The No. 14 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Iowa State Cyclones will meet for the first time when the two sides square off in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando. Notre Dame (10-2) closed the regular season with a 5-0 record in November, scoring at least 38 points in each of the final four weeks including a 45-24 win at Stanford in the finale. Meanwhile, the Cyclones had a rocky finish, as they capped off a 2-3 end to the season with a 10-point loss at Kansas State.
Notre Dame looked to be a real contender heading into its midseason bye week, taking care of business at home and falling only to Georgia by six points in Athens in Week 3. But a 31-point late-October loss at Michigan eliminated any possibility of the Irish returning to the College Football Playoff. Despite the clunker in Ann Arbor, Brian Kelly’s team finished the regular season as one of five FBS teams (joining Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Oregon) among the top 15 in both scoring offense (37.1 ppg) and scoring defense (18.7).
Iowa State may enter the postseason at 7-5, but the Cyclones’ record could have looked much closer to the Irish’s mark had just a few plays gone their way. Of the five losses, four came against teams — Iowa, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — that finished ranked by season’s end, and three of those came by a combined total of four points.
This marks the third consecutive season with a bowl appearance for both teams. Notre Dame is in the postseason for the ninth time in 10 seasons under Kelly and the 36th time in school history. For Iowa State, this will mark the Cyclones’ 15th overall appearance in a bowl — 4-10 record in 14 previous bowl games — as well as the third consecutive season with a bowl appearance, just the second such stretch in school history.
Camping World Bowl: Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Iowa State (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Notre Dame -3.5
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Entering 2019 as the unquestioned starter after taking over the job in late September 2018, Ian Book led Notre Dame’s offense with the leadership expected of a senior signal-caller. Not only did he throw 33 touchdown passes in the regular season to finish sixth in FBS, but he limited his turnovers with just six interceptions. He threw five touchdown passes on three separate occasions — against New Mexico, Bowling Green and Navy — while completing at least 55 percent of his passes in all but two games this year.
Book’s unquestioned go-to target this year has been fellow senior Chase Claypool, who needs 109 receiving yards to eclipse 1,000. His 117-yard, four-touchdown performance against Navy was nothing short of jaw-dropping, a significant contributor to his 12 touchdowns for the year, which is good for the ninth-highest mark in the FBS. The running game has been markedly less impactful for the Irish this season; yet another senior, Tony Jones Jr., leads the team in rushing with 722 yards. Book (516) is next in line, a sign that the Irish much prefer moving the ball through the air.
Defensively, Iowa State finished the regular season slightly above average in most major areas, which will present another test for a Notre Dame offense that’s enjoyed a lot of success as of late. The Cyclones have intercepted only six passes but are fourth in passing defense (362.2 ypg) in the Big 12, which also ranks among the top 50 teams nationally. They are even better against the run, allowing just 133.8 yards per game on the ground which is just 1.6 yards per game behind Oklahoma for the best mark in the conference. Additionally, sophomore linebacker O’Rien Vance and freshman edge rusher Will McDonald have combined for more than a sack per game, with both among the top six in the Big 12 in the category.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
Not only has sophomore Brock Purdy been the Cyclones’ undisputed leader on offense this season, he’s been one of the most productive offensive players in all of college football. Entering the postseason, he sits fifth in total offense at 335.4 yards per game, and his 313.3 passing yards per game led the Big 12 during the regular season. He did all he could in the one-point loss at Oklahoma when he threw for 282 yards and set the high mark for the conference with five touchdown passes, while the result was much more favorable in Week 3 when he passed for 435 yards and three touchdowns in a 72-20 win over ULM.
Purdy isn’t the only one from the Cyclones’ offense among the conference leaders. Deshaunte Jones, one of Purdy’s top targets this year, is second in the Big 12 with six receptions per game, with fellow senior La’Michael Pettway not far behind at 4.3 per game. On the ground, freshman Breece Hall averages just a shade under five yards per carry and is one touchdown shy of reaching double digits.
After allowing 45 points in the loss at Michigan, the Irish allowed more than 20 just once, and that came in the final week against Stanford. This unit led the nation with 17 fumbles recovered, which contributed significantly to its plus-15 turnover margin, good for the fifth in the FBS. The senior trio of Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara have combined for 15 sacks, while freshman safety Kyle Hamilton has made an immediate impact with four interceptions and countless more impactful plays on the back end.
Iowa State may not have the top-to-bottom talent that Notre Dame’s roster possesses, especially in the way of veteran leadership from its seniors, but its record should not be cast as a reason that the Cyclones won’t challenge the Irish. Notre Dame certainly comes in with momentum and the desire to avoid yet another letdown in a bowl game, but don’t discount Iowa State playing with a lot of energy against a first-time opponent to try and close an up-and-down season with one more positive result.
Prediction: Notre Dame 41, Iowa State 31
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.