Analysis: There's more to get bowled over about than Notre Dame's postseason destination

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

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.

Notre Dame’s Braden Lenzy (25) gets taken out of bounds by Stanford’s Noah Williams (9) during Saturday’s game in Palo Alto, Calif.ndstanford11302019_45.jpg
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea high-fives linebacker Asmar Bilal during a practice earlier this season at the Irish Athletic Center.