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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing Notre Dame with One Foot Down

Pat Sullivan from our sister site One Foot Down, stops by to answer questions on this week’s matchup.

Virginia v Notre Dame Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

This week, we here at Hustle Belt eached across the aisle to get some answers from One Foot Down and Pat Sullivan.

Pat did an excellent job at answering our questions this week so be sure to give them a read.

1. For Falcon fans making the trip to South Bend, what are your suggestions for enjoying the atmosphere and pageantry of a game day at Notre Dame?

First and foremost, One Foot Down puts out an article each year detailing the best things to do and see and eat and drink on Notre Dame game days, so please reference this article, and also all the awesome recommendations in the comments on that article, for what to do.

For me personally, it’s all about making sure you give yourself time to wander around Notre Dame’s beautiful campus to take in everything on a nice fall day. Obviously you need to go see Touchdown Jesus and take a dopey TD Jesus picture while doing the pose in front of it, but then also make sure you go inside the Admin building (the Golden Dome), spend a quiet moment walking through the ornate beauty that is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and definitely head down to the Grotto to take in that surreal, tranquil spot amongst the bustling activity of a football game day at ND. I’d label all of those as must-dos for a first-time visitor.

Then, of course, make sure you hit the tailgate lots around Notre Dame Stadium, as you are more than likely to be invited to have a beer or a burger with some friendly Irish fans tailgating there. After the game, if you like gross little dive bars, there is no gross little dive bar better than the Linebacker Inn just across the street from campus, and you can’t go wrong with Fiddler’s Hearth, an Irish bar that has solid food and usually has live music. Corby’s and Finny’s are pretty fun too.

2. Where does Notre Dame stand with injuries entering this week’s game?

Injuries haven’t been too kind to Notre Dame so far this season, considering they entered the year with two starting receivers out with broken collarbones (TE Cole Kmet, WR Michael Young) and saw starting running back Jafar Armstrong go down in the 1st quarter of the season opener with an abdominal muscle tear that will keep him out until next weekend’s USC game.

#1 WR Chase Claypool is also a bit banged up with an ankle issue, but all indications from Brian Kelly are that he is fine and will be full-go against the Falcons this weekend. Furthermore, Kmet returned against Georgia and Young started working back into the receiver rotation last week against Virginia -- so the offense is nearly at full strength, only really missing Armstrong.

The same can’t be said about the Irish defense, which lost two key guys last weekend. Senior corner Shaun Crawford, who’s been ND’s best cover guy this season, dislocated his elbow and is out for several weeks. Meanwhile, senior defensive end Daelin Hayes, who through the first 3 games was probably ND’s best pass rusher (before Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem finally exploded in the second half against UVA), tore his labrum and will miss the rest of the 2019 season.

3. Notre Dame has had some struggles in recent years at quarterback but it seems as if Ian Book has secured his role. What is your confidence level of him and what should be expected of him against a porous Falcon D?

I’d rate my confidence in Ian Book right now as “medium,” considering he just hasn’t seemed to improve in any meaningful way from last year to this year. He still takes care of the ball, is good at using his legs to extend plays/drives, and is pretty accurate in the short/medium distance in the passing game.

But he also still has a lot of issues in his game, including an inability/unwillingness to throw a good, accurate deep ball, and a proclivity for deserting the pocket too early and taking off running, not finishing his progressions and oftentimes missing open receivers he could have easily hit for big gains if he’d waited just a second or two longer, stepped up in the pocket, etc.

Overall, he is a very solid QB and with the receiver talent and defense ND has, I think he’s plenty good enough (in the right offense) for the Irish to compete for/in the College Football Playoff. But he’s not a Trevor Lawrence or Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts who will put up video game numbers and be the sole driving force behind a good team.

As for Saturday’s game against Bowling Green, I am 100% certain he will carve Brian VanGorder’s defense up. Notre Dame put up 66 points on New Mexico in Game 2 of this young season, and I do not believe Bowling Green is notably better at defense than Bob Davie’s squad (the Lobos are 128th in SP+ defensive rankings, while BGSU is 118th). I think Book and the Irish put up big numbers in a lopsided match-up, and score at least 50 points on the Falcons.

4. Could you provide a synopsis of what to look for from Notre Dame’s offense?

The running game features a big, talented-on-paper offensive line that is inconsistent, but shouldn’t struggle much with a Bowling Green defense that allows, on average, 5.1 yards per carry (113th in the country). Tony Jones Jr. -- a powerful back with good vision and hands and okay, but not great, speed -- is the guy who will be running the ball most of the time, considering Jafar Armstrong’s injury and the lack of quality depth behind Jones. TJJ is hot off a 131-yard, 3-touchdown performance against a solid Virginia defense, so look for ND to go to him early and often on the ground.

With sophomore back Jahmir Smith back from a toe injury and C’Bo Flemister starting to chip in a bit, expect to see some carries get spread to them as well, and perhaps to Avery Davis, a great athlete who has gone from QB to RB to CB to RB in his three years in South Bend. Considering the likely rout in this one, I think all these guys will get at least a handful of carries and a chance to pick up some needed PT.

Through the air, expect a lot of short/medium passes early on from Ian Book as he hits favorite targets like Claypool, Kmet, Young, and Chris Finke on the outside and underneath in order to keep the chains moving. Kmet and sophomore TE Tommy Tremble are both very athletic and capable of stretching the field a bit up the seam, so look out for one or two big passes to them used to stretch the Falcons defense out a bit.

Once this one gets out of hand, the Irish offense will bring in sophomore QB Phil Jurkovec, who will get to show off a few talents that include being a great runner and also having a stronger arm than Book, allowing him to take a shot or two deep to young receivers with speed like Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins. Senior WR Javon McKinley will also try to repeat his New Mexico performance (2 rec, 85 yds, 2 TD) once he gets into the game, no doubt.

Overall, expect the Irish to look to use their talent, speed, and size advantages to quickly take a lead and efficiently move down the field for scores. They’re definitely hoping to get all sorts of backups playing time this weekend, so there will be a lot of different guys -- many fairly unproven -- tossed at BGSU this weekend.

5. Could you provide a synopsis of what to look for from Notre Dame’s defense?

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has done a masterful job with this defense, considering what he lost from 2018. DT Jerry Tillery, CB Julian Love, and LBs Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney all left, and he simply reloaded with a number of guys that seemed doubtful to be big contributors, even as recently as the Louisville game.

This Irish defense is good at every level -- the secondary was originally 4 seniors until Crawford went down, so now it’s two senior captain safeties (Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott), senior corner Troy Pride Jr., and sophomore corner TaRiq Bracy, who has proven himself to be quite capable as he’s had to fill in at various times in the past two seasons. Add in true freshman phenom Kyle Hamilton, a physical freak (6’4”, 210 lbs) who has been every bit the play-maker he was expected to be as part of the rotation (2 INT, 1 TD, 2 PD), and the Irish secondary is VERY strong.

That talented, reliable secondary allows Clark Lea to oftentimes trust them in single coverage or at least without much help, allowing him to get creative with how he handles the run, the pass rush, etc. The linebackers looked to be a huge weakness in Week 1, but have really come along this year and have been fantastic in back-to-back games against good teams -- what the Irish managed against the Georgia Bulldogs’ vaunted rushing offense was extremely impressive. The name to know in this group is Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who is a first-year starter but has the athleticism and speed and aggression to make up for any mental mistakes he makes with his ability to fly all over the field and make plays. Add in sure-tackling guys like Drew White and Asmar Bilal, and the linebackers have really developed into an effective group for Lea.

Up front, the defensive tackle spot is certainly weaker than last year, when Chargers 1st Round pick Jerry Tillery was single-handedly collapsing pockets. But Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, and Jayson Ademilola have done a decent job in the middle and have been better than expected, even if they still struggle a bit at times to get a push.

The defensive ends are easily the most talented group on the defense, as Julian Okwara is an absolute menace and a potential 1st Round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. Pair him with Khalid Kareem, who also definitely has a future in the NFL, and the results can be explosive. Just ask Virginia and the 5.5 sacks and multiple forced fumbles those two laid on them last weekend. Daelin Hayes going down for the year definitely hurts depth, but the Irish still have Adetokunbo Ogundeji, a senior who has really developed into a very good and athletic pass rusher to help spell Okwara and Kareem. Jamir Jones will see more time this weekend due to Hayes’ injury, and he has flashed solid potential over the years as well.

So, to summarize my ramblings, the defensive line can be absolutely dominant -- specifically the defensive ends in their pass rushing abilities. The secondary is very good, experienced, and pride themselves on being savvy ball hawks who take advantage of mistakes made by QBs running for their lives from Okwara, Kareem, and co. The linebackers are good tacklers and have improved significantly this season, already showing their grit and talent in how they contained D’Andre Swift of Georgia (held him under 100 yards) and Bryce Perkins/the rushing game of Virginia (4 total rushing yards last weekend). I expect more of the same for this defense against Bowling Green, and think they will definitely be held under 20 points, and potentially under 14 as well.

6. Scot Loeffler reportedly got the Bowling Green job over Irish assistant Brian Polian, who was reported as the other finalist. What is your opinion on Polian as a coach?

I do not think Brian Polian is a very good coach -- especially in terms of being a head coach. He had a shot at that already as the head coach of Nevada from 2013 to 2016, and managed a 23-27 record before he was let go.

Honestly, I don’t even think he’s that great of a special teams coach, although for the most part the ND special teams have been solid this year, despite a brand new kicker and a true freshman punter -- so I guess he deserves some credit for that. His overall time as special teams coordinator (two separate instances) has left plenty to be desired, though.

Where he actually shines, though, is as a recruiter for Notre Dame. Polian is clearly a smooth operator on the recruiting trail, and is best known for being the lead recruiter for Manti Te’o in 2009, convincing him to sign with Notre Dame over heavily-favored USC on National Signing Day.

I think BGSU almost by default got the better coach in hiring Scot Loeffler, but Polian is an excellent recruiter if you can live with typically-mediocre special teams.

7. Brian VanGorder, Bowling Green’s current defensive coordinator, was previously with the Irish from 2014 thru 2016. What do you remember about his tenure there and what do you think about his career since?

BVG’s tenure at Notre Dame is definitely a sore subject for Irish fans.

His defense started off hot in his first season (2014), as his defense looked aggressive and dangerous in a 37-0 shutout of Michigan in what was, at the time, the last game of that series. He seemed fiery and smart and this video came out of it, so everything was looking up:

Then, things started to fall apart at the end of that season. The Irish lost 5 of their last 6 regular season games, giving up at least 31 points to all opponents and enduring a 49-14 loss at USC to finish the year. However, a win in the Music City Bowl against the LSU Tigers gave everyone hope for the future of the program, so BVG was not yet considered a failed experiment heading into 2015.

In 2015, Notre Dame had one of the most talented teams of the Brian Kelly era, including a defense that had the following players: Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Isaac Rochell, KeiVarae Russell, James Onwualu, Matthias Farley, Cole Luke, Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill, and more.

Add in an offense that included Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Nick Martin, Will Fuller, CJ Prosise, Chris Brown, and more, and that absolutely should have been a playoff team, if not a team that competed for a title -- the talent was definitely there. Unfortunately the defense still underperformed, had a tendency to collapse/not show up in key moments (first half of Clemson, final drive against Stanford, most of the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State), and ultimately 2015 was a 10-3 season with another rough major bowl loss.

Then, of course, we get to 2016 -- the dumpster fire to end all dumpster fires. I won’t go into too much detail, but Notre Dame gave up 50 points in the season opener loss at Texas (who we later found out was decidedly NOT back), 36 in a loss to a Michigan State team that only beat Furman and Rutgers otherwise that year, and 38 points in a home loss to the Duke Blue Devils, which is absolutely unacceptable if you’re Notre Dame. Enough was enough, and Brian Kelly finally fired the defensive coordinator he should have fired at some point in 2015, and BVG’s time at Notre Dame came to an end 4 games into the 2016 season.

His career since ND has been bad, and definitely reflects what kind of defensive coordinator he is at this point. Louisville was EXTREMELY bad with him as DC last year, and BGSU’s last three games are not surprising defensive results for a BVG-coached unit. I do not think things will improve defensively for the Falcons as long as VanGorder is at the helm of the defense.

With all that said, I still can’t completely hate the guy. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, one of the greatest characters in cinema history. Additionally, he gave us his son Montgomery VanGorder, who was a walk-on QB at Notre Dame and was an absolute joy to watch as a backup QB and eventually a finalist for Holder of the Year for his work holding for field goals. So, there’s always that to be thankful for with BVG -- but that’s about it.

8. Provided you have never visited, what do you picture a town of Bowling Green, Ohio being like? (If you have been to Bowling Green, what do you remember of the town/university?)

I have never been to Bowling Green, Ohio, except for briefly stopping there with a friend’s family on our way to Cedar Point when I was in high school. I have no recollection of what the town was like, but my friend’s brother attended BGSU at the time, so I think we stopped at his apartment super-briefly.

I picture it as being a quiet little college town in Ohio with not much going on around it -- the community there pretty heavily revolves around the university, I’d imagine -- kind of like Oxford, Ohio with Miami University?

I am very excited for commenters on this article to tell me how stupid and wrong I am.

9. What is your prediction for this week’s game between the Irish and the Falcons of Bowling Green? (Be merciful.)

I see this going similarly to the New Mexico game, but despite what people think in terms of ND just running up the score on BVG and working through a lot of 2016 angst, I think the Irish actually score juuuuuust a bit less than they did against the Lobos, as the backups get more time in this one.

I’ll say 59-13 is the final score, with the caveat that ND could probably put up ~70 on BGSU if they really put their foot on the gas with the starters.

Again, a very special thank you to Pat Sullivan from One Foot Down, SBNation’s Notre Dame site for answering my questions this week in advance of Saturday’s game. Be sure to follow One Foot Down at @OneFootDown on Twitter, and show Pat some love @Psully226.