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Notre Dame home win streak reaches highest since 1990 with win over Duke

| Monday, September 14, 2020

It was a historic day for Notre Dame football. They extended their home win streak to 19 games, the longest run since 1990, with a win over Duke, and in doing so locked up their first-ever conference win. Notre Dame (1-0, 1-0 ACC) is now the winningest team in ACC history percentage-wise after having joined the league for a season due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, joining a conference was not the only effect the pandemic had on the Irish. While the defense performed remarkably well considering the confusing looks Duke (0-1, 0-1 ACC) threw at them as well as rampant poor tackling — because of a lack of practice — by several teams early this season, the Irish offense came out of the gate stagnant.

They attempted to establish the run early, featuring sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree as options one and two, respectively, but they gained little ground or lost yardage. Graduate student quarterback Ian Book could not find a rhythm with his receivers early as the Irish fell behind 3-0 at the end of the first quarter. Head coach Brian Kelly attributed the rocky start to the lack of time Book had to gel with so many new pass catchers.

“You gotta understand, no spring ball, and let me just go over how many new players that he is blending into this offense,” Kelly said, “whether it’s [freshman tight end] Mike Mayer, [junior tight end] Tommy Tremble getting a bigger role, [junior wide receiver] Joe Wilkins, [graduate student receiver] Ben Skowronek, [graduate student receiver] Javon McKinley, [junior receiver] Lawrence Keys, all the backs… So, it’s not in a situation where he knows exactly where they’re going to be; he will.”

Notre Dame only recorded 13 net yards of offense in the opening period: three rushing on seven carries and 10 passing on 1-3 completions. They also recorded three-and-outs on their first three offensive possessions.

In the second quarter, things picked up for Notre Dame. After finding themselves in a 4th-and-8 situation at their own 21, the Irish faked a punt and sophomore punter Jay Bramblett managed to scramble for 14 yards and a first down, injecting new life into the Irish offense.

“My thought process was I hope to heck it works,” Kelly said of the play. “… It was there, we saw it on film, we felt like it was there. It was one of those that you needed to call it in a very vulnerable area, in other words when you’re backed up. Jay’s a very good athlete, and you saw that he had to cut back to make that first down, but felt very confident that he was going to get an opportunity to convert that. And we needed a little bit of momentum, and so I just felt like it was the right time to make the call.”

Hayden Adams | The Observer
Irish offensive linemen senior Dillan GIbbons, 76, and junior John Dirksen, 56, escort sophomore punter Jay Bramblett as he runs for a first down on a fake punt during Notre Dame’ 27-13 win against Duke.

Notre Dame proceeded to march down behind big plays from Mayer, Williams and senior running back Jafar Armstrong, with Williams capping the drive with a one-yard rushing score to give the hosts the lead for good.

Each team would punt on their next possession, but the Blue Devils managed to convert another field goal after Notre Dame’s punt and trim the margin to 7-6. On the first play of ND’s ensuing drive Book through a screen pass to Williams that went for 75 yards and put Notre Dame in the red zone. The very next play Book overthrew Tremble and Duke intercepted the pass on the goal line for a touchback. Kelly spoke on Book’s rough start.

“I thought it was up and down,” Kelly said of his signal caller’s play. “You know, Ian made some really nice plays for us. What I said to Ian on the sideline was that he’s gotta make some of the easy plays, the layups if you will… Ian Book has got a whole new offensive group of skill players around him and he’s still working through that process… At times, Ian wants to be great, and he can’t be great yet because those guys are young and they need some more time. So just make some of those easy plays and he’ll be fine.”

Notre Dame got the ball back with 1:13 left in the half and proceeded to go 54 yards in nine plays to set up senior kicker Jonathan Doerer for a field goal as time expired, taking a 10-6 advantage into the break. Of note on the drive was Wilkins, who caught three passes for 33 yards in that span. They were the first catches of his career.

“He had been limited in camp with a hamstring injury, but we’ve always felt like when Joe got his opportunity that he was talented enough to make some plays,” Kelly said. “… There’s a lot of players that just needed an opportunity. He was stuck behind some really good players and Ben [Skowronek] gets a bit of a hamstring, not severe, but enough that he couldn’t play at 100%. So, next guy in and we’ve got a lot of confidence in Joe, and [he] made some terrific plays for us. That sideline catch was a really big catch for us.”

Skowronek’s injury was not the only one the Irish would suffer, however. Early in the third quarter with the same score, senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah stripped a Duke receiver which led to an Irish fumble recovery, but the receiver rolled up on sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton’s ankle. The staff confirmed Hamilton merely sprained his ankle and could have returned to play but remained out for the rest of the contest.

After recovering the fumble, the Irish found themselves in a 4th-and-1 at the Duke 26 and gave the ball to Williams, who bounced outside and ran through the defense for a touchdown to take a 17-13 lead. Williams would finish the game with 93 receiving yards and 122 rushing, earning the game ball for his effort.

“Pretty good opener for him,” Kelly said of Williams. “There’s a lot that can build off of this certainly.”

Another scoreless possession by each team passed followed by Duke finally getting into the endzone on a quarterback keeper with Clemson transfer Chase Brice. Brice threw for 259 yards while completing 20-37 passes.

Notre Dame would respond again however with a 15-play, 83-yard drive. It was punctuated by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Book, who went 19-31 for 263 yards on the day, to senior receiver Avery Davis.

“It was just a seam, it was man coverage so it was just me vs. him,” Davis said of the play. “And he covered me pretty well but when the ball was in the air I just needed it. I couldn’t let that opportunity pass.”

Notre Dame locked Duke down the following possession then converted another field goal to make it a 27-13 edge, which they maintained to the finish line thanks in part to recovering a fumble by Brice the next drive as he was hit on the arm while throwing.

Aside from Williams and Wilkens making statements for themselves, Mayer also played well with three catches for 38 yards and garnered praise from his distributor.

“I was extremely impressed with Michael,” Book said. “He’s been doing that all camp as well, so I wasn’t surprised. But he’s just physical, and everybody saw that tonight. He’s not gonna go down the first time he’s touched and as a quarterback that’s huge.”

After the game was over COVID-19 policies continued to influence Notre Dame, as the tradition of singing the alma mater postgame was now conducted with the players social distancing.

“Very awkward, but we still got it done,” was how Davis described it.

The major takeaway from the game seemed to be that the defense and special teams unit had lost much of a step from last season while the offense is looking to discover its identity without Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet or Chris Finke. Even so, Book remains optimistic.

“We’ve been looking forward to this game today for so long and the fact that we were able to do it, another win in our stadium, to be 1-0 in the ACC, it feels great,” he said. “Got a long way to go but definitely a good start.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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