ORLANDO, Fla. — So much for Notre Dame needing to be more focused.
The Irish made Iowa State look like the ill-prepared team Saturday in a lopsided 33-9 Camping World Bowl victory.
The Cyclones (7-6) fumbled twice in the first eight minutes of the game. The Irish converted those turnovers into an early 10-0 lead. Turned out Notre Dame didn’t need to score any more points than that.
Head coach Brian Kelly spent the early part of the bowl week offering less than glowing remarks about Notre Dame’s preparation. Less than 48 hours before kickoff, he told reporters that his team’s focus needed to improve. A late night Monday led to a sloppy practice Tuesday, and he was still demanding more of his players come Thursday afternoon.
But following a win the AP No. 14/CFP No. 15 Irish (11-2) made look easy, Kelly stood up for his team.
“They did not listen to what the naysayers had to say about them — the negative tone, the negative people out there,” Kelly said. “All they cared about was playing the game. It was clean. It was about competing, always looking to better themselves.
“Even this week, you know, ‘Notre Dame is not ready to play.’ They used that as another form of motivation to show people wrong. You just read this team wrong. And it’s just so satisfying that this group has been rewarded with 11 wins, because they have thought only about their teammates and how they can work to get better each and every day.”
Maybe Kelly used the doubt that leaked into the reports following Notre Dame’s practices this past week as an extra opponent for the Irish to overcome in Orlando, Fla. Whatever the method, it worked.
With quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees making his play-calling debut, Notre Dame’s first drive resulted in a three-and-out. But the Irish took the ball right back when safety Alohi Gilman stripped Iowa State punt returner Tarique Milton, and wide receiver Chase Claypool recovered the loose ball. Notre Dame ended its second chance with a 39-yard field goal from Jonathan Doerer, his first of four on the day.
Iowa State’s first offensive possession ended with a fumble, too. Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah forced and recovered a fumble by quarterback Brock Purdy. The Irish capitalized on the turnover with a 24-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ian Book to Claypool on third-and-12. Claypool tapped his left foot in the end zone to secure Notre Dame’s first third-down conversion on five attempts.
Claypool put together a dominant performance on his way to winning Camping World Bowl MVP. He tallied seven catches for 146 yards and one touchdown in addition to his fumble recovery. Claypool was so productive, he even led off Notre Dame’s postgame press conference with an opening statement as reporters waited for Kelly.
“I appreciate everyone, speaking to my family, my friends, everyone who supported me throughout the years to get me to this point,” Claypool said following his final game in a Notre Dame uniform. “For a long time, something like this was a dream, and it’s something that was a dream that couldn’t be reached. But I hope I’m an example and (defensive end Khalid Kareem’s) an example of someone if you just keep on dreaming, then that dream will come true.”
The 6-foot-4, 229-pound Claypool finished his senior season with 66 receptions for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“He’s a phenomenal football player,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said of Claypool. “And I said going into this football game — and our defensive staff would say the same thing — I thought we had a really good plan to take him away at times in the game. But, again, a lack of execution.”
Iowa State’s high-flying offense never left the runway Saturday, either. The Cyclones, which entered the game averaging 34.1 points and 318.3 passing yards per game, only managed three field goals and 227 passing yards. Purdy completed 17 of his 30 passes for 222 yards and finished with minus-16 rushing yards after being sacked by Notre Dame three times.
Owusu-Koramoah, who finished with a game-high nine tackles, recorded three of Notre Dame’s four total sacks. He sacked Purdy twice and running back Breece Hall once one an aborted pass attempt. Senior defensive Adetokunbo Ogudenji notched the other sack of Purdy.
Notre Dame’s defense, which entered the game third in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game (163.7) and fifth in passing-efficiency defense (109.61), proved its mettle.
“We are who we are,” Kelly said. “All year we have been stingy in the passing defense efficiency. And we felt like we were going to be in a good position, as long as we rerouted and did some good things. And we did.
(Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) did a good job with the linebackers getting in passing lanes and making it difficult. And, again, our pass rushers. It’s so effective, because you’re never getting settled. And that’s been who we are all year.”
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book cruised to a final line of 20-of-28 passing for 247 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed seven times for 30 yards and wasn’t sacked. Book’s 43-yard completion to Claypool set up a one-yard touchdown run for running back Jafar Armstrong in the second quarter.
Fellow running back Tony Jones Jr. all but ended the game early in the third quarter with an 84-yard touchdown run down the sideline. Iowa State cornerback Tayvonn Kyle caught up to Jones near the 15-yard line, but Jones stiff-armed him away long enough to reach the end zone for a 27-6 lead. Jones, who set a Notre Dame bowl record and a career-long on the 84-yard rush, led the Irish with 11 carries for 135 yards.
Following Notre Dame’s dominance, the crew at Camping World Stadium started to transition the stadium for Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl matchup between Alabama and Michigan. Despite only two losses, the Irish were stuck as the matinee ahead of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinals and the warmup act at their own bowl site.
Kelly passed on a chance to critique a bowl system that put his 10-win team in a game with a seven-win team by saying it’s beyond his control. But what Kelly could control was the preparedness of his team.
The Irish didn’t overlook Iowa State. Whatever mistakes were made in the marquee losses to Georgia and Michigan were put in the past. Notre Dame finished the season with a six-game winning streak against teams it was supposed to beat.
But beating Iowa State by 24 points? The Cyclones hadn’t lost by more than 14 points since Nov. 26, 2016.
The Irish didn’t look like a team worried about what could have been.
“They didn’t complain about what they didn’t have,” Kelly said of the players on a team that won 33 games in the last three seasons. “They knew what they had, and that was they had each other and a chance to play another game together.”