And in That Corner … The Iowa State Cyclones in the Camping World Bowl

Iowa State
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Notre Dame fans may be disappointed in a bowl opponent that finished tied for fifth in the Big 12, but Iowa State is well-regarded by most standards and should provide every bit the competition other bowl opponents would have. There is reason SP+ ranks the Cyclones No. 23 in the country.

To discuss some of the disparity between perception and reality as it pertains to Iowa State, let’s welcome Dylan Montz of The Ames Tribune

DF: I always try to start with the micro before getting to a bigger picture, and in Iowa State’s case, that means discussing Brock Purdy. The sophomore quarterback is not necessarily recognized nationally as much as he should be. Even in eight starts as a freshman he was impressive (2,250 yards,16 touchdowns, 66.4 completion percentage), and he has built on that this year: 313.3 yards per game, 27 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 66.3 completion percentage.

While I’m aware of his production, including eight more rushing scores, I cannot say I watched all that much of the Cyclones during the season. What does Purdy do that makes him so successful, aside from protect the ball?

DM: There are a couple things Purdy does particularly well. He’s accurate and he doesn’t get rattled. The ability Purdy has to stay poised is harder to quantify than accuracy, per se, but he’s had the ability to not shrink in moments for the majority of his career. Matt Campbell has said that even at 19 years old, Purdy can probably shed bad plays better than some of the coaches.

Accuracy is obviously another key trait for a good quarterback, and Purdy has a lot of weapons that can help. Four of his pass-catchers have at least 600 receiving yards, which takes the pressure off his shoulders, and he has a dynamic running back in true freshman Breece Hall that make his running opportunities even more potent.

Purdy certainly spreads the ball around. With those four 600-yard receivers this season, Iowa State has as many as Notre Dame has produced across the last four years. Nonetheless, the Cyclones offense has been a bit hit-or-miss this season, failing to break 21 in three games, three of their five losses. What were those teams (Iowa, Baylor, Kansas State) able to do to so adeptly slow down Purdy & Co.?

The shortcomings Iowa State experienced often in early stages of the season, and in the last game of the regular season, was its inability to continue drives just outside the red zone. The Cyclones are the least penalized team in the Big 12, but key false starts or an offensive pass interference on one occasion against Baylor negated favorable down-and-distances, resulting in either punts on the plus side of the field or turnovers on downs.

A newfound running game has been able to help Iowa State stay in an offensive rhythm for large stretches of the second half of the season, but if the offensive line struggles at the point of attack in particular, Purdy and Co. become much easier to contain.

Brock Purdy
Iowa State sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy has established himself as one of the country’s best passers in just two seasons, not to mention he also has a penchant for finding the end zone with his legs. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

The strength of Iowa State’s defense comes on the ground, holding opponents to 3.84 yards per rush. The Irish won’t much care, though, hardly able to run the ball consistently at any point in the second half of the season. It is not fair to say the Cyclones’ are vulnerable to the pass, but they did rank only No. 69 in the country in passing efficiency defense. Where can Ian Book expect to find success against Iowa State’s secondary?

Where other teams have had success is attacking the space in the defense between the line and secondary. The linebackers aren’t a weak position, but the style of defense Iowa State runs leaves the middle of the field vulnerable. When the Cyclones bring the linebackers up to defend the run, it creates space behind them to get a quick pass off. If they do the drop-eight coverage look and rush just three, that same space is available.

The style of defense usually prevents big plays and makes offenses have to move down the field methodically, but if Book can be accurate, trust his protection and make correct reads, then it could be a good day for Notre Dame.

I suppose, for thoroughness’ sake, I should mention Notre Dame finished No. 5 in passing efficiency defense, setting up for a strength vs. strength scenario against Purdy.

Anyway, to the macro, I don’t know that anyone outright expected the Cyclones to win the Big 12 this season, but some did see them as a dark horse possibility. Instead, falling to 7-5 with four of the losses coming by 11 combined points has to feel like a missed opportunity, if not a downright disappointment. How have Matt Campbell and the rest of the program reacted to that kind of season?

The last loss, a 10-point setback at Kansas State, leaves the Wildcats with perhaps a more sour taste than any of the other ones. That might refocus them a bit coming into this game. Matt Campbell doesn’t react much different whether it’s after the upset of Oklahoma a couple years ago or the one-point loss to Iowa on a muffed punt in September. The players have followed suit.

There is plenty of what-ifs and disappointment that exists for the players and coaches — they’ve had a mirror season to Baylor in some ways except all the close games went the other way — but they all see the opportunity against Notre Dame as new life to the year and a chance to get a springboard into 2020.

With that in mind, some like to pitch the Camping World Bowl as “Iowa State’s Super Bowl,” even more so than the usual narrative bit for Notre Dame opponents. Is there any validity to that sentiment?

People have tried to frame this game that way, and there is certainly some truth to the excitement level for the players in playing a game against a team with the prestige of Notre Dame, but I don’t know if the players see it as more than what it is. It’s a bowl game against a good team with a lot of history. If Iowa State won, it would probably feel like validation to them of the team many thought they’d be entering the year.

RELATED READING: With perspective, Camping World Bowl a worthy destination for No. 15 Notre Dame

As of Christmas morning, the spread is 3.5. Rather than focus on that, let’s ask the question in the terms of the season — Did you join any confidence points bowl pools? If so, who did you pick in the Camping World Bowl, and how many confidence points (out of 40) did you put on that pick?

I’ve missed out on bowl confidence pools the last couple seasons as I’ve traveled, but I like Notre Dame in this one and would probably put it in my top-10. The Irish have an advantage on both lines of scrimmage, which will be huge in the style that both teams hope to play. That’s where Iowa State struggled mightily in its last game. 

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024


Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.