Todd Blackledge breaks down key questions, issues, trends of Notre Dame's CFP matchup

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Todd Blackledge was sitting across a hotel conference table from Brian Kelly when the Notre Dame head football coach confirmed on a Friday night in September that he would be making a seismic lineup change the next day against Wake Forest.

Maybe the most seismic lineup change in Kelly’s nine seasons at ND.

Blackledge and the ESPN broadcast team then watched the dawning of the Ian Book Era as Notre Dame’s No. 1 QB option in a 56-27 waxing of the host Demon Deacons less than 24 hours later, on Sept. 22.

The next Saturday, as luck would have it, Blackledge, play-by-play voice Sean McDonough and sideline reporter Holly Rowe were assigned to see Clemson’s version of the depth-chart flip, with freshman QB Trevor Lawrence making his first start of the season, against Syracuse, in a 27-23 Tigers escape.

Those three from ESPN will be joined by sideline reporter Tom Rinaldi for Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl between the No. 3 Irish (12-0) and No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in a QB sequel of sorts for them.

Coverage from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, begins at 4 p.m. EST, with the actual kickoff 10 minutes later.

The 57-year-old Blackledge, a former Penn State star QB and first-round NFL Draft choice, broke down some of the key topics, issues and trends involving the Cotton Bowl and the fifth rendition of the College Football playoff.

Beginner’s luck?

No matter which team ends up as the last one standing Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., a first-year starting quarterback will be helping to hoist the championship trophy for the seventh time in the last 10 years.

Prior to this season, Notre Dame’s Ian Book, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray had four career starts among them — a start by Book in 2017 against North Carolina, prompted by an injury to then-starter Brandon Wimbush, and three starts by Murray his freshman season at Texas A&M before transferring.

Alabama’s Greg McElroy, Auburn’s Cam Newton, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones and Alabama’s Jake Coker were all first-year starters as well in the past decade that won titles.

McCarron also won a championship in his second season starting (2012), as did Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (2016) and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (2017), with Tagovailoa actually finishing last year’s title game.

So why the preponderance of successful inexperienced quarterbacks?

“I think the first answer to that is that kids are much more ready to play at a high level in college, coming out of high school today,” Blackledge said.

“Between the kind of offenses that they’re running in high school — in some cases maybe the same kind of system from the time they’re in seventh or eighth grade — to the personal quarterback coaches that work on their fundamentals, footwork, mechanics and all of that, to the 7-on-7 things they do in high school. It’s a different level of preparation, first of all.

“And the guys we’re talking about were all highly regarded guys coming out of high school, and stepped into situations where they were ready to compete and, in all those cases, ready to take over the job.”

Next level for Book?

The junior was eighth nationally in passing efficiency (162.5) and fourth in completion percentage (.704) heading into Thursday’s round of bowl games. The single-season school record in both categories is held by Jimmy Clausen — for now (161.4, .680, both set in 2009).

So how can Book get better and what will that look like?

“Any quarterback can always improve — and it may not always show up in all of those hard numbers,” Blackledge said. “But just in terms of his understanding of their offense, his recognition of defenses, how quickly he processes things.

“The more he plays, the more he studies, the more he works at it, the better he can become at that. I think all these guys you’re seeing in the playoff are on a very accelerated course with this.

“The first thing you see in a young quarterback or a new quarterback is them kind of moving through the process of: OK, what do I do? What’s my job? What’s my responsibility on this play?

“And then the next phase is: What’s everybody else around me doing? What’s their job? How do they all fit together?

“And then the third phase of maturity of a quarterback is the understanding or the asking of the question: OK why do we want this play against this defense? Why are we trying to do this? Those kinds of things.

“I think all four of these guys are moving very quickly in that process, but that’s why I think for Ian or any of these guys, there still is room for improvement.”

Comparing D-lines

Three of Clemson’s four starters on its defensive line earned All-America honors this year. The only one who didn’t — senior end Austin Bryant — was an All-American last year.

But junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is suspended for the game because of a banned substance (ostarine) that showed up in his NCAA-administered drug test.

In the tale of the tape, Clemson leads the nation in both fewest yards per play allowed (4.04) and fewest rushing yards per carry allowed (2.4). The Irish are eighth in yards per play allowed (4.53) and 34th in rushing yards per carry allowed (3.68).

The only 100-yard rusher allowed by either team was Navy’s Malcolm Perry, with 133 yards in ND’s 44-22 victory Oct. 27 in San Diego.

“Clemson’s defensive line is legitimate,” Blackledge said. “They’re all capable of winning one-on-one battles if you block them with one guy. And that’s the pressure they put on you, because you can’t afford to double-team any one of them, because you leave single matchups.

“If you’re a quarterback, you have to be able to get rid of the ball quickly. You have to be comfortable making some plays when you’re uncomfortable, because they’re going to create some discomfort for you. They’re as good as advertised.

“Now I think the Notre Dame defensive line is really, really good as well. I don’t know if they’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder, because there’s so much attention and focus on the Clemson defensive line.

“They have a lot of depth. They rotate a lot of people in there. They keep their guys fresh. But I think they’re exceptional. I think Jerry Tillery on the inside is an exceptional player. I think (Julian) Okwara on the outside is maybe one of the best football players out there that nobody knows much about.”

Handling the big stage

Is Notre Dame’s biggest challenge Saturday perceptual?

It seems to be the way in the days leading up to the Cotton Bowl/College Football semifinal. And history is a big reason why.

Since the Irish beat a seventh-ranked Texas A&M team, 24-21, in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1994 — 25 seasons ago — Notre Dame has played seven times against top 10 teams in January. They’ve lost all seven of those games, and by an average margin of 19.9 points.

So do the Irish need this game to change the perception of the program? Does it get in their own heads?

“I wouldn’t say that,” Blackledge said. “Every year is different, and this team is its own team, has its own identity. I don’t think what happened in 2015 (a 16-point loss to Ohio State) or what happened when they played Alabama in the championship game (a 28-point loss) has anything to do with this team.

“I think this is a really good football team, and I think they can compete in this playoff. Even though Alabama and Clemson have been the clear 1 and 2 and they’re expected to be the winners in these two games, I think all four teams are capable of winning, not just one, but two games.”

December evolution

So how much different, how much better can a team get when it gets out of weekly mode and has more time to prepare?

“It’s kind of a two-edged sword,” Blackledge said. “I think on one hand, you can get better, because you can get healthier. You can get rested and healthy, and maybe some guys that were kind of limping across the finish line at the end of the year can start feeling better when you get into the playoff game or a bowl game. So that’s a way you can get better.

“The other side of that is you have to be careful as coaches not trying to change too much or over-coach or add too many new wrinkles or new things.

“The one area, I wouldn’t say this is concern, but when I watched Notre Dame, they were one of the best tackling teams I’ve seen live or on film this year. And tackling is something you don’t’ practice live very often.

“With the layoff, will they be as consistent with their tackling — particularly in space —as they were throughout the course of the season? That’s one area of interest we need to keep an eye on.”

Notre Dame’s Ian Book answers questions during the Cotton Bowl Media Day, Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
ESPN’s Todd Blackledge will serve as color analyst for Notre Dame’s CFP semifinal matchup Saturday with Clemson.
Notre Dame players found their way onto the giant videoboard Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Cotton Bowl championship trophy makes an appearance during Media Day, Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.