Notebook: Iowa State's passing game brings intrigue to Notre Dame's Camping World Bowl matchup

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

No history and little prestige comes with a football matchup of Notre Dame and Iowa State in Orlando, Fla.

The Irish have never played against the Cyclones. Iowa State has never played in a bowl game in Florida.

That will change on Dec. 28 when CFP No. 15/AP No. 14 Notre Dame (10-2) takes on Iowa State (7-5) in the Camping World Bowl. The bowl, played at Camping World Stadium, will be televised on ABC at noon EST.

The matchup may be welcomed with a yawn by Notre Dame fans. Iowa State finished tied for third in the Big 12 with a 5-4 conference record alongside Texas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.

Head coach Matt Campbell is 26-24 in his four seasons with the Cyclones. That record was good enough for Iowa State to sign Campbell to an extension through the 2025 season last week.

But beneath the headline of a 10-win Notre Dame team that once had College Football Playoff aspirations playing against a Big 12 team with a better conference record than only four teams in a 10-team league is a matchup of one of the best passing defenses in the country against one of the best passing offenses in the country.

The Irish finished the regular season with the No. 5 ranked passing efficiency defense in the FBS with a 109.61 efficiency rating for opposing quarterbacks. Only two defenses — Clemson and Ohio State — allowed fewer passing yards per game than Notre Dame’s 163.7 yard per game.

Iowa State, led by sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy, finished the regular season ranked No. 9 in the country in passing offense with 318.3 passing yards per game. Purdy completed 295 of his 445 passes (66.3 percent) for 3,760 yards and 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He’s currently ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing yards per game (313.3), passing efficiency (153.2), completion percentage and passing touchdowns.

“This is a really good football team that could easily be 11-1,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Iowa State. “They have an outstanding quarterback in Brock Purdy.”

Iowa State’s five losses came by a combined 21 points. Losses to CFP No. 4 Oklahoma (42-41), No. 7 Baylor (23-21), No. 16 Iowa (18-17), and No. 25 Oklahoma State (34-27) all fell within one possession. A 27-17 loss to Kansas State in the regular season finale came with the widest losing margin of the season.

A season after losing running back David Montgomery (1,216 rushing yards) and wide receiver Hakeem Butler (1,318 receiving yards) to the NFL Draft, Iowa State’s offense has been built around Purdy.

“What he’s done has been impressive,” Cambell said of Purdy. “To be honest with you, we’ve had to rebuild our entire offense kind of through him and with him, losing some great players a year ago in David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler. I’ve been proud of Brock’s growth.”

Kelly said he hadn’t watched any Iowa State film prior to speaking with reporters Sunday afternoon, but he knows why his defense has been successful against the pass this season. It includes pressuring the quarterback, preventing deep passes and limiting yards after the catch.

The Irish will need another strong performance defensively in the Camping World Bowl.

“Look, there are going to be opportunities to make some catches,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get your catches. We’ve gotten the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. We’ve done a great job of eliminating the big play down the field. We get you down on the ground and tackle really well when you do complete the football.”

Run game resurgence?

Kelly isn’t running away from Notre Dame’s rushing attack. He stands by the ability of the Irish offense to run the football.

“We ran the ball when we wanted to run the ball this year,” Kelly said. “That’s a big deal. When we needed to run clocks out, when we needed to run the football, we ran it when we wanted to. That’s the mark of a good running game.”

The Irish are ranked No. 46 in the FBS with 176.8 rushing yards per game. But in Notre Dame’s two losses to Georgia and Michigan, the Irish rushed 14 times for 46 yards and 31 times for 47 yards, respectively.

Despite losing starting right guard Tommy Kraemer and starting right tackle Robert Hainsey to injury, the Irish have still found some success with the running game to finish the season. In the four games backups Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg have started together on the right side of the line, the Irish averaged 208.8 rushing yards per game and 5.42 yards per carry. Through the first eight games, Notre Dame rushed for 160.5 yards per game on 4.55 yards per carry.

“Do we want to be more consistent? Absolutely,” Kelly said. “Do we want to have bigger opportunities in the running game with explosive plays? We certainly do.

“But some of that was an injury to one back that we thought would be a little bit more explosive, and he looked a little bit better against Stanford. So those things are coming together for us.”

The running back Kelly is referring to is junior Jafar Armstrong. The Irish running game took on a different outlook when Armstrong tore an abdominal muscle in the season opener at Louisville. Armstrong missed the next four games and has recorded more than seven carries in only one game: a 19-carry, 37-yard performance against Virginia Tech.

Armstrong turned three carries into 44 yards in the regular season finale at Stanford in one of the first signs he may be back to his old self.

“We saw glimpses of that explosiveness against Stanford,” Kelly said. “Jafar is feeling better. He’s feeling stronger. He certainly will help us as we continue to work towards getting better.”

Iowa State has allowed 133.8 rushing yards per game, which slates No. 34 in the FBS and two spots ahead of Alabama.

Getting personnel

• Defensive tackle Myron Tagovaila-Amosa didn’t play against Stanford with a leg injury. Left guard Aaron Banks didn’t finish the game after getting banged up early in the fourth quarter. Both starters are cleared to play in the Camping World Bowl, Kelly said.

The two were active in team conditioning workouts last week. On Saturday, the Irish will start practice. Because the Camping World Bowl is so close to Christmas and final exams run through Dec. 20, the players won’t get another break to go home until after the bowl game, Kelly said.

• Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. won’t be available to play in the bowl game, Kelly said. That aligns with the Tribune’s report in August that Austin was suspended for the entire 2019 season. Austin hasn’t played in a game this season.

• While some younger players will be given a chance to prove themselves in early bowl practices, freshman cornerback Cam Hart won’t be among them. Kelly said recovery from labrum surgery will prevent Hart from taking contact. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Hart switched positions from wide receiver earlier this season.

• Kelly said no player has informed him of an intention to sit out the bowl game. In recent years in college football, players set to enter the NFL Draft have opted to skip their bowl games. That hasn’t been the case at Notre Dame.

“We have a history and tradition here,” Kelly said. “The (eight) bowl games that I’ve been part of, everybody plays. If something changes, I’m certain we’ll deal with it and they’ll let us know.”

Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy ranks fourth in the FBS with 3,760 passing yards this season.
Running back Jafar Armstrong, right, hasn’t given Notre Dame’s running game much of a jolt since an abdominal injury early in the season, but he showed flashes of explosiveness in the regular season finale at Stanford.

WHAT: Camping World Bowl

WHO: CFP No. 15/AP No. 14 Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Iowa State (7-5)

WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 28 at noon EST.

WHERE: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 5.5