SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Brian Kelly need not worry that No. 14 Notre Dame isn’t focused on Iowa State, its opponent next Saturday in the Camping World Bowl.
After a week of final exams, his Fighting Irish (10-2) aren’t taking Matt Campbell’s Cyclones (7-5) lightly.
“I think there are a lot of people who don’t know how good they are,” offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg said Saturday after the sixth practice in a hectic week for the Irish, who ended the season on a five-game winning streak. “They lost to (No. 8) Baylor by two points (23-21 Sept. 28 in Waco) and (No. 4) Oklahoma by one point (42-41 Nov. 9 in Norman).”
The Cyclones, who had a one-point loss to No. 19 Iowa in September, finished in a four-way tie for third place in the high-scoring and competitive Big Eight after a 27-17 loss at Kansas State Nov. 30. They outscored their opposition 409-304, including 139-74 in the fourth quarter.
“One of the things in their DNA and the way they are coached is they play extremely hard for four quarters,” Kelly said. “They are a team that, argumentatively, could have been an 11-win team this year. Their 3-5-3 (defense) is a challenge and they have an outstanding quarterback.”
The Cyclones’ Brock Purdy, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound elusive sophomore, has thrown for 3,760 yards and 27 touchdowns with just nine interceptions and he’s rushed for 265 yards and eight more scores.
“Their quarterback can escape the pocket and he sets up deep,” defensive end Khalid Kareem said. “His mobility is similar to the quarterback from Virginia (Bryce Perkins).”
The elusive Perkins threw for 334 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice and sacked eight times by the Irish, including 2½ by Kareem, in Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory Sept. 28.
“(Purdy) is a special player – he’s really good and you can tell he’s a leader,” middle linebacker Drew White said. “They have receivers who can make big plays. They are really electric.”
Wide receivers Deshaunte Jones (72 receptions, 832 yards, 2 touchdowns), Tarique Milton (33-689-3) and La’Michael Pettway (51-622-6), tight end Charlie Kolar (48-675-7) and running back Breece Hall (1,100 yards rushing and passing) have Notre Dame’s attention.
“They match up with the top teams we’ve played this year,” Kelly said.
The Irish will counter with a defense that finished the regular season allowing just 325.8 yards (22nd nationally) and 18.7 points (17th) with a turnover margin of 1.25 (third) thanks to 17 fumble recoveries and nine interceptions.
Offensively, quarterback Ian Book threw for 2,787 yards and 33 touchdowns with just six interceptions and was the second-leading rusher (516 yards, four TDs) on a team that managed just 46 and 47 yards rushing in losses at Georgia (23-17 Sept. 21) and Michigan (45-14 Oct. 26).
It’s one of the reasons why Kelly moved on from offensive coordinator Chip Long earlier this month and has directed quarterbacks coach Tom Rees, running back coach Lance Taylor and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn to get more balance into the Irish attack that averaged 429.4 yards (47th) and 37.1 points (14th) per game.
“We ran the ball at times effectively; at other times we weren’t effective,” Kelly said. “We want to be, moving forward, more effective and that requires complete collaboration and everybody on the same page. Then again, this was an offense that was pretty darn good, too.”
Notre Dame was scheduled to practice Sunday and leave for Orlando Monday afternoon for final preparations.
But Book, who could return next season, wants to finish this season on a high note.
“The season is not over,” he said. “We should be proud. It’s a good bowl game and we want to go there, and we want to win. That’s what it’s all about.”