Irish shake off slow start to win opener as Cardinals crumble in second half
Hayden Adams | Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Under a clear night sky and surrounded by a few green specks in a sea of black-and-red clothing, No. 9 Notre Dame opened its 2019 college football season Monday night on the road against the Louisville Cardinals.
In Notre Dame’s first Labor Day game in program history, and only the second matchup all-time against the Cardinals (0-1), the Irish (1-0) overcame a slow start full of sloppy mistakes to win by a score of 35-17.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he was satisfied with the overall outcome and game environment.
“Pleased with the win on the road,” Kelly said. “I thought it was a great atmosphere and Louisville played really hard. [Louisville] created a great atmosphere for an opener and it’s hard to duplicate that for your team. So I thought we benefited from being on the road in a great environment and I thought we came out and started really well.”
The Irish started off strong, driving 75 yards downfield with 59 coming on the ground. Sophomore running back Jahmir Smith gave the Irish their first score of the season on a 3-yard carry to take a 7-0 lead.
While the offense performed well on the first drive, they struggled early to find a rhythm. Likewise, the defense also got off to a rocky start.
The Cardinals responded by marching down to score a touchdown of their own, testing Notre Dame’s inexperienced linebacking corps with their run game. The Cardinals then proceeded to force the Irish into a three-and-out to get the ball back. They continued to ground-and-pound the Irish, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass capping off a 75-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown carry — his second of the game — to put the Cardinals up 14-7.
Notre Dame would return to their bread-and-butter in the rushing game, after giving senior running back Tony Jones Jr. the ball six times in nine plays on their third drive. Jones gained all the Notre Dame’s positive yardage on the drive as he ran for 78 yards and a touchdown to tie the game at 14-14 heading into the second quarter.
While the run game was working for the Irish, the aerial attack left some to be desired. Senior quarterback Ian Book, who took three sacks on the night, talked about the emotions that came with the first game of the season on the road.
“First game, [there were] maybe some jitters,” Book said. “Great environment here. Louisville played great; I respect them as a great opponent. And we just gotta put that behind us. We’re happy that we’re 1-0, and you know we’re gonna learn from this. Now we know what it’s like, the season’s starting now, and we’re good to go another week.”
The Irish defense began to adapt in the second period to the Cardinal run game, forcing them into short possessions. Kelly said that was the point where the staff began to understand the Cardinals’ scheme.
“We had to make some adjustments to their speed-option game and I thought we settled down and did that,” Kelly said. “Once we made those adjustments we kind of took control of the game after that.”
Among the players stepping up on defense for Notre Dame were junior linebacker Drew White, who recorded the first sack of the game for the Irish, and freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. Senior captain and safety Alohi Gilman praised the way Hamilton stepped up in his first career action.
“Kyle was huge for us,” Gilman said. “He came out, made some plays, did a great job in the packages that he was in, and he’s gonna continue to get better. He makes our team better.”
While the defenses were gaining their footing, the offenses became very sloppy in the final minutes of the half, fumbling the ball on three straight plays. Pass fumbled while falling to the ground and Gilman recovered for the Irish, followed the very next play by Book fumbling the ball right back after colliding with junior tight end Brock Wright. Finally, the Cardinals lost the ball on the ensuing play as Pass bobbled the snap and Notre Dame recovered it once more.
Book offered his thoughts on the messy sequence.
“Yeah, [that was] sloppy football,” Book said. “But, like I said, happy to move on from that, have some guys step up and be able to score touchdowns when we needed to. But yeah, sloppy ball tonight, I gotta work on that.”
The Irish were finally able to capitalize, however. Book carried twice for 23 yards and a touchdown in a four-play drive, giving Notre Dame a 21-14 lead heading into halftime.
The Cardinals received the ball to start the second half. They proceeded to fumble on their very first play but ended up recovering it. They then fumbled it again in Irish territory thanks to a strip by Irish senior defensive lineman Ade Ogundeji and senior defensive end Daelin Hayes, who recovered for Notre Dame. Though the Irish were then forced to punt, they immediately forced the Cardinals three-and-out.
The Irish then looked to continue building the passing game, with Book completing 2-2 passes on a 57-yard drive — a 31-yarder to senior receiver Chase Claypool and a 26-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble — to put the Irish up 28-14.
On Louisville’s next possession, once again their first play resulted in a bad snap that they jumped on for a loss of nine yards. Two plays later, they received a false start call to make it a third-and-24 before eventually punting it back to the Irish.
While the Irish punted back on the next drive, the Cardinals offense continued their haphazard play, fumbling once again on their next drive before recovering it. The third period came to an end after a 37-yard reception by Louisville to the Notre Dame 26-yard line.
The Irish took a 28-14 lead into the fourth quarter. The Cardinals attempted a trick play to open the stanza with sophomore wide receiver Tutu Atwell attempting a touchdown pass that sailed over the receiver. The Cardinals sloppy play continued to plague them as they were slapped with an illegal substitution penalty. The Cardinals managed to put up three points off a field goal from redshirt senior kicker Blanton Creque to bring Louisville within 11 points.
Big third-down conversions by Book to Tremble and sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Keys III on a scramble allowed the Irish to prolong their fourth quarter drive before Book completed a 34-yard pass to Claypool at the Louisville 2-yard line. The Irish would then add to their tally with a 1-yard run by Smith to go up 35-17.
Book said the offense was able to make the necessary plays in the second half thanks to adjustments made from their subpar first-half performance.
“We just, really after the first half, just really focused on the smaller details that we might’ve missed in the first half,” Book said. “So, [we] just focused and did what we had to do. The plays were there for us and we just executed.”
The Cardinals would go on to lose possession on a penalty-ridden drive and get the ball back with just over a minute left as they ran out the clock. Jones Jr. led the Irish with 110 yards rushing while Book went 14/23 for 193 yards and one touchdown through the air. Book also ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Kelly said he was pleased with the way his young players burst onto the scene, but his veterans need to step up their play.
“Our veterans have to play better,” Kelly said. “Our young guys emerged tonight and showed that they can come through in areas that we needed them to come through in. We saw [Kyle Hamilton] as someone in the middle of the defense that can defend the pass. We saw [Tommy Tremble] tonight. We saw Lawrence Keyes ability. We actually need our veterans to step up another level of their play and I know they will. The younger players showed themselves and now all of them going forward, this will be a pretty good football team.”
Going forward, Kelly said his team is headed in the right direction, even if the opening performance was less than ideal.
“We’re aligning ourselves towards the kinds of things I want to see,” Kelly said. “We don’t look like the finished product by any means but we did some things tonight that aligned us in the direction that I want to go. … We still won the game and we have some good things to take away from it.”
The Irish will play their next game against New Mexico in the home opener September 14.