SOUTH BEND

The big picture for the now 14th-ranked Notre Dame football team is fragmented, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

And it has nothing to do with the disjointed FOX broadcast of ND’s 45-24 dismissal of Stanford on Saturday, most creatively described in a very unscientific — but wildly amusing — canvassing on Twitter as: “I think the Tree stole their homework.”

That’s “Tree,” as in the Stanford mascot, still banned from Notre Dame Stadium but free to gad about Saturday’s venue, largely vacant Stanford Stadium. And that’s “homework,” as in what most broadcast teams bring to the table.

Why the ND football snapshot lacks focus, but not substance, is that among three upcoming dates on the December calendar — Dec. 8, Dec. 18 and Dec. 28 — the one that feeds the perception the most of who the Irish (10-2) are and what they will become as a program is the one that has nothing to do with the Camping World Bowl.

That’s Dec. 18, the first day of the three-day early signing period for high school seniors.

Running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson, projected defensive end Jordan Botelho, projected interior D-lineman Rylie Mills, and offensive tackle Tosh Baker are the five Notre Dame recruits touted as those most likely to replenish a strength or address an area that could make the Irish more Clemson-like someday.

Among those five, Mills and Botelho arrive and enroll in January, roughly two weeks after the Irish shoot for their 11th win of the season on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla., against a Big 12 opponent.

Dec. 8, next Sunday, is the day the Irish will likely turn the extremely high probability of playing in the Camping World Bowl into a certainty, as well as learning if the opposition will be Oklahoma State (8-4), Kansas State (8-4), Texas (7-5) or Iowa State (7-5).

All four finished in a tie for third, at 5-4, in the Big 12 standings. The Cyclones, incidentally, appeared to be a front-runners in that opponent discussion until they fell 27-17, Saturday at Kansas State. Now they seem the least likely to play ND.

There is still a path for Notre Dame to the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, also in Orlando at Camping World Stadium. But the unlikely chain of events would start — and not end — with a Wisconsin upending of CFP No. 1 Ohio State in next weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game.

The prospect of what can be fixed in the next four weeks to make the Irish look more like a New Year’s Six-worthy team and what might have to wait until next spring for a potential upgrade/makeover understandably overshadows some key assets the Irish already have.

Here are the most significant for Dec. 28 and beyond:

Ian Book, quarterback

The question that wouldn’t go away and, deafeningly so after the 45-14 loss Oct. 26 at Michigan, was why do coach Brian Kelly QBs at Notre Dame regress as second-year starters?

Perhaps Book has done enough in the month of November to disarm the rabid curiosity and even the validity of it — for now.

The senior woke up Sunday with only four QBs in the 130-team FBS with more touchdown passes than his 33. That after throwing for four Saturday at Stanford.

While his overall pass-efficiency rating is slightly down from last season (148.52 compared to 153.27), his TD-to-interception rate is much better (33-to-6 compared to 19-to-7). And his improvement as a runner has been largely overlooked.

Last season Book rushed for 280 yards on 95 carries with four TDs, a 2.9 per-carry average and a long run of 23. This season, with one game to go, he has 516 yards on 105 carries, with four TDs, a 4.9 per-carry average and a long run of 53.

The Camping World Bowl won’t present him an opportunity to see if his recent growth as a passer would hold up against an elite defense. Kansas State is the only one of the four possible Big 12 opponents with a national pass-efficiency ranking higher than 70, with the Wildcats sitting at No. 43.

None of those four are in the top 40 nationally in total defense either, with Texas the furthest from it at No. 108.

But Book can continue to trend in a positive direction, and that’s not insignificant. The 172.07 pass-efficiency mark he posted against the Cardinal was the first time against a Power 5 team that he surpassed his career efficiency rating (147.89) since suffering a rib injury Nov. 3, 2018 at Northwestern, a span of 12 such games.

It’s also his third-best mark as a starter against a Power 5 team, bested only by Wake Forest (173.24) and Stanford (182.49) in 2018 in his first two starts after taking over from incumbent Brandon Wimbush.

Clark Lea, defensive coordinator

When Mike Elko bolted for Texas A&M in December of 2017 after a single season as ND’s defensive coordinator, there were some who were so impressed with the small sample size of eventual successor Clark Lea that they wondered aloud which school would be better off.

Maybe the answer is both.

Elko, the far more experienced play-caller of the two, has thrived on the field and on the recruiting trail in his new surroundings, even if the Aggies’ offensive inconsistencies have made that less than obvious. In fact, he is being mentioned as a leading candidate for Boston College’s head coaching vacancy.

Lea, ND’s linebackers coach under Elko, will get pursued for head coaching jobs soon as well. In the meantime, it’s easy to see his strengths as a teacher on the practice field and as an adjuster during games with the Irish continuing to evolve toward becoming an elite defense.

Saturday’s Stanford game was a strong case in point of why Irish opponents are averaging 2.75 point in the third quarter.

A Cardinal offense that had labored all season gouged Notre Dame for 278 total yards in the first half. That’s more than the Irish had allowed in entire games against three of their four previous opponents in November.

In the second half, though, ND outgained Stanford 251-116. The third-quarter splits were even more dominant — 158-22 in total yards, 77-5 in rushing yards.

“I think what he really does well is adapt in games to situations,” Kelly said Saturday. “There’s a lot of good teaching that goes on, really good communication. As I listen to the communication, I think it’s clear and concise and can be replicated back to the young men.

“There’s not a lot of yelling and screaming. There’s a lot of clear communication that can be brought down to the sideline, and kids can make those adjustments when necessary. And that’s the mark of a really good leader.”

Braden Lenzy, wide receiver

If you pegged the 5-foot-11, 180-pound sophomore, who didn’t play a down last season, as Notre Dame’s third-leading rusher at the end of the regular season, you may want to consider moonlighting on a psychic hotline.

Lenzy did so amassing just 10 carries all year, four of which came Saturday against Stanford. He averaged 18.8 yards per carry and 24.7 yards on his 10 receptions. With four touchdowns, he scored every fifth time he touched the ball.

As puzzling as it is why Lenzy didn’t get more touches in the first 12 games of this season, it’s more fun to think about how his role could expand — in the bowl game, and in 2020. Special teams, anyone?

The scary part of that notion is he might not be Notre Dame’s most dangerous receiver next season. That could very well be currently suspended sophomore Kevin Austin.

So what’s the best thing that could come out of the Camping World Bowl?

S’mores?

Maybe it’s good karma. The last time the Irish played there it was called the Champs Sports Bowl, back in 2011.

Following an ugly come-from-ahead loss to Florida State there, those two teams combined to go 23-3 the next season — the Seminoles ending up in the AP top 10 and the Irish playing for the 2012 national title. In 2013 FSU played for and won the national championship.

That Kelly willingly pushes out those kind of dreams and expectations, with minimal pushback, isn’t a bad place to be in December of 2019.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

(20) comments

jim masterson

Hello Eric; Coach Lea. Begets the question...why can't a university such as ND be able to replicate what Coach Lea professes in some type of tutorial. If ND is rightfully concerned about losing said coach. Wasn't is prescient of the former D coordinator to bring Coach with him from Wake.

pgarver

Jim Masterson, are you living in your mommy's basement? You seem to be a negative Nellie on all of Notre Dame's message boards. Didn't your mother teach you, that if you don't have anything positive to say, keep your mouth shut?

Patinmbsc

Jim: What ?

Doc Savage72

Jim I think you need to lay off the sauce or purchase a "grammar" check video before you type out anymore comments. And prescient, c'mon foresight would have been way more natural than prescient. And btw, what was your comment about?

Charliesbills

Eric,

Thank you for your stellar reporting this year. I cannot find any two sources that agree on how the Orange Bowl picks teams. Can you get direct source information? I know you have said in the past that ND cannot get the ACC team spot for the Orange Bowl. Others, though, say that ND can if there is no ranked ACC team available.

ClementstoWeber

Virginia will get crushed this week by Clemson. They will not be ranked. Money talks and ND makes money for the bowls. The Orange Bowl will come calling. ND vs. Florida. Great matchup.

Ludwig von Football

I wish you were correct and the Irish would be in the Orange Bowl. It would be a good test to see how good we are against an opponent like Florida. Unfortunately, under the system that is in place there is no way for ND to get into the Orange Bowl. At least that's the way I understand it.

Finally, I am tired of people criticizing Ian Book. College players are not professionals. They are 18 - 22 year old young men. Phil J. has three years of eligibility remaining. What is wrong with being a two year starter at any college?

PolishPrince

I think while stats may be useful in some situations they don't necessarily tell the whole story .Ian Book's stats while impressive have been largely padded by his performance against inferior opponents. Compare those stats to those against opponents such as Clemson, Georgia, and Michigan and you will see a much different picture. Book is a serviceable QB when playing inferior defenses, bot will he ever possess the skills necessary to compete against those in the top tier. Book has been indecisive at times and confused at others. It is obvious that his strong suit is not the vertical passing game . A 10 win season is always a good thing, beating USC and Stanford are always enjoyable. That being said while playing the ACC schedule may have its benefits wins against Duke ,Virginia and the likes don't mean much to ND fans. That is why the loss to Michigan by such an embarrassing performance still lingers. Was it a good year ? It all depends on which stats you choose to use. Go Irish

ClementstoWeber

You are right on the money. Here are the facts: Book cannot compete at the highest level; Kelly loves Book; Book will return, Jurkovec will give up and transfer unless the ND education means what it should to him; we will be 10-2 again next season. I'm not saying a better record will happen under Jurkovec, but, at least, the possibility exists.

Patinmbsc

Eric:

As always, thank you for the insight to Fighting Irish football. Your reports help fill otherwise dismal days at the beach ! ! ! But honestly, I do appreciate and enjoy reading your stories.

God Bless and have a wonderful Christmas.

Pat

Jake8589

Agreed, in that Ian Book is a nice QB against middle of the road teams, however can not compete against the upper tier. It's the ceiling of a 3 star. In this case when Kelly made him a captain, Kelly would look pretty foolish to sit him and Kelly's ego would not allow that to happen. If Jurkovec is not looking at the transfer portal you have to wonder where his head is at. The potential of Jurkovec is many layers above Book.

OverAll

This team is a joke. why does every beat writer continue to focus on completely insignificant details, like kelly and book’s stats against garbage teams? Can either of them win a championship? NO. We have all the data points we need. can you imagine how badly we would’ve been beaten if that game would’ve been against an Ohio State or LSU? Let’s keep it simple. We are a borderline top 15 team with a coach and QB to match, and if you really think this looks like a team that’s going to be a true playoff team in the next year or two, you don’t know the sport that well. So get used to seeing more and more empty stadiums, because we have lost interest. I stood outside the stadium before the Navy game for 45 minutes and literally couldn’t give a ticket away. First time ever in my life. #FireKelly

Bucky C

OA, have you checked your deodorant?

OverAll

That’s funny “Bucky” (is that a grown-up’s name?) but the lowering of standards at this once-proud championship program isn’t, and neither are high school-size crowds.

AZDomer602

Though i love Ian Book, i truly believe he has hit his ceiling. He has digressed not in stats, but in Ws and Ls, too me unless he is a Heisman front runner, those stats are the most important. Last year if it wasnt for Brandon Wimbush and his athletic ability as a runner, plus our "D" being a little more stout. We did have Tranquill, Tillery and Love opposed to this year. We didnt have Dexter Williams last year, so it was Winbush' legs won that game for us. Book is great runner, reminds me alot like Jake Plummer at LSU, teams like Michigan play well against teams who have a QB that is 1 dimensional, see Justin Fields destroying them. Book is a very good QB, but 10-2 or CFP losses is his ceiling. Now is Jurkovec the answer i dont know. But i would rather have Book back one more year and all the experience, plus the incoming talent and returning players being at his disposal. Braden Lenzy is an absolute baller, i thought Will Fuller, CJ Prosise and Rocket Ismail were fast, Lenzy might be faster. His run against BC, the one were the Analysts said that CB from BC almost caught him, nieta, he down geared at the 10 yard line. Would like too see him add 5-10 lbs of muscle without losing his speed, for the first time since Fuller, we have a player who has Top End speed and Acceleration superior to any defender. From what ive heard is Austin is just the same with glue for hands. We have stellar talent coming back, with Tyree and Jordan Johnson coming in, now BK gets it, if your a freshman and play better than a senior, your gonna get the ball.

sts2f

I think the messages on here about Book are probably more accurate than the article itself. What Hansen failed to point out is that Book faced some of the nation's worst passing defenses in the country. Michigan (5th) and Georgia (15th) are by the best he faced this year with a 37-72 comp % 3TD and 2Int and a fumble, Duke (29th) I take with a grain of salt considering the state of the ACC this year and their opponents. Virginia (51st again ACC) and Bowling Green (61st) are the last of the opponents in the top half. From there it just gets worse for Book's case: Navy (80th), Louisville (83rd), VT (85th), USC (99th) are the last in the top 100. He's face three teams in the bottom 15 of the nation in Stanford (119th), BC (126th), and New Mexico (130th or dead last) and if we get OSU like predicted by most they are 113th. So please stop touting Book's improvements until there is a milestone with which he can measure himself against.

Bob R

A lot of comments appear to conflate Ian Book's quarterbacking ceiling with Notre Dame's ability to win a national championship. I don't see that Tony Rice was a better QB than Book is, and we won one with him. An elite QB is nice to have, but there are lots of other parts that go into a NC team. Looks to me like we're putting those together. With Brian Kelly as coach, no less.

I don't see us winning a NC next year, either. Or the next. No matter who is coaching. None of the "corrections" that some of us fans are in the habit of "suggesting" would change that. But I think it's very likely that we could win one in 2022, if we stay on the trajectory we've been on for the last three years.

OverAll

i’m guilty of thinking that an elite quarterback raises your ceiling significantly, and I think that’s backed up by a cursory glance at the top four or five teams in the country. I don’t see a championship program being built here, with regard to starters or depth. We are just miles and miles away from the top echelon. Just look at the rosters of an LSU/OSU/ etc and tell me we are even approaching that level. Those teams have athletes superior to ours at 20 of the 22 positions on the field, and quality depth too. Our top level talent is good at D-line, for instance, but there’s not enough of it across the roster - our depth is thin and the development is poor. Kids aren’t ready to play at a high level when someone goes down - see clemson last year. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I see a team that’s about what its rank is, with maybe a top-10 ceiling in the next few years. There’s just too much firepower at the top of the rankings. We wouldn’t stay in a game against Ohio State or LSU more than a quarter. Next year, same. Year after that, same. I don’t know if a new coaching staff would fundamentally change that. But I feel like another staff could give us a better shot... because the jury is in on this coach. We’ve seen the best he can do, and it’s not good enough. ****PS - Tony Rice was 50 times better than Ian Book.

PAIRISH9

Tony Rice played in an entirely different era and system but Tony was an elite college QB. He always played his best in the big games. I like Ian Book and think he is a solid college QB but Tony Rice is an All Time Great at Notre Dame.

Irish Venice Florida

Notre Dame is and will be one of the best teams for fan following to a bowl game.Push for a rematch with michigan or play alabama,maybe then we can get rid of clown kelly and sawbuk.Also get out of acc football..Maybe play more big ten teams instead of acc teams.

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