To you, it may simply be another game fitting with Marshall-Central Florida, Eastern Michigan-Pittsburgh and Temple-North Carolina, aside from being another chance to watch Notre Dame before the long, quiet offseason, but the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State tomorrow (12 ET; ABC) is much more than that to the Irish, not to mention the millions of eyes that will seek an appetizer to the College Football Playoff.
It is a chance to hand one more win to the senior class that led the way out of 2016’s disaster, capping their careers on a positive note. It is a chance to top a quality opponent, ranking No. 23 in SP+ rankings, with its strength a direct counter to Notre Dame’s strength. And it is a chance to inform the future, whether or not the Irish go outside their current coaching ranks for the next offensive coordinator.
Not enough credit is necessarily given to the current senior class. While Brian Kelly reshuffling nearly his entire coaching staff understandably got the headlines in reviving the program from 2016’s debacle, this senior class provided the needed buy-in that has led to a 32-6 record in the three years since.
“Anytime you have a group of seniors that have stuck together, listened to the message and come back the next year and doubled down again on our process and stuck with it and brought others with them,” Kelly said Friday. “That’s really the key ingredient here, they have brought others with them to the point now that the program is in a position where they have taught others in the program how to do things the right way on a consistent basis.”
Much like Senior Day festivities to end November, the bowl game celebration is only worth remembering with a win, and much of the Irish roster will use the thought of getting that for the seniors as a primary motivation in Orlando.
To get the win, they will need to contain Cyclones sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy. Purdy ranks No. 4 in the country in passing yards per game with 313.3 and No. 20 in passer rating. To give that latter figure context, Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book ranks No. 31.
“[Purdy] has great escapability, sense in the pocket; he feels things,” Kelly said Tuesday. “You’ve seen it many times throughout the year, he can feel a rusher even if he doesn’t see him. Can’t really teach those things — quick feet, elusive and can throw the ball on the run. Sometimes as you develop as a quarterback, when you’re not 6-foot-5, you have to be able to do some of these other things.”
Purdy does them better than any other passer the Irish faced this season, with only USC freshman Kedon Slovis putting together a better stat line, largely thanks to how well he closed the season after facing Notre Dame in only his third genuine start. Purdy accounted for 35 touchdowns (27 passing, 8 rushing) with just 12 turnovers (9 interceptions, 3 fumbles lost). If nothing else, he represents a barometer for three challenges the Irish defense will face next season.
While Notre Dame will lose sturdy defensive end Khalid Kareem, fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal and the majority of its defensive backfield, it will still return up to eight defensive starters, not to mention burgeoning star safety Kyle Hamilton. With defensive coordinator Clark Lea still molding the gameplans, after finishing as the runner-up in Boston College’s coaching search, Notre Dame’s defense will look much the same in 2020, notable considering it finished 2019 as the No. 5 passing efficiency defense in the country.
How that holds up against a threat like Purdy could shed light on how it handles Slovis in his second season, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence next fall.
Keeping in mind the future, much of Saturday’s takeaways will tie to the Irish offense, and more specifically, its coaching staff. Quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees will call Notre Dame’s plays, Kelly said Thursday, confirming what has seemed inevitable since offensive coordinator Chip Long’s firing earlier in the month.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that Tom is going to call the plays,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that there’s any secrets out there.
“There’ll be collaboration as there has been. Tom will be in the box, he’ll send the plays through me and not that I’m going to be micromanaging what he’s doing, but we’ve done a really good job of collaborating all week and, obviously, before we came down here in terms of what we want to accomplish.”
No one game should overly influence Kelly’s decision in finding Long’s successor, but the Camping World Bowl will represent the conclusion to an extended audition for Rees. The Irish have used a period of each of their 10 bowl preparation practices to let Rees call plays without a script. Along with the oft-referenced collaboration with running backs coach Lance Taylor and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, those play-calling sessions have given an idea of how Rees would approach the gig many expect him to officially get next month.
Of course, calling plays in practice is distinctly different than calling them when facing a frustrating 3-5-3 defensive look.
“There’s going to be a first time for everything,” Kelly said. “… [Rees] has a great background leading up to this. He’s been in this arena before. He grew up in this arena of college football, and he’ll be well-supported during the game.
“In the box, he’ll be able to see the field and then I’ll help him strategically. That’s really the only thing, to make sure that strategically we’re doing the things that we need to. But dialing up plays, we’ve got plenty of plays. We’ve gotta go execute them.”
Executing them has been a struggle for Notre Dame at times this week in central Florida, with Kelly openly criticizing the practice efforts early in the week — some of which may have been directly related to a night without curfew when the Irish first arrived in Florida, an understandable reward for college students at the end of a long season. And executing those plays will not be made easier by Iowa State’s unique and flexible defense.
“It has some complexities to handle the Big 12,” Kelly said. “One week, you’re in five-wides, the next week you have to play Kansas State. They have to morph into different looks.”
Those looks do not often include multiple tight ends, something Long very much enjoyed utilizing with Notre Dame’s depth at the position. There is no reason to think Rees will deviate from such an approach.
“Not to take anything away from [the Cyclones], but they don’t see a lot of two tight ends,” Kelly said. “They don’t see a lot of multiple tight end sets. Kansas State was the one team that showed a lot of two-tight end sets against them. You’ve got to be able to pick and choose in terms of what you want to do against a structured defense that causes you some concerns.”
Even Kansas State hardly used its tight ends in an aerial capacity, completing five total passes in its 27-17 victory to end the regular season. The Irish should be able to showcase junior Cole Kmet in what may be his last collegiate game, as well as sophomore Tommy Tremble.
Asked Cole Kmet about his NFL Draft feedback from the advisory committee. Said he received a second round grade and he’ll make a final decision on his senior football season after the bowl game.
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) December 26, 2019
The tight end duo could represent a safety blanket not only for Book, but also for Rees this weekend.
“Don’t be afraid to come back and repeat,” Kelly said he has advised the first-time play-caller. “Sometimes we want to touch all the toys and play with all the toys. There’s nothing wrong with repeating and going into the things that are successful. Make people stop you.”
If Iowa State cannot stop Notre Dame, the subsequent victory will be deserved by the seniors and bode well for Rees, though one afternoon will not be the sole factor considered in a hire as important as offensive coordinator.
“The most important thing is to add to a talented offensive staff and rise everybody,” Kelly said Thursday. “That will be job one, and then job two will be continue to recruit. We’ve got an outstanding class that we’re building on.”