The Q&A this week chats with Patrick Sullivan of SBN’s Fighting Irish site, One Foot Down, Below, you can read about the Irish’s mixed feelings about Brian Kelly, their struggling passing game, and of course Rudy being offsides. You can head over to their site, and read my end of the Q&A here.
1. So we’re like 20ish years (or so) into the Brian Kelly tenure in South Bend. How’s everyone feeling about him? Is he underachieving or over-achieving? Winning just enough to keep himself not on the hotseat?
My response to this is gonna be long and rambling, so hold onto your butts.
The answer to this question would definitely vary depending on whom you ask — there are two main factions of ND fans who are very different when it comes to how they feel about Brian Kelly, as he’s a fairly polarizing guy:
1. A small, grumpy, older contingent of fans who hate Brian Kelly and have wanted him gone for years. They occasionally make good points (i.e. that Brian Kelly’s teams have been very bad against the best of the best in college football), but overall come across as just unhappy with everything, seemingly unable to enjoy watching their favorite team win 28 of their last 31 games, and instead bashing Kelly for ruining ND traditions, refusing to run the ball, being a “lazy recruiter,” etc.
2. A much larger and younger group that has found peace with ND’s current spot as a Top 10-15 program who really can’t compete with the behemoths in the sport, instead just beating most/all of the lesser and equal teams on the schedule and winning okay bowls against okay opponents. This group points to Kelly’s three straight seasons of 10+ wins and his 38-6 record since that disastrous 4-8 2016 season, plus all of his guys making waves in the NFL, as reasons the program is in a very strong position right now. They would argue we can’t do better than Kelly and thus shouldn’t be looking to replace him.
Personally, I fall somewhere in between these two groups, because I’m a cranky 29-year-old who enjoys ND being good but also wants them to be great. I partially understand the cantankerous hot takes of Group #1 — the goal for Notre Dame football has always been to compete for and win a national championship, and Brian Kelly’s program has been completely out-classed the two seasons they’ve made it to the postseason with an opportunity to compete for a title (2012 BCS Championship, 2018 CFP).
Plus, that’s not to mention the various near-wins — which are still losses, folks — that his squad has had in the regular season against top teams over the years (2014 FSU, 2015 Clemson and Stanford, 2017 and 2019 Georgia), as well as the occasional shitting-the-bed moments against good-not-great teams (2017 Miami and Stanford, 2019 Michigan). He just hasn’t been able to get over the hump and win many big ones. Plus, as much as I enjoyed the victories in the Citrus, Camping World, Music City, Pinstripe, and Sun Bowls in his tenure, it sure would be nice if he won a NY6 game or better at some point, right?
With that said, the last three seasons have been a ton of fun, and have included some incredibly fun wins over good teams — 2017 MSU and USC and NC State, 2018 Michigan, etc. — and of course an undefeated 2018 regular season that was wholly unexpected but absolutely delightful to follow. I’ve had more positive memories than negative over the past 3 years, and that’s a nice change of pace with this program — that’s nothing to sneeze at after the Irish coaches we had for 10-15 years prior.
Do I think Brian Kelly will ever be able to reach the mountaintop and win the Irish their first title since 1988? Absolutely not. But I do think he’s a good coach, he’s helped clean up the mess made by Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham/Charlie Weis, and his recent success has bought him at least a few more years, wherein Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick will hopefully be working out a succession plan for the next head coach. Whether that next-guy-in ends up being an external candidate or Clark Lea or Tommy Freakin’ Rees, Swarbrick needs to bring in someone capable of taking the final step up from what Kelly built, taking this program back to the top. Moving forward, the Irish can and should strive to do even better.
2. Ian Book seems to be serviceable but not elite at QB. If the game is on the line and he needs a 2 minute, 80 yard drive to win, would you want the ball in his hands? What does he need to improve on to reach the next level at the position? His stat line is good, but not great, and that’s with an easier ACC schedule than he would’ve faced otherwise. Is this a fair reading of him?
That’s an extremely fair READING on BOOK — if I didn’t know better, I’d assume you had been following along with each CHAPTER of his career to-date, considering your knowledge of the TEXT, so to speak.
Sorry, I love making book puns and could do this all day. Anyway, Ian Book is a good QB, a strong and savvy leader, and an above-average athlete who can DEVASTATE defenses with his legs if they’re not ready for him. He has limitations of course, including accuracy issues at times (especially throwing downfield), plus a tendency to desert the pocket too early and a lack of decisiveness at times, which leads to him throwing balls to open receivers later than he would ideally do so, missing windows and occasionally leading to turnovers.
But overall, I’d definitely, happily take Ian Book as my QB for a 2-minute, 80-yard drive to win a football game. He’s shown in past games he can lead that kind of pressure-filled drive, and his creativity and scrambling ability would be CRUCIAL to making something happen when things inevitably break down or don’t go as planned. I trust him with that scenario, even if he has some major limitations and probably doesn’t have much of an NFL future because of them. He has the experience and leadership to instill confidence in Irish players and coaches and fans alike that he can lead the team to the win.
3. What happened against Louisville? Tech is bad, but even we looked better than the Irish against the Toothy Birds. Was that a fluke game or signs that ND isn’t deserving of their Top 5 ranking?
First, I want to note that the Irish defense held the Cardinals to a measly 7 points, which feels significant and indicative of a very good defense, considering they’ve averaged ~33 ppg in all their other games. That, plus the fact that the ND offense has averaged 42 ppg in its other games, including putting up 45 last weekend on Pitt’s defense (currently #20 in SP+), and I think a 12-7 win over Louisville’s not-good defense seems flukier than not, especially when considering Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees were trying — and ultimately failing — to establish some semblance of a passing game against the Cardinals, and that’s the main reason it was so ugly.
Even with improvements this past weekend in that arena, though, the Irish are one-dimensional as hell offensively and the passing game is truly an alarming thing to think about in a game where it will truly be needed. Clemson’s defense will be sliiiightly more talented than anything the Irish have seen so far, and being so reliant on the running game could be disastrous against other opponents too, as we almost saw with Louisville.
So, I do think that game serves as a sort of microcosm that displayed, along with the Irish’s struggles against Duke in the opener and against FSU for a while in that game, that the Irish are not truly a top-5 team (although their defense is worthy of a top-5 program, I think). Overall, Notre Dame has plenty of talent and veteran leadership and is worthy of a spot in the Top 10, but we all know they won’t be competing for a title this year assuming the Clemsons and Alabamas and Ohio States of the world maintain their health down the stretch. That has become clear in games like the Louisville one.
4. Georgia Tech has several excellent skill players, especially at the WR positions. Who on the Irish defense will be tasked with preventing big plays from speedy Ahmarean Brown and Malachi Carter?
The first names to know there are definitely the two starters at corner, TaRiq Bracy and Nick McCloud, plus true freshman Clarence Lewis, who’s seen plenty of playing time in the rotation and in filling in when Bracy couldn’t play against South Florida and Pittsburgh. All three are solid cover guys with the ability to break up passes (McCloud leads the team with 4 PBU and Bracy and Lewis have 3 apiece), but the guy Irish fans probably trust most in that trio is Bracy, a junior who worked his way into a starting role by the end of last season and who’s 4th on the team in tackles (18) despite missing 40% of the games in 2020.
Besides the corners, you might see the Irish safeties occasionally having to handle those speedy guys (especially if they try to go deep), meaning Brown and Carter will be trying their luck against the fantastic tandem of sophomore Kyle Hamilton and the ageless wonder, 6th-year man Shaun “Golden Mongoose” Crawford. Crawford has overcome three season-ending injuries in his long Irish career, and despite his smaller stature, is one helluva playmaker. More fearsome, though, is Hamilton, a 6’4” freak athlete with the length, athleticism, closing speed, and ball skills to be a nightmare match-up for any and all receivers, big and small, powerful and quick. I would bet money that dude will be an All-American before he’s inevitably drafted in the first couple rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Finally, depending on the scenario, you may even see LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah matching up with those guys on short or medium-length routes, and although he’s a linebacker, he will certainly be able to hold his own out there...he’s a freak:
5. Rudy was offsides. Go Jackets.
He was also 5-foot-nothin’, a-hundred-and-nothin’, and offsides or not, it’s absolutely pathetic that Georgia Tech’s scholarship offensive linemen couldn’t keep him out of the backfield.
Of course, I can’t blame them when they had this bad boy comin’ at ‘em — what a legend.
6. Has a partial ACC schedule over the last few years moved any teams up in the Irish rivalry rankings? Like do you hate or enjoy beating teams more now that you didn’t before? And relatedly, who’s the worst fanbase to deal with in the ACC? And yes, there is a correct answer here haha.
Honestly, my answer to your first two questions is “probably not.”
Playing just 5 ACC teams a year usually means that the Irish aren’t matching up with many repeats year-over-year, and I think rivalries really only form when you have repeated close, heated games with another team. Without that consistent opportunity for hatred to grow with any one team, and considering we’re still fairly early in this ACC partnership, I wouldn’t say any one team has emerged for that kind of list. If you ask ND fans about rivals, the same names will pop up: USC, Michigan, Stanford — perhaps Navy and Michigan State for historical reasons — but unless we’re talking about the Miami/ND rivalry from the Holtz years or laughing off the suggestion that BC is ND’s rival, I don’t think about any of the ACC teams that way.
It hasn’t helped that besides Clemson, there haven’t been many consistently strong teams in the ACC over the past ~6 years. FSU was great in the beginning of this ND/ACC partnership but fell off recently, and others have been up and down (Miami, Virginia Tech, Louisville, etc.), so there really isn’t anyone else that even inspires additional joy when ND beats them (at least, no more than any other opponent).
In terms of worse ACC fan base, this is hard once again for the above reasons — the Irish play 5 ACC teams per year, not all of them at home (which is normally when I might have some actual interaction with opposing fans, if I’m attending a game in-person), and thus I don’t even know if I’ve experienced all the fan bases and the worst they have to offer. Maybe Florida State qualifies for this, especially when they were good (but they’ve been humbled recently)?
I’d love to know who the correct answer is here, because there’s nothing I love more than having a team/fan base to irrationally hate — definitely missing that this year with no USC on ND’s schedule, and very much on board to hate whomever you guys tell me to in the ACC.
(Editor’s Note: The correct answer is, of course, Miami. The ‘Canes are universally the worst. They will learn.)
7. Is there any path to Georgia Tech pulling a massive upset? And if so, what cards would have to drop for that to happen?
I think there definitely is — Louisville already proved that you don’t necessarily have to be a top-10 team to push this Irish squad to the limit. If the Yellow Jackets can contain the Irish running game on defense and control the clock with some nice, sustained drives on offense, they could force the Irish to pass a bit to make moves, and God knows that ND passing game might or might not be up to the task.
If GT can do the above, make a few big, momentum-swinging plays, and win the turnover battle, they absolutely have a shot. The Irish are good, but they’re no Clemson — there’s no 73-7 score coming our way.
8. And finally, how do you see the game actually going? Who wins and how?
I think Jeff Sims is easily the second-best QB the Irish have seen this year, with only Malik Cunningham maaaaybe being better than him. His dynamic abilities will cause a few issues for the Irish defense early, and the ND offense won’t do enough in the first half to pull away. However, I think Clark Lea makes some great adjustments at the half to lock down Sims and co., and the Irish offensive line wears down the Yellow Jackets defensive front, allowing Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and Chris Tyree to rattle off some nice runs and ultimately put the nail in the coffin midway through the 2nd half.
I’ll go with ND 37, Georgia Tech 17 as the final score.
Thanks to Patrick for taking his time to answer these questions. This checks in as the longest Q&A I’ve ever put together on this site, so either I’ve asked the hard-hitting questions or Notre Dame football has just given Patrick a lot to speak on in 2020.
Remember to go say hello over at One Foot Down.
Kickoff is at 3:30 on Saturday. Go Jackets!