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Irish beat Cardinals 12-7 in tight contest

| Saturday, October 17, 2020

It’s hard to imagine a Notre Dame game could get any more uneventful following the 45-0 routing of South Florida Sept. 19, but Saturday’s matchup against Louisville definitely gave it a run for its money.

“Their preparation was outstanding during the week,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his team leading up to the game. “I thought they came in with a mindset that was such that they knew this was not a 1-3 football team they were playing today.”

Kelly’s big takeaways from the game boiled down to two key points.

“I think the things we have to do better, obviously if you watched the game — redzone,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got to score touchdowns and not field goals. Then we’ve got to get off the field on third down. Those are the two things we talked about. We’ve got to be better there. We’ll certainly spend time in those two particular areas in working to be better and more efficient.”

The opening drive had all the makings of a dynamic offensive performance for the Irish. A five-yard rush by sophomore running back Kyren Williams kicked things off, followed by an 18-yard pass from graduate student quarterback Ian Book to junior wide receiver Kevin Austin. This marked Austin’s first catch of the season, after being sidelined for a foot injury back in August that ultimately required surgery.

With the ball just past the 50-yard line, Book decided it was his turn to make a splash, cutting through the middle of the Louisville offense for an 18-yard gain. After back-to-back incomplete passes to senior Brock Wright and freshman Michael Mayer, Book found graduate transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek for 16 yards and a first down.

Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book scrambles forward with the ball while freshman tight end Michael Mayer looks to pick up a block during Notre Dame’s 12-7 win.

The momentum would eventually run out though as the Irish failed to convert on three attempts within the 15-yard line, bringing out senior kicker Jonathan Doerer to complete a 32-yard field goal and put the Irish on the board.

Book and co. didn’t stay out for long as the Notre Dame defense held Louisville to only 13 yards in their first drive of the day. Upon returning, the Notre Dame offense went back to the same playbook — mixing up looks between their running corps and the big receiving targets on the outside. A few short gains from Williams were followed by a 10-yard pickup from senior Avery Davis and a holding penalty against Louisville, bringing Notre Dame within striking distance.

The Irish were unable to close out the drive, with Book ultimately being sacked just around the 10-yard line. However, Doerer made sure the Irish drive wasn’t without anything to show, hitting another field goal and putting the Irish up 6-0 to close the first quarter.

Returning for the second quarter, the Louisville offense looked to get star junior receiver Tutu Atwell and redshirt junior tight end Isaac Martin involved in the play. Meanwhile, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees elected to focus on the run game, continually looking to give Williams and freshman running back Chris Tyree the ball.

Following three straight drives with neither team managing to make it into the red zone, the Irish found themselves on the 13-yard line. On third down, Book found Austin in the back right corner of the end zone. While the crowd erupted in cheers, the officials eventually overturned the touchdown upon determining that Austin’s foot was out of bounds.

With less than a minute left in the first half, Notre Dame sophomore punter Jay Bramblett pulled a trick play on the Cardinals, going from holder to running back as he attempted to barrel his way toward the goal line on a fake kick. Bramblett ultimately came up two yards short of converting the first down and the Louisville offense returned to close out the half. Kelly discussed what went into that play call.

“On film, in film study, we felt like there was a vulnerability there,” he said. “We felt like it was going to go for a touchdown or I wouldn’t have called it, coupled with the fact that that was the time to take a shot at it.”

The halftime break proved pivotal for the Cardinals, who looked like a different team emerging from their locker room. Using up nearly half of the third quarter on their first drive, redshirt junior quarterback Malik Cunningham marched his offense 83 yards down the field, highlighted by a 29-yard pass to redshirt sophomore running back Javian Hawkins who was brought down inches short of the goal line. Cunningham eventually found redshirt sophomore Marshon Ford for the go-ahead score, giving the Cardinals their first lead of the game.

Kelly praised Louisville for the way they competed in the contest.

“Louisville played extremely well,” he said. “[Head] coach [Scott Satterfield] had them ready to play. They took care of the football. I think I commented earlier in the week that I thought they had beaten themselves, quite frankly, and they easily could have been 4-0. They played like a 4-0 team today. We withstood that.”

That lead didn’t last long, though. The trio of Book, Tyree and Williams responded once again, with Book scrambling out of the pocket on third-and-long down the left sideline and over the pylon to put Notre Dame back on top.

Despite the struggle of the offense, graduate student defensive linemen Daelin Hayes said the defense never wavered and expected to do their job from the opening kickoff.

“We tell the offense all they need to do is give us three points and we’ll go do the rest,” Hayes said. “That’s the mindset that our defense, you know, embodies, that [Defensive Coordinator Clark] Lea has instilled in us. And that’s the mindset that we go out and we hold each other to that standard each and every time on the field.”

Hoping to give themselves a touchdown cushion, the Irish went for the two-point conversion but couldn’t convert, returning to their sideline up five. The offensive struggles continued to plague both teams as neither were able to get on the board for the remainder of the game. However, the Irish managed to burn nearly eight minutes of clock in the fourth quarter as they got three key third down conversions. They would take a knee in the redzone to ice the final minute and a half of play.

While some fans may have left the game disappointed, Hayes reiterated that this game was about discipline.

“We just wanted to get back to the basics, stick to our fundamentals, and just play our type of ball, so we were confident in that,” he said. “Coach allowed us to go out and make plays, kept the game plan simple.”

While fans may not have taken a glowing impression of Notre Dame’s offense from this game, Kelly believes the final score can be misleading.

“I’ve coached a lot of games over 30 years,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve been in one quite like this. I’ve been in a 12-7 game when it was a stinker. You’ll be like, ‘Ew.’ But this game was a little different. It was hard-fought.”

Ultimately, Kelly is content that the team came away from the game with a win.

“We’re excited about the victory,” he said. “Winning is hard. [We’re] proud of our football team.”

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