Folks, welcome to Orlando. And welcome to The Camping World Bowl.
Even at 10-2 - with their only losses coming to Georgia and Michigan - Notre Dame entered their bowl selection process with much less fanfare than even those like Minnesota, Auburn, or even the very Michigan team that beat them in October.
And while no, The Camping World Bowl doesn’t quite have the same ring as “The Rose Bowl” or “The Fiesta Bowl” or even “The Music City Bowl” - make no mistake, this is a late-December Florida game, and its rapidly rising prestige should be noted.
And much like their bowl game selection, Notre Dame’s opponent will present them with a sneakily fantastic challenge, in what could become one of the most memorable games of the season…
(15)Notre Dame vs. Iowa State
Saturday, December 28 | 12:00PM EST
Camping World Stadium
ESPN Spread: Notre Dame -4
ABOUT THE IOWA STATE CYCLONES
- 7-5 (5-4 in Big 12), 23rd in SP+
- Record is deceiving, with a slew of incredibly close games against the country’s top teams
- Offense is led by QB Brock Purdy, a breakout sophomore who has put together an absolutely phenomenal 2019 campaign
- Defense is balanced with solid numbers across the board - but aren’t particularly disruptive as a unit
At first glance, it would be easy for Notre Dame fans to wave away this Iowa State team. After all, at 7-5 and with the country’s 26th ranked scoring offense and 52nd ranked scoring defense, the Cyclones don’t seem like they’ll present much of a challenge to the 14th-ranked Irish.
But the numbers are deceiving, because while the cards didn’t fall right for the Cyclones this season - that 7-5 record could very well have been a 10-2 record to match Notre Dame’s.
Don’t believe me? Consider that against Iowa, Baylor, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, they lost by an average of just 2.75 points - including just a one point loss to current CFP four-seed Oklahoma.
They had a cup of coffee in the top-25 a few times this season, but ultimately these close losses kept them from getting the national acclaim that their level of play may otherwise demand. They ended the season 23rd in the SP+, 24th in the FEI, and 20th in the ESPN FPI.
And with a young team with tons of talent to build on from this season, they’ll be looking at this game with the Irish as a way to build momentum moving into the 2020 season.
Chief among the young players with promise for the future is QB Brock Purdy - who was stellar in his sophomore year for the Cyclones, and who will be the primary focal point of this offense tomorrow.
Purdy has thrown for 3,760 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2019, good for 4th and 19th in the country, respectively, all on 66%+ completions on the year. He’s thrown touchdowns to 10 different Cyclones receivers, but his primary targets have been Deshaunte Jones (72 catches for 832 yards and two touchdowns), La’Michael Pettway (51/622/6), and Charlie Kolar (48/675/7).
He’s also been helped out by an offensive line that’s clocked in at 5th in sack rate this season, allowing opposing defenses to drop Purdy just 14 times on the year (t-7th in the country).
Speaking of that offensive line, they’ve been opening up holes for another talented underclassmen, RB Breece Hall. The freshman has had to play second-fiddle to the pass-heavy offense Iowa State has been employing this season, but he’s made the most of his chances: he’s gotten 842 yards and nine touchdowns on 169 attempts (5.0 yards per carry). The Irish, therefore, can’t get too locked in on the passing attack - because Hall and his offensive line are good enough RB to make you pay.
Defensively, the Cyclones are a solid squad.
At 41st in the FEI, they’re 6th in first down rate and 32nd in broken drives (drives in which they allow zero or negative yards), while landing 21st in run stuff rate - and overall allowing 362.2 yards per game and landing 21st in explosive drive rate, solid numbers considering they play in one of the country’s most high-octane conferences.
But one thing they’re not particularly adept at, is creating havoc as a unit. They’re 75th in sack rate, 117th in turnover rate, and have gotten only six interceptions so far this season. Still, they’ve recorded 80 tackles for a loss (36th), so they have found ways to disrupt opposing offenses, but against a Notre Dame team that’s so good at taking care of the football, my guess is we’ll see them play it a bit safer.
Names to know defensively are DB Lawrence White (who has two of Iowa State’s six INTs this season along with four tackles for a loss), and LB O’Rien Vance, who leads the team with nine tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks.
Still even with individual standout performers, much of Iowa State’s system is built on a solid team effort, and while they won’t take the ball away at a high rate… they also won’t give you much to work with, either.
Key for the Irish
Control the big play defensively
Iowa State is young, hungry, and can score quickly - so the key to success for Notre Dame is simple: contain them defensively.
The Cyclones are an efficient offense, and are 11th in the country in explosive drive rate (drives that average 10+ yards per play). That in mind, Notre Dame’s experienced defense will find ways to hold Iowa State for much of the game - and even if/when they allow points, forcing Purdy and this offense to grind out long drives won’t sway momentum, so long as the offense is able to play consistent football against a defense that doesn’t take the ball away.
However, if the defense allows big plays, it will force Notre Dame to play by Iowa State’s pace… and that could spell trouble.
What Will Happen
There’s a reason this game is picked to be so close: Iowa State’s explosive, pass-heavy offense won’t allow Notre Dame to pull away from them for good.
Still, I think this story will look similar for the Cyclones. They’ll give the Irish a battle, and could even be within four points with just a few minutes left to play.
But ultimately, the youth on Iowa State’s sideline won’t be able to beat a team with a roster full of guys used to big games like this - and Notre Dame finds a way to get it done in a close one.
Enjoy the game, fans - and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!