less important, secret here is that despite who’s manning the 2021 ND QB circus and despite how much the offensive line has resembled a sieve at times, the Irish are working with a much more elite group of skill position guys on offense than they typically trot out there. Michael Mayer is one of the best tight ends in the country, Kyren “Bellyman” Williams can do it all at RB, his backup Chris Tyree is a legitimate 4.3-forty guy, and the receiving corps is inconsistent but has multiple guys capable of either blowing by DBs or out-jumping/out-muscling them for big catches — if only the ball can get there.

Thus, looking at the above — the defense regularly setting up the offense for success and the skill guys having the firepower to get the job done — it’s no wonder that Irish fans are pretty unanimously unhappy with the offense this season. The QB carousel has been annoying at best, the offensive line has been bad and injury-plagued (ND’s current LT starter, Joe Alt, only got the opportunity because the first three guys got hurt), and it’s just been tough to watch.

I mostly laid it out above, but to sum it up, the offense’s strengths are the skill guys and getting them the ball in space — especially the short/intermediate passing game with Mayer, Bellyman, Tyree, and the receivers. Weakness-wise, of course it’s the offensive line and the ever-revolving cast of QBs trotted out behind them.

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

THB: The defense, on the other hand, has been stellar. Who are the players to watch on Saturday night? Also, who is going to replace Kyle Hamilton, and how much do you trust them?

PS: To answer the second question first, Hamilton will largely be replaced by D.J. Brown, although I imagine the Irish coaching staff will rotate in a few different DBs in various looks that don’t put tooooo much of the onus on Brown to try to do what Hamilton did. Because to be quite frank, I don’t completely trust Brown — he’s made a few nice plays recently (and has apparently had a better season than my untrained eyes picked up on, based on this thread), but no matter how well he plays, he’s not Kyle Hamilton. Kyle’s replacement is, by default, always going to be someone I have no confidence in, in comparison.

So, excluding Hamilton, the list of names to know on the Irish defense definitely starts with junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey. He’s tied for #2 in the country in sacks with 8 (only Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. has more at 8.5), #7 in the country in forced fumbles (3), and is #31 in tackles for loss. At 6’5”and 260 lbs, he’s an absolute beast coming off the edge.

Another key name to know is senior DT Jayson Ademilola. He’s the anchor in the middle of the defensive line for the Irish, with 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 QB hurries, 2 passes broken up, and a forced fumble. He may not jump off the stat sheet like Hamilton or Foskey, but he’s a critical component of Freeman’s unit — especially in stopping the run.

Others to note: junior LB J.D. Bertrand, who’s top-20 in the country in tackles per game and on pace for 120+ total; junior CB Cam Hart, who’s got 2 INTs and 4 passes broken up on the season; and 5th-year DE Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, a former DT at a new position this season who can be pretty disruptive in the pass rush — he’s got 7 QB hurries, 2 sacks, 1 pass break-up, and a forced fumble so far.

THB: It must be hard to replace Ian Book. How happy were you when Jack Coan was brought in rather than an underclassman taking the reins, and how has he done so far?

PS: My reaction to Coan’s commitment to grad-transfer to Notre Dame last winter was pretty much, “meh.” I was relatively happy that a proven veteran QB could come bridge the gap between Ian Book and the highly-rated young guys on the roster, but also knew that him losing his job to Graham Mertz meant he probably wouldn’t come to ND and light it up or be anything except a step down from Book in terms of play-making ability. However, I will admit I was pretty optimistic that he could make up for his lack of running threat by being much better at throwing the deep ball than Book — that has not really come to much fruition to-date, unfortunately.

In terms of how he’s done, it’s been an absolute roller coaster to say the least. He opened the year by putting up 366 yards and 4 touchdowns against Florida State at Doak Campbell, and then followed that up with a game-winning drive against Toledo that featured him running to the sideline to have his dislocated finger popped back into place so that he could then throw the game-winning pass to Michael Mayer. He was much less impressive in the Purdue game, though, and then got injured against Wisconsin, which led to Drew Pyne being called upon. Pyne was brilliant in relief, and despite the small sample size, many Irish fans had seen enough to think he gave the team a better chance to win than Coan, because Pyne had some elusiveness in the pocket and seemed just as adept a passer.

Unfortunately, the Cincy game rolled around and the brain trust of Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees went with Jack Coan as the starter and freshman Tyler Buchner as a change-of-pace guy (which had been pretty effective against Toledo before Buchner got hurt against Purdue). ND proceeded to score exactly 0 first half points on the Bearcats, and only showed signs of life/a comeback when Pyne was given the keys to the car for the second half. He brought the team back to within 4 points, but the Irish defense couldn’t stop the Bearcats offense down the stretch, and the game was soon put away for good.

Still, that seemed like all the additional evidence needed: Drew Pyne should be the starter going forward. Instead, Coan was again given the start against Virginia Tech, and the offense was MISERABLE in the three series he played in the first quarter. Buchner was inserted to try to spark things, and was good enough to be kept in until late in the 2nd half, when he threw multiple interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) that put the Irish behind. At that point, it was once again assumed Pyne would come in to try to save the day. Instead, the Irish went back to Coan, and all the guy did was orchestrate two beautiful scoring drives: a 7-play, 75-yard drive in 1:29 that netted 8 points to tie the game, and then a 7-play, 45-yard drive that led to Jonathan Doerer’s game-winning field goal with 17 seconds remaining.

Heading into the bye week, Irish fans were confused as hell. Jack Coan is apparently both not the answer and absolutely the answer, and not playing Drew Pyne was both incredibly stupid but also apparently smart, considering the outcome. Last week didn’t change that narrative much, either — Coan was good-not-great against a bad USC defense, as Bellyman mostly did the real work in driving that offense to victory. However, it needs to be noted that the new starting offensive line from the last two games has surrendered only 3 sacks, which is a pretty manageable amount for Jack Coan and has allowed him time to make more throws.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 USC at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Overall, I think a lot of us are just looking forward to 2022, when Tyler Buchner likely takes over as full-time starter and all this craziness is behind us. Or, maybe Pyne will become the guy — but either way, it will be a younger guy who can move around a bit and has a much higher and more exciting ceiling than Jack Coan, and thus should be able to better utilize the young skill talent that will still be available for the next couple years.

THB: Over the course of Ted Lasso’s second season, we see a staff come together with one member providing motivation (Ted), one member providing knowledge and game theory (Beard), one giving strategy (Nate), and one in charge of player connection and development (Roy Kent). If you could add one of them to Notre Dame’s sideline, not counting how much they know about American football, who do you choose and why?

This is an awesome, and very difficult, question.

At first thought, I’m leaning toward either Coach Beard or Roy Kent. Obviously Ted is a master motivator, but I don’t think these Irish players need any additional motivation to be great, and they seem to already have the Ted Lasso principles of having fun and being a family figured out.

Nate wouldn’t be the worst choice for this staff to have, as I’m sure he would draw up some much better plays at times. However, knowing the heel-turn he took in Season 2, I really don’t want his toxicity or negativity impacting this team day-to-day, nor do I look forward to him eventually taking the open USC job come December. So he’s out as well.

In the case of Coach Beard, I think his knowledge and game theory could come in handy on the offensive side of the ball for the Irish. I don’t think Tommy Rees has done a horrible job by any means, but I think there are some wholesale offensive philosophies/concepts/overarching principles Beard could help Tommy redevelop his offense around, which would have a lasting and sustainable impact for the team — much more so than some nicely drawn-up specific plays from Nate.

Roy Kent would be really nice to have, though, because he could take all this young talent under his wing and use his connection/development abilities to get them ready to play faster. Whether it’s always true or not, one big gripe about Brian Kelly’s program over the years has been talented young guys struggling to get on the field early in their careers, with less talented veterans often winning starting jobs instead. I think Roy Kent could partner with Marcus Freeman’s recruiting machine to take those blue-chippers and have them ready to contribute much sooner. Furthermore, I think Roy could work with some of those less-heralded, less-hyped, less-physically-gifted guys that fill out the roster and help them tap into something greater for whatever their role is, from just a reserve on offense/defense to being play-makers on special teams.

I’m going to go with Roy Kent — I think he could be awesome in terms of getting players ready to play and maximizing their potential sooner/more often, and damnit if he wouldn’t be an amazingly funny personality to add to the locker room, press conferences, in-home recruiting visits, etc. (editor’s note: NSFW/R-rated video below, but it’s too perfect not to embed)

THB: Notre Dame football got to join the ACC on a one-year deal last year, and it ended with a CFP appearance. Are you any less resistant to the program joining the conference on a full-time basis? Why or why not? (I had to ask)

PS: I’m sorry to report to all the “ND SHOULD JOIN A CONFERENCE” folks that I and my fellow Fighting Irish are no less resistant to joining a conference than we were prior to 2020.

It was a fun/weird one-year excursion into conference play, and of course we’ll always look fondly on the one year ND spent in the ACC because of that CFP appearance, but there’s still just no really good reason why the Irish should join a conference.

They made the CFP in 2018 as an independent, so clearly conference membership isn’t needed to get a bid, and there are so many other benefits to being independent (building typically tougher schedules/freedom of scheduling in general, being a national brand that can recruit nationally and gets to play all over the country, not being beholden to a conference’s decisions/rules/leadership, etc.). The Irish enjoy a unique, enviable position of holding a ton of power and sway in the college football landscape without being a member of any conference — until any of that changes, would you really expect the Irish to WANT to give all that up and become just another ACC school?

Circumstances could certainly change with all the conference realignment going on now and soon to come over the next few years, but until something forces ND’s hand, there’s certainly no desire to change what they’ve got going on right now. They’ve got a super sweet deal.

THB: Okay, cards down: Who wins, and what’s the score? For a bonus, give me one thing that definitely will happen and one that definitely won’t.

Notre Dame wins a hard-fought game that’s close for most of it. I think Sam Howell and Josh Downs will do some damage on Saturday night, especially with Kyle Hamilton out — they will exploit ND’s safeties at least once or twice for big plays. However, I think the Irish defense will ultimately prove to be the best group on the field between the two teams, and the Irish offense will be able to run the ball a bit, meaning Bellyman will get to wear the Tar Heels defense down and ultimately deliver the final blow with a touchdown late in the 4th that gives Notre Dame a two-score lead that ends up being the final margin.

Irish win 34-24.

Bonus:

  • One Thing That Will Definitely Happen: Isaiah Foskey will get at least one sack — Wisconsin is the only team who’s kept him off the board this season.
  • One Thing That Definitely Won’t Happen: Notre Dame keeping Josh Downs out of the end zone — they managed to do this with Drake London last week, but a full week of planning for no Kyle Hamilton means the Tar Heels are gonna find a way to get their go-to guy to pay-dirt, I reckon.

Thanks so much to Pat for his detailed and in-depth answers! Follow him @Psully226 on Twitter and @OneFootDown for Notre Dame coverage in general, and you can see my answers to his and Notre Dame fans’ questions on their site here, featuring Squid Game, the Monster Mash, and a mini-interview with the family of center Brian Anderson, a brother of whom was roommates with Pat at Notre Dame.