The Q&A comes at you hot and heavy this week with an interview of Patrick Sullivan of the fine ND website, One Foot Down. I don’t know if we here at FTRS just ask the heavy-hitting questions, or if Pat just had somethings he needed to speak on like a baptist preacher ahead of the church picnic, but we sincerely thank him for his time, effort and candor for this interview. So keep reading for his thoughts on making the playoff, the Irish’s ceiling under Brian Kelly, and he even included an entire dadgum travel guide for you degenerates going to watch this Tech team in South Bend this weekend. Give him a follow here on twitter, and be sure to thank him for his time.
1. The Irish have a sparkling record except for the loss to Cincy. What did Cincy do well / take advantage of in that game to hand a talented Irish team their only loss on the year?
I’d say the biggest things they did were bottling up the Notre Dame offense (limiting big plays and playing some solid bend-don’t-break defense) and winning the turnover battle (3-1), capitalizing on opportunities Notre Dame helped give them to stymie any momentum the Irish had built up.
The Bearcats defense did a good job getting some pressure on the ND QBs, pushing starter Jack Coan and change-of-pace running threat Tyler Buchner to both throw interceptions at the end of otherwise long and successful drives in the first half. UC finished the day with 2 sacks and 4 QB hurries as a team, taking advantage of an Irish offensive line that was still not yet settled after multiple injuries at left tackle (and some not-great performances from the other offensive line positions). Coan and Buchner were never able to get too comfortable back there, which really hamstrung an already pretty one-dimensional pass-first offense.
The Bearcats also did a great job of bullying that iffy offensive line in order to corral Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and the rest of the Irish rushing attack — they weren’t going to let ND’s weakness have an uncharacteristically good day. The Irish ran for just 84 yards in total — 3.0 yards per carry — and thus stud playmakers like Bellyman and backup running back Chris Tyree were heavily neutralized, just as they had been for most of the first few games of the season. It didn’t help, either, when Tyree muffed a kickoff that put the Bearcats in position for a field goal immediately after scoring their first touchdown of the game. Not Tyree’s most sparkling day on the field, for sure.
On the other side of the ball, the ND defense wasn’t horrible, but Desmond Ridder played a very efficient game and made enough big throws to keep the chains moving down the stretch and to keep the Irish from ever completely catching up, which they almost did once Drew Pyne was inserted at QB for ND in the second half. A QB who can string together a lot of methodical drives through the air, while having some mobility to use in case the ND pass rush shows up, is certainly capable of doing what Ridder did to the Irish.
2. With a shot at the playoff presumably still on the line, I’m expecting Notre Dame to make a statement in a beatdown over a flailing Yellow Jacket team on Saturday. I don’t see a world in which Tech wins this game, so in order for the Irish to make a statement, who on each side of the ball are you needing to have a big game?
It’s funny that I agree with you, because the past couple weeks’ worth of Q&As have asked me about the CFP and I’ve told anyone and everyone that not only did this ND team not deserve to make a CFP, but I didn’t foresee a situation where it was even possible for them to sneak into the Top 4. But each weekend, we keep seeing results that slowly but surely help push the Irish back into potential consideration. They might end up being one of the worst CFP teams ever, but there’s a very real possibility they end up in the CFP nonetheless.
In order to make a statement and properly blow out Georgia Tech, I think the offense will need Bellyman to have a huge day on the ground. If the Irish can run more or less at-will on this Yellow Jacket defense, then ND can feed their best playmaker and let him just run wild. Also, assuming he ends up entering the draft in the spring, this is probably Bellyman’s final home game — which means he could have a really fun send-off game, potentially.
I also think on top of that, Jack Coan will need to have a big day. He not only needs to be his usual calm, collected, efficient game manager-self — tossing passes for 5-15 yards to guys like TE Michael Mayer — but he also needs to finally connect on a couple deep balls to guys like Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, and Lorenzo Styles Jr. That would go a long way toward breaking this thing wide open, making a statement, and creating the 2nd half scenario where Bellyman, Tyree, and Logan Diggs can just run roughshod over the GT defense for a couple hundred yards.
Defensively, I think DE Isaiah Foskey needs to have a big day — he’s currently 13th in the country in total sacks (9) and tied for 13th in forced fumbles (3), so it would really behoove the Irish’s statement-making chances if he could pick up at least a couple more sacks and maybe force a turnover. Additionally, with all-world safety Kyle Hamilton once again out with an injury, I’ve gotta look to someone else in the secondary to make some big plays on any errant Jeff Sims passes. Although I could go with someone like D.J. Brown who’s done a solid job filling in for Hamilton and has 3 picks on the year, I’m going to instead say CB Cam Hart here. He’s due for another big game like he had against Wisconsin, and considering he’s a converted WR, he’s capable of taking an INT back for 6 or at least setting up another score with a nice return.
If those 4 guys have big games, I think the Irish will have finally made a really nice statement — which is good, because besides low-scoring blowouts of Navy and UVA recently and the wild end result against Wisconsin that all came from a wild 4th quarter, this Notre Dame team really hasn’t just absolutely destroyed anyone yet this season. Maybe this is the day????
3. The Irish under Brian Kelly have been the model of stability for as long as I can remember. However, they’ve come up just short of titles multiple times. What’s the ceiling for this and future teams under him? Does he have what it takes to win a natty one year? The Irish are seemingly in this zone under him where they’re good enough to beat up on everyone but the top 2-3 teams each year, which the rest of the sport would kill for. What’s stopping them from taking the final step?
I think you summed that all up perfectly — that’s precisely my opinion of Brian Kelly and this Notre Dame program with him at the helm. He’s done a fantastic job rebuilding ND back into a force to be reckoned with after the dumpster-fire days of Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis, but I also think it’s pretty evident here in Year 12 of the BK era that his teams will never be able to measure up to the current juggernauts of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson (this year notwithstanding), and potentially Georgia, if this year marks when they finally get over the hump and win with all that talent they’ve got.
To me, we’ve reached the pinnacle of a Brian Kelly-coached program: beating all the teams he’s supposed to beat, occasionally playing close against top-10 teams in the regular season, making multiple College Football Playoff appearances, and being completely out-classed and out-coached in those appearances. As you said, for the VAST majority of programs, that’s an extremely enviable position to be in. I mean the guy has gone 52-9 over the last five seasons while earning multiple CFP bids (something only Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma can also claim).
And yet...and this is going to sound super arrogant/uppity, but it’s true...this is NOTRE DAME, and none of the above should be the pinnacle. Considering this program’s history and tradition of being a college football power, the above should be the norm/slightly-above-the-norm, with the pinnacle being an occasional team that puts it all together and wins the whole damn thing (or at least is competitive when they get there). And yes, I realize the Irish haven’t been a true power for roughly 30 years, but it’s hard to look at what ND used to do in this sport and then look at losing by 17-30 points in every big postseason game since then and come to the conclusion that Brian Kelly is maximizing the program’s success. He isn’t, no matter how much better he is than his predecessors.
With all that said, I’m still nowhere close to being in the faction of old, bitter ND fans who want Brian Kelly fired. The last 5 years have been fun as hell, the Irish are recruiting better than they have in at least ~8 years, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea to fire the winningest coach in the school’s history during the best run of his career. I’d prefer the Irish ride out the next few years with him, see what he’s capable of changing/improving and see how he does with some higher-end talent, and then hopefully we’ll get to a point where he’s either figured it out (doubtful, but who knows?) or the guy who’s capable of taking them to the next level is ready to take on the job (Luke Fickell? Marcus Freeman? Clark Lea? Peyton Manning???).
4. Coan has put up an impressive stat line at QB, and that’s against a difficult schedule with some good defenses. However, he’s taken 26 sacks in 10 games. Is that on the offensive line? Or is he holding on to the ball too long?
As I mentioned above, the ND offensive line was HORRENDOUS in the first ~6 games of the season. Like, easily the worst of the Brian Kelly era, and on pace to rival the 2007, 3-9 Irish offensive line. Woof.
Notre Dame had gone through their first three options at left tackle, who’d all gotten hurt/underperformed, and the rest of the line wasn’t much better — LG Zeke Correll was showing why he should be at center instead of guard. C Jarrett Patterson didn’t look like an All-American without the 4 Irish OL who left for the NFL after 2020. RG Cain Madden looked like a guy whose All-American status was much more influenced by his competition at Marshall than his actual abilities. And RT Josh Lugg looked like a guy with back issues who just wasn’t cut out to be a starter.
Needless to say, that group was a SIEVE. Which leads us to Jack Coan holding onto the ball for too long, which is a major problem when you’re not a quick-footed QB and have defensive linemen and linebackers in your face on nearly every passing down. Coan was at a point where he was occasionally stepping up into sacks or falling down and sacking himself, which made Irish coaches really try to get freshman Tyler Buchner into the game often, and also got sophomore Drew Pyne some PT, because at least he could evade the rush a bit and still throw competently.
Recently, though, things have gotten better. Part of that is probably just the schedule softening up a bit:
- Current SP+ Defensive Rankings of First 6 Opponents: #2, #11, #25, #33, #37, #51
- Current SP+ Defensive Rankings of Last 6 Opponents: #78, #81, #83, #84, #87, #102
But even so, the offensive line has finally solidified a bit with true freshman Joe Alt emerging at LT and Andrew Kristofic seizing the LG spot. Those two have combined with Patterson, Madden, and Lugg to finally start blocking pretty well, which has allowed Coan to do his thing in the pocket and allowed the running game to finally make some noise (which only helps keep the heat off of Coan, too).
Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees has implemented a bit more tempo with this group as well, keeping the defense from getting too comfortable and pinning their ears back to come after the QB. Last game against Virginia, the Irish allowed 0 sacks and rushed for 249 yards — so that was a really encouraging sign that they’ve figured some things out. Here’s to hoping that continues in these last few games and gives this group a nice base and momentum heading into 2022.
5. As a team who sees the flexbone annually in your game against Navy, do you think more teams outside of the service academies would be better served running that offense across college football? Or is it a dinosaur that needed to die permanently at the P5 level with Paul Johnson’s retirement?
I sure can say that I WISH it would die permanently at the FBS level entirely — watching the triple option is a mind-numbing affair that I would only wish upon USC or Michigan fans. But I obviously understand why the service academies run it, as it flattens the playing field a bit and allows them to hang with bigger, faster, more talented opponents.
With that said, I don’t think any P5 teams should ever use it unless it’s super situational as a special package. I don’t think you can truly compete for a title running that kind of offense anymore, especially when you start facing these Alabama and Ohio State offenses that can put up 40-50 points while also throwing lots of athleticism and speed at you on defense to shut down the run. The flexbone just isn’t designed to win that type of game.
It’s time for that dinosaur to officially meet its extinction, at the very least at the P5 level. Eat your heart out, Paul Johnson.
(Editor’s note: feel free to tell him he’s wrong in the comments or on twitter... I know y’all got nothing better to do.)
6. For those of us making the trek to South Bend this weekend, can you give us some guidance on local places to eat and drink before / after the game?
As someone who usually spends most of his time back for football games directly on campus and mostly just consuming Hamm’s Premium and tailgate food, I’ll do my best to help with this — but also encourage any Irish fans who’ve trekked over here to read this Q&A to sound off in the comments with any additional, better suggestions they have. This recent South Bend Tribune article may be helpful, too.
My personal recommendations for ND/South Bend:
- The Linebacker (shitty, wonderful dive bar with a fantastic playlist - it doesn’t look like much, but it’s my favorite bar on earth...make sure not to wear nice shoes here, though)
- Corby’s (nice little bar about a mile from campus)
- Finny’s (downtown, solid music/dancing/drinking-in-a-big-room kind of place)
- Cheers (another shitty dive right off 933 near the toll road, sometimes has live music)
- Expensive Places I’ve Never Personally Been To But Have Heard Are Good: LaSalle Grille, Corndance Tavern, Cafe Navarre
- Good Breweries with Really Good Food: Evil Czech (just went here two weeks ago — v. good beers and food), Crooked Ewe (can confirm good beer, have not tried food but it’s supposedly good)
- Irish Pubs: Fiddler’s Hearth (usually has live music), O’Rourke’s (less unique/cool than Fiddler’s, but right across from campus in Eddy Street Commons so it’s convenient)
- Pizza: Bruno’s/Rocco’s/Barnaby’s (all solid local pizza places)
- Burgers: BRU Burger Bar (in Eddy Street Commons), CJ’s (apparently has good burgers, but please note this is a bar frequented by underclassmen at night)
- Breakfast: Jeannie’s House Diner (tiny and casual, delicious), Yellow Cat Cafe
- Late Night/Diner: Nick’s Patio (beware: never been here sober)
- Sports Bar: Between the Buns (pretty typical sports bar, used to go here for trivia), Brother’s (Eddy Street Commons)
- Chinese: JW Chen’s (the owner typically comes around to the tables and suggests things to order)
- Thai: Cambodian Thai (I honestly don’t know if it’s still open, but it’s pretty darn good Thai food)
- Mexican: Hacienda (typical but solid Mexican restaurant), Salsa’s (where students go for cheap margs/food)
- NOTE — Eddy Street Commons, as mentioned above, has a bunch of quick/casual options right next to campus. Along with BRU Burger, O’Rourke’s, and Brother’s, there’s also: Chipotle, Five Guys, Jimmy John’s, Blaze Pizza, Noodles & Co., and Purely Pressed
Bonus Recs: Sights to See
Everything you want to see is on campus:
- The Grotto (must-see, recommended at night but cool/peaceful at all times)
- The Basilica (gorgeous church, highly recommend going inside)
- Admin Building (Golden Dome, also recommend walking around inside and looking up)
- Touchdown Jesus/Reflecting Pool (iconic, outside of the Library, right by the Stadium)
- Just brave the cold and wander around, as the whole campus is beautiful, well-kept, and very walkable
7. And finally, how does this game go? Do the Irish cover the spread?
I think the Irish will set the tone early, which will be refreshing after plenty of slow starts this season. The ND offense will see some big plays from guys like Bellyman, Mayer, Austin, Lenzy, and Styles, and will enter the half with a double-digit lead. From there, the offensive line and stable of running backs will carry this the rest of the way, wearing down the Yellow Jackets defense for a few more scores and limiting the opportunities for Jahmyr Gibbs and Jeff Sims to mount any sort of comeback.
Furthermore, the Irish defense will bring the heat to disrupt Sims in the passing game and force a couple turnovers, and although he’ll break loose for some nice runs, Gibbs will be moooostly contained until garbage time, when Georgia Tech might score once or twice on whatever senior reserves have been subbed in for the final few minutes.
I say Notre Dame wins something like 44-20. Happy Senior Day, folks!
Thanks again to Pat for his time today. If you end up at any of the bars and restaurants he recommended, we do kindly ask that you report back and let us know how it went.
If you find yourself over at One Foot Down, be sure to check out my end of the Q&A, here.
Kick is at 2:30. As always, go Jackets!