Notre Dame went 10-2 and finished the regular season ranked No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Iowa State finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and went 0-4 against ranked opponents. Despite that difference, and the stark gap in talent, the Irish were just a 3.5-point favorite over the Cyclones.
From the outset of the Camping World Bowl, the Fighting Irish made it look like a Top 15 team was playing an unranked opponent. Despite some sloppiness on offense, Notre Dame dominated Iowa State, pulling out a 33-9 victory.
There were several key takeaways from the game.
Defense Passed The Test — Iowa State came into this matchup ranked eighth nationally in passing offense (318.3 yards per game), 20th in pass efficiency and 22nd in yards per pass attempt, and the Cyclones ranked eighth in fewest sacks allowed.
One of the remarks I often heard from those who felt the Cyclones had a chance in this game was the Irish had only faced one pass attack as good as Iowa State, and that was USC. There were questions from some about whether Notre Dame could truly handle the Iowa State pass attack, which was fueled by a smart, accurate quarterback that could spread the ball around to a deep group of pass catchers.
There is some truth to the notion Notre Dame had not faced many explosive pass attacks. USC was the only other Irish opponent to rank in the Top 30 nationally in pass offense, so statistically those concerns made sense.
Notre Dame was more than prepared to not only contain the Iowa State pass attack, but they almost completely shut it down. Iowa State had just three gains of over 20 yards in the pass game as the Irish significantly limited the big-play Cyclone offense. The plays that were made downfield were impressive grabs from Iowa State receivers against tight coverage.
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea had a great game plan to handle the Iowa State quick game and high-low concepts. Just as important, the Irish defenders were clearly well-schooled on how to execute that game plan. Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy could never get into rhythm, and you could see him getting frustrated when those routes weren’t coming open. When the balls were thrown and caught the Irish defenders did a great job in space, limiting yards after the catch.
The Irish pass rush played a big role in the game, as Purdy could rarely stay in the pocket long enough to get to his third read. He was forced to rush many throws he completed, which again limited the yards after the catch damage and played into Notre Dame’s defensive success on third-down. Iowa State gave up just 14 sacks in the regular season, but the Irish got to the quarterback four times.
Chase Claypool Is Clearly One Of The Nation’s Best — It’s an incredibly deep year at wide receiver, and Claypool - through no fault of his own - hasn’t put up monster numbers this season. But as someone who watches a lot of college football, the numbers of wideouts that are as dominant as Claypool this season can be counted on one hand.
He showed that again in the win over Iowa State, with Claypool hauling in seven catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. The senior did a little bit of everything against the Cyclones. He made a tremendous downfield grab for a touchdown, he worked his way open on a scramble play, he used a quality route to get free for a big play and he did damage after the catch.
And for good measure, Claypool recovered a fumbled punt by Iowa State return man Tarique Milton, setting up the first Notre Dame score of the game.
Iowa State had no answer for Claypool, which has been the story for every opponent the Irish faced this fall. Whenever the quarterback and staff made Claypool a focal point of the offense he rewarded them with big-time production.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah Has A Chance To Be A Star — Prior to the 2020 season, Owusu-Koramoah had not played a single snap of defense in a Notre Dame uniform, playing just two games in 2018 on special teams before his season was ended by a foot injury.
That explained some of the technique and assignment mistakes that plagued Owusu-Koramoah at times this season, but there was never any doubt about his athleticism and playmaking potential. As we got deeper into the season, and he got more and more experience, the mistakes became less frequent and the playmaking became a greater part of his game.
Owusu-Koramoah was at his best in the win over Iowa State, impacting the game in every way imaginable. He’s been good all season at making plays in space, and that continued in the Camping World Bowl. But the junior also registered three sacks in the game, he was impactful in pursuit and his coverage was top-notch.
The Hampton, Va. native forced a fumble that he also recovered to end the first defensive drive of the game, he came away with a fourth-down sack to end another drive, and he virtually single handedly shut down another drive, making a sack on first down and a run stop that went for -6 yards on second down, putting Iowa State into a 3rd-and-17 it could not convert.
If you’re a Notre Dame opponent in 2020 the scary thing is Owusu-Koramoah is just starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be. That says a lot when you consider the rangy junior finished the season with 80 (54 solo) tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four pass break ups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Compare those numbers to Drue Tranquill, who had a brilliant 2017 season at rover. That fall, Tranquill made 85 tackles (44 solo), 10.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 3 three pass break ups, 1 forced fumble and one fumble return. Tranquill was a far more finished product that season than what Owusu-Koramoah is now.
When He Gets Fed, Tony Jones Jr. Is Pretty Good — Jones Jr. is arguably the most under appreciated player on the Irish offense. He isn’t a sexy runner that is going to blow you away with speed and tremendous elusiveness, but one thing he has shown throughout his career, if you feed him the ball he will do damage.
There were just six games this season where Jones had at least 10 carries, and in those games the senior racked up 663 rushing yards, averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns. In the 10 games during his career where he carried the ball at least 10 times, Jones rushed for 941 yards, scored eight touchdowns and averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
The offense tried to establish the run against Iowa State, and for the most part the run game struggled due to poor run blocking from the line. But in the few snaps where Jones got a crease he did major damage. His 26-yard gain in the first quarter sparked the team’s first touchdown drive of the game, and his 84-yard touchdown run - which was finished off with a grown man stiff-arm from Jones - put the game away.
Notre Dame Out-Talented Iowa State’s Defense — The offensive game plan was neither creative, imaginative or overly successful in regards to dominating the Iowa State defense in the manner it could have. It also didn’t put the offense in a lot of bad spots, which allowed the talent of the offense to take over.
This game was about big plays that were a direct result of Notre Dame simply having much, much better offensive players than what Iowa State had playing defense.
Brian Polian Has Quietly Done An Excellent Job This Season — Special teams coordinator Brian Polian quietly put together a strong unit this season. It lacked explosive playmaking in the return game, but every other facet of the special teams was quite good.
Notre Dame had to replace its all-time leading scorer at place kicker and a four-year starting punter that finished his career with the second best punting average in school history.
Despite that the Irish were effective, efficient and sound on special teams this season. Freshman punter Jay Bramblett had a clean season and junior placekicker Jonathan Doerer was outstanding, which he continued in the bowl game, nailing all four of his field goal attempts in the victory. That included a knuckle ball that was good from 51 yards, which showed the strength in his leg.
Where the Irish truly shined is in coverage. Notre Dame came into the bowl matchup ranked 16th nationally in punt coverage and 17th in kick coverage. Notre Dame also limited mistakes this season and we saw against Stanford that the special teams could make game-changing plays when needed.
Iowa State returned just two punts for a total of six yards, and one of those punts ended up in the hands of Claypool after senior safety Alohi Gilman stripped the return man of the football. The Cyclones came into the game ranked 31st nationally in punt return average (11.3 YPR). Iowa State averaged just 21 yards on two kick returns.