Well, everyone, the festivities for the best holiday of the year are now just about wrapped up, and it’s time to focus on Saturday.
Actually, I lied. Happy Honday Days doesn’t end until January 8th.
Still, with the Camping World Bowl now just two days away, fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team turn their entire attention to Saturday’s match-up with the Iowa St. Cyclones, a 7-5 team just a few points from having gone something like 9-3 or 10-2 themselves.
As ND tries to win 11 games in a season for just the third time in 26 years (2nd time if you’re going to be technical about it and say 2012’s record no longer exists), it will have to face off against a Big 12 team with lots of offensive firepower, a talented young coach, and a desire to prove themselves on a national stage against a blue blood program.
So, what should we know about this seemingly average but actually pretty dangerous opponent? I spoke to Levi Stevenson over at Wide Right & Natty Lite, SB Nation’s site for everything related to Iowa State athletics. He talked me through what Matt Campbell has been able to do with the Cyclones (and his future there), QB Brock Purdy’s strengths and weaknesses, a theme park called Camping World, which Cyclones he would hand-select to help him get a Turbo Man doll for his son, and much, much more.
If you have any interest in knowing the Irish’s bowl opponent and what to expect come Saturday, you’re going to want to check out his fantastic answers below.
1. Matt Campbell has been one of the hottest up-and-coming coaching names for a couple years now, considering the way he’s turned the program around and has them competitive against the Big 12 blue bloods.
With that said, he’s just 2 games above .500 in his 4 seasons at the helm. Are Cyclone fans still all-in on Campbell, considering how good the Cyclones have been relative to historical standards, or will the next season or two be critical for him to win more and show he can have the Cyclones competing for a Big 12 title? Also, do you think he’ll be moving on soon to another coaching gig, considering his success so far?
Levi Stevenson: That two-games-over-.500 record should be read with a *heavy* dose of context. First, Matt Campbell’s first season finished 3-9, largely due to a terrible roster leftover from the previous coaching staff. The record wasn’t good, but the team actually still improved markedly by the end of the season, so even that 3-9 record looked better on the field than it did on paper. So, if you take out the first season, Matt Campbell has put together two consecutive 8-5 seasons, with the opportunity to finish a third for only the second time in school history. Matt Campbell has taken one of the historically worst Power 5 programs, and made them a contender at the top of the Big 12 in an extremely short period of time. This is a long-winded way to say that Campbell is much closer to getting a statue outside of the stadium than he is to being in the same universe as a hot seat.
As for moving on from Iowa State, his words and actions have spoken pretty loudly on this. He turned down the *opportunity to interview* at Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida State, and a whole mess of other programs that most would describe as a “better” job than Iowa State. He also reportedly turned down the opportunity to interview with six different NFL teams last off-season.
If he was truly using Iowa State as a stepping stone to a “better” job, then he would have taken any of the jobs I mentioned. However, he’s given absolutely no indication that money (the guy doesn’t even have an agent) and traditional success are even on his radar when it comes to what’s important to him. However, he constantly mentions the Cyclone fan base, and his relationship with AD Jamie Pollard, two things he can’t take with him to another school. Pollard has consistently invested time and money into Campbell’s program, including significant yearly pay raises to his assistant coaches, and a near-blank check for facilities upgrades, including a $110 million sports performance center (which includes new locker rooms and a bunch of new amenities for every Cyclone sport) and a new entertainment district next to Jack Trice Stadium inspired by Kansas City’s Power & Light District.
He also seems to be part of a wave of young coaches that have wised up to the Siren call of the national programs that can provide money and a strong recruiting base, but tend to be impatient with coaches and fire them before they have a chance to impart any real and lasting change in a program. We’ve seen that trend manifest itself in the difficulties that schools like Florida State, Tennessee, and Arkansas have experienced in the past few seasons during their coaching searches, and programs like Nebraska and Texas could be experiencing in the near future. Why deal with the extra scrutiny and (often) over-inflated expectations at a big school when you can stay at a smaller school, and have every bit of support and patience you’d need to build the program in your own vision?
There are only a handful of programs whose openings would legitimately cause concern among Cyclone fans: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan (maybe?), and.........Notre Dame. All of those are programs with rich traditions and significant resources directly in the area of the country Matt Campbell loves to recruit and call home.
Fortunately, Ohio State, by far the biggest fish on this list, has a coach in Ryan Day that looks like he’ll be there for the next couple decades. James Franklin seems committed to Penn State (which is probably on the next tier below the OSUs, Alabamas, and Clemsons of the world), so that job seems to be closed for the foreseeable future, but it’s one of the best jobs in the Big Ten. Michigan State will probably be open sooner than later, potentially as soon as next year. They’re the least attractive name on the list, but they do theoretically have the resources to push them near the top of the conference. The main difficulty with that job is that you’ll likely be pigeon-holed out of the conference championship game most years by Ohio State. Michigan could theoretically turn his head, but Campbell is an Ohio guy, and we all know how that rivalry goes.
This brings us to Notre Dame, one of the most recognizable brands in sports. Should Brian Kelly be fired at some point or decide to move on to a new challenge, this one will force Cyclone fans to pucker up a little bit. Notre Dame would basically be able to write him a blank check for his salary and assistants, and would have enormous name recognition that would get him in the door of pretty much any recruit in the country. However, as I mentioned before, Campbell doesn’t even have an agent (something you would definitely have if you’re even mildly concerned about money), so I don’t think Notre Dame flashing a giant pile of money in front of him would really move his needle much. He makes $3.5 million at Iowa State, which certainly isn’t a top tier salary, but is still more money than most normal people know how to spend in a lifetime, especially a guy as down-to-Earth as Matt Campbell.
I think the biggest question would be whether he feels like he’s done all he can at Iowa State up to that point. Campbell is the type of guy that loves a challenge, and seems to prefer developing more unheralded, blue-collar players than dealing with the egos that you’ll inevitably run into toward the top of the recruiting rankings board (which is probably a reason he hasn’t really entertained the NFL up to this point despite the interest). This is a guy that transferred as a player from Pitt to DIII Mount Union specifically because he wanted to avoid the politics of Division 1 football, and be a part of a program that stressed the process required for being successful at football over the vanity of being at the highest level. He’s building Iowa State in that same image, and the idea of switching to a blue blood program that is very much involved with all of the politics he sought to avoid as a player may dissuade him from going to a place like Notre Dame.
I don’t think anybody believes that Campbell will be in Ames forever, but he’s made it clear that he’s committed to building the Cyclones into a perennial winner.
2. Cyclones QB Brock Purdy is only a sophomore, and the kid has already established himself as one of the best QBs in the Big 12. What does he do best, what possible weaknesses in his game could ND exploit, and how do you think he will fare against what has been an elite Irish pass defense this season?
Levi Stevenson: His best attributes are his improvisation, and his leadership. Even as a freshman quarterback you could see even the most veteran offensive players rallying around his energy, and there is nobody on Earth that loves Brock Purdy more than Matt Campbell. The guy just flat out makes plays that need to be made to win football games. On the field, Brock’s a master improviser, and tends to cause a lot of damage when he’s allowed to escape the pocket and throw on the run. That’s certainly not to say that he isn’t a good pocket quarterback, because he is, but he’s at his best when he’s causing defenses to adjust on the fly and deal with the threat of him taking off and running.
His primary weakness is that he tends to throw off his back foot a little too often, and his gunslinger mentality can lead to him trying to throw the ball into tight windows, especially when throwing to his talented tight ends. He’s specifically had the most trouble when dealing with combo coverage that features a roving linebacker or safety that can simply patrol the middle of the field and jump in front of crossing routes.* Oklahoma State was allowed to do this (partially because the offense inexplicably went almost full air raid in the second half), and forced Purdy into a couple game-sealing interceptions.
*Pat Rick Note for Irish Fan Readers: This sounds like our beautiful son Kyle Hamilton, no? Hopefully that can be a thing he does on Saturday...
3. Who are the skill players on offense that Irish fans should know about, and of them, who do you think will be most dangerous in terms of coming up with a big performance on 12/28 against Notre Dame?
Levi Stevenson: Deshaunte Jones leads the receivers in catches, and is your prototypical slot receiver that makes his hay on underneath catch and runs. He’s currently second all-time in single season receptions, and will be targeted early and often.
Charlie Kolar is arguably the best tight end in college football, and is consistently a focal point of the passing game, especially on third down and in the red zone. Even if he’s not catching passes, OC Tom Manning will use his on-field “gravity” to draw extra defenders away from his receivers.
Grad transfer La’Michael Pettway is a big-bodied receiver that’s become another reliable target on critical downs, and has been one of Purdy’s favorite targets overall in the past few games.
The running game is led by true freshman Breece Hall, who averaged 108 yards and a touchdown in his seven starts on the season (5.0 YPC overall), and has so far been named to both the Pro Football Focus and 247 Sports Freshman All-American teams. He’s been averaging about 25 carries per game in his starts, so expect him to be used early and often to establish the running game and wear down the Irish defense.
4. How good is the Cyclone offensive line, and how do you expect them to perform against this ND defensive front?
Levi Stevenson: The Cyclone offensive line is...fine. Just fine.
The group has done a pretty good job keeping Brock Purdy upright for the past couple seasons, and should be able to continue that trend in Orlando. They have the ability to create some push in the run game, but have struggled a bit when they meet a defensive line willing to match their physicality.
The Cyclones basically always supplement the running game with at least one tight end, so they almost always have more success when the running game can push to the outside or when they can pull a guard around as a lead blocker.
5. Let’s talk about the Iowa State defense — what are its strengths, its weaknesses, and who are the X-factors ND needs to watch out for? Do you think the Cyclones can slow down Ian Book, Chase Claypool, and the Irish offense?
Levi Stevenson: The Cyclones’ cloud coverage scheme and its ability to slow down passing attacks has drawn the attention of the football world, as dozens of college (including Clemson’s Brent Venables) and NFL teams were reported to have visited Ames this summer to learn the ins and outs of the scheme as more and more of the Big 12’s high level passing concepts are showing up in offensive attacks. LSU’s and Ohio State’s record-setting offenses, and teams like the Rams, Chiefs, and Ravens have adopted Big 12 offensive concepts, and are lighting up their respective leagues.
For years, the Big 12 has been ripped as the “no defense league,” but, coincidentally, when teams started running offenses like the Big 12, the vaunted SEC, Big Ten, and NFL defenses didn’t look so formidable. Iowa State’s scheme has come the closest to slowing them down, so, naturally, teams are trying to get ahead of the game as more of the Big 12-style offenses start popping up.
Put simply, it’s a modern defense designed to slow down modern offenses. We did an in-depth look at the scheme and numbers last season to illustrate the impact it’s had on the Cyclone defense.
However, Iowa State’s defense lost a couple key veterans coming into 2019, and the youth has caused a moderate regression in run defense on the edge, as well as third down defense. For as good as the defense generally is at limiting scoring, it is inexplicably bad at stopping teams on third and long, often losing contain on the quarterback, and allowing him to pick up the first down on the ground, or make a long completion on a broken play.
The young Cyclones have continued to be stout in stopping the inside running game, but have in been inconsistent in maintaining run fits as runs are stretched further and further to the edge. If Notre Dame can create leverage on the edge and get their running back to the outside, they’ll have the opportunity to control tempo and force the Cyclone defense to create turnovers, something they haven’t done well for most of the season.
6. If you were to create a camping-themed theme park called Camping World, what would be the main attractions and what would be your slogan/marketing pitch for consumers?
Levi Stevenson: Since everybody likes enjoying a beer around the campfire, the main attraction would likely be a massive Busch Light beer garden. If Notre Dame fans are unaware, we Cyclones love us some Busch Light.
Next to the beer garden would be hundreds of bags (the proper name for the game you call “cornhole”) boards with ongoing, year-round leagues and tournaments, horseshoes, Polish frisbee, ladder golf, and REAL lawn darts.
We’d also have fishing tournaments at the nearby lake, our own lumberjack games, a small community fire ring where guys in hoodies can jump over the fire to prove their manhood, and a soundproof dome where everybody with a guitar can get together and play Wonderwall.*
*Pat Rick Note Again: this last paragraph sold me on this theme park, I want to go to this SO BADLY
7. Notre Dame has a sophomore RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Iowa State roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
8. Dance-off between Brian Kelly and Matt Campbell — what song(s) does each coach dance to, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Levi Stevenson: I honestly know absolutely nothing about Brian Kelly as a person, but based on what he looks like, I could see him being a CCR-type of guy. Dancing to that is mostly just the slow jive with some minor head-bobbing.
Matt Campbell’s favorite band is Van Halen. While I respect the shit out of that choice, it’s pretty difficult to dance to “Jump” or “Panama” in a way that would do well in a dance competition.
So, the only winner in this dance off would be the sweet release of death.
9. It’s Christmas Eve and you forgot to purchase a Turbo Man action figure ahead of time for your son, whom you are constantly disappointing because you always prioritize work over his hobbies, like karate. You need to assemble a team of current Iowa State football players/coaches to help you scour the city for this sold-out toy so you can finally keep your promise and prove you are not a horrible father. Whom do you choose and why?
Levi Stevenson: TE coach Alex Golesh is the director of recruiting, so I feel confident in his ability to scout the city and track down Turbo Man. Re-al Mitchell is Iowa State’s backup quarterback, and honestly might be the fastest person on the team that’s littered with speed. I like his versatility and quickness to provide multiple options for delivery, either via ground or air.
Re-al will need someone to clear the way and possibly catch a last-second toss, so give me Charlie Kolar who’s plenty capable of moving people out of the way, as well as being an emergency receiver should Re-al need to chuck the toy at the last minute.
10. Prediction time: give me the final score for ND vs. Iowa State, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Levi Stevenson: Notre Dame fans are, understandably, upset that the Irish fell out of the NY6 to the Camping World Bowl, and weren’t even consoled by a match-up with a big brand like Texas (even though they were objectively the worst of the four teams that tied for third in the Big 12). However, it would be wise for Notre Dame fans to avoid overlooking an Iowa State team that’s played much better than their record, and are genuinely just a handful of plays away from being 9-3 or even 10-2. Moral victories don’t count, but the Cyclones’ record is misleading.
Brock Purdy is currently 4th in the country in passing, is widely regarded as one of the ten best quarterbacks in college football, and will probably climb that list when guys like Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts move on to the NFL. He’s an extremely efficient passer, and has a knack for making big plays in critical moments. Breece Hall is being touted as the best freshman running back in the country, and has been the workhorse Iowa State needed to find after the departure of David Montgomery. The Cyclone offense is currently sitting at 11th in the country in Yards Per Play. One thing worth mentioning is that Iowa State generally doesn’t beat itself with penalties, sitting at 13th in the country in fewest penalties committed, while Notre Dame is on the opposite end of the spectrum at 95th, committing an extra two penalties per game.
The young Iowa State defense has struggled in certain areas, but has largely been a solid unit all season, ranking in the top-three in the conference in virtually every meaningful defensive stat. The Notre Dame offense is obviously very good, but it isn’t any more explosive than a lot of the offenses Iowa State sees throughout the Big 12 season. Notre Dame would currently be third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Iowa State in yards per play, and neck and neck with Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas. Notre Dame ending up somewhere between 20 and 30 points seems like a very good bet.
The key match-up is the Cyclone offense vs. the Irish defense. 11th in offensive yards per play vs. 8th in defensive yards per play. Iowa State’s ability to move the ball will be predicated on their ability to move the ball on the ground. They do tend to lean pass-heavy (59% pass), but the offense is still built around establishing the running game, and they have a talented running back to lean on. The offensive line will need to be physical and create some space for Breece Hall to at least get to 4-5 yards per carry. If he can get there, Iowa State has a good chance to dictate tempo and the overall flow of the game.
One thing I noticed in my research that raised some red flags is red zone defense. Notre Dame is second-to-last in the country in red zone defense, surrendering points on 96% of opponent trips to the red zone, including 100% of opportunities in each of the last three games. The Iowa State offense has had little trouble moving the ball between the ~30 yard lines, but have had some difficulties finishing drives, so Notre Dame’s struggles to stop offenses in the red zone could be the boost the Cyclone offense needs to take them over the top.
The line is currently sitting at Notre Dame +3.5, so Vegas clearly anticipates this will be a close game. Give me the Cyclones to take down the Irish. 31-24.
I want to give a huge shout-out/thank you to Levi for his fantastic and detailed answers to all the rambling, inane questions I asked him. I encourage you all to head on over to the Wide Right & Natty Lite site to get any and all Iowa State football news you will need heading into the Camping World Bowl (including a Q&A I did for them as well).
See you all in my Game Preview tomorrow!