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Notre Dame Football: Three Things We Saw in the Sun Bowl

Roster depth: it’s more than good, it’s grrrreat

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl - Notre Dame v Oregon State Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, your Notre Dame Fighting Irish finished on a high note with a bowl win over a ranked opponent. This time it was a dominating 40-8 effort out in El Paso against the corpse of the Oregon State Beavers, a game where Notre Dame’s superior recruiting, depth, culture and motivation asserted themselves over a team rocked by both personnel attrition and program-level uncertainty.

The only sensible choice for this, our final song of the week, is a loving farewell. To truly commemorate the spirit of this point in the season I’ve decided to include not only the song, but the movie scene that first introduced me to it:

This game left a lot of Notre Dame fans hopeful and quite a long time for them to sit on that hope - let’s dive into three reasons why.

The Stable

Perhaps aside from quarterback (more in that later) there was not a position or area of the field in this game where the Irish didn’t come in with better depth and/or experience than the Beavers. One of the most impressive indicators of that depth was that the Irish saw very little drop-off in their typical production on the ground in the absence of Audric Estime. The Irish rushed for 236 yards, paced by Jadarian Price with 106 on only 13 carries.

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl - Notre Dame v Oregon State Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Although Price was the leader and the other Irish backs did have some difficulties (only 2.6 yards per carry for Jeremiyah Love and a fourth-down goal-line stuff of Gi’Bran Payne), they also all showed why Irish fans can be excited to see them in expanded action. Love’s speed was evident when he got space throughout the game and his remarkable footwork created a touchdown that put the game out of reach; Payne continue to show nifty and decisive running between the tackles; Devyn Ford was more dynamic and productive in a few mop-up carries than any Oregon State running back was at any point in the game.

With two more uniquely skilled athletes arriving in Aneyas Williams and Kedren Young, the Irish should boast one of the deeper and more dynamic running back rooms in the country in 2024.

An Elite Returning Defense

In a bowl season that has handed a lot of tall orders to severely depleted teams, asking Ben Gulbranson and what was left of Oregon State’s offense to take on a mostly-intact Notre Dame defense was one of the most difficult. It wasn’t at all surprising to see the Irish put the clamps on the Beavers; what is worth noting about this performance is that given the decisions recently announced by Jordan Botelho and Xavier Watts, Notre Dame will be retaining nearly everyone who participated in it.

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl - Notre Dame v Oregon State Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Cam Hart, Thomas Harper, J.D. Bertrand and Javontae Jean-Baptiste will be missed, not only for their production but for their leadership. But consider the depth the Irish have returning:

  • An defensive line almost entirely made up of super-seniors: Botelho, Howard Cross III, and Rylie Mills.
  • Another fifth-year player in Jack Kiser who can guide uber-talented young guys like Jaylen Sneed and Drayk Bowen in the linebacking corps.
  • Two established stars in the secondary in Watts and Benjamin Morrison alongside rising ones like Christian Gray and Jaden Mickey.

Put that together and you have an Irish defense returning that should continue not only getting stops, but putting points on the board themselves (as they did Friday) against most of the opponents on the 2024 schedule.

What We Have in Steve Angeli

It’s the biggest storyline of the game and the one everyone wants to hear about, so let’s get into it. I thought Steve Angeli looked very good in this game. He was able to spread the ball all over the field in spite of the depth-chart famine at receiver and made impressive throws at every range, all while protecting the ball and even making a few plays in the running game.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Oregon State at Notre Dame Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

With that said, we can’t forget that it was one game in which the odds were stacked definitively in favor of Angeli looking good, and he was never asked to carry the team. A side effect of that latter fact is that there wasn’t really anything negative to pick out from this game for Angeli, apart from a couple sacks where he should have thrown the ball away and a mistimed throw to Eli Raridon on a play that likely would have been a touchdown. It was a perfectly fine, clean effort that produced a couple big plays and gave the Irish enough balance to clean up against an inferior opponent. But let’s be real: it also wasn’t enough to secure the job for Angeli in 2024, scare away Riley Leonard or otherwise shake the earth at the quarterback position in South Bend.

After the Sun Bowl, we know that we have in Angeli a class-A teammate, a great guy and a quarterback capable of executing in favorable circumstances against middling Power 5 competition. In other words, a damn valuable thing for any team and thus a guy the staff should try to keep around, but also not someone on whom to anchor our hopes for a national title. If he is destined to become more than that, that will be fantastic news but we cannot sit here and act like it has already come to pass. If Angeli isn’t starting in College Station come August it will be because the Irish coaching staff deemed Riley Leonard the best quarterback on the roster, not because of favoritism or cowardice or anything else we might try to blame from our armchairs. If he is, it will because he showed them a great deal more than we saw in El Paso. Either way, you have a guy who earned this moment in the sun (Bowl) and deserves to enjoy it - let’s leave it at that for now.

This season was a wild and often disappointing ride, but we can be grateful indeed for the way it ended (ask Florida State fans if you don’t believe me). I look forward to joining you all in the anticipation and wild speculation to come for the next 9 months, and also a basketball season that might not suck after all? Who knows. Farewell 2023 and Happy New Year, Irish nation!