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Adams: The defining moments of Notre Dame’s 2020 football season

| Monday, April 12, 2021

As I wrote in a column before this past football season’s opener against Duke:

“A football season is made up of moments — moments which stick in the minds of fans and linger with them until they are, usually, consigned to history and replaced by moments of the next year. Some moments get overlooked but are still important for their context within a game, a season or a program as a whole.”

In this column, I am going to perform the same task as the last one of picking the defining moment of every one of Notre Dame’s 12 football games in 2020. Was I simply too lazy to come up with a new intro this time around? That is a very real possibility.

But that doesn’t matter, cause the rest of the column is certified fresh. So let’s get to it.


Sept. 12 vs. Duke — Jay Bramblett shows his inner high school QB

I could go with Michael Mayer’s two-tackle-breaking catch-and-run on a critical third down late in the contest. Talk about a welcome game for the freshman beast. And speaking of welcome games, I would love to recognize Kyren Williams for a performance that seemingly came out of nowhere with his 75-yard catch-and-run on a screen, but that was neutralized by a goal line pick the next play …

So I’ll give credit to Bramblett for giving the offense an injection it desperately needed after three straight three-and-outs to start the season. I’m gonna be honest, it was not the most enjoyable experience in the world to be watching this game from the balcony of the press box while simultaneously taking pictures — because photographers were not allowed on the field this year — and live-tweeting the game from the Observer Sports Twitter account. (Although I did get a print photo credit that I am particularly proud of).

So I didn’t really process how exciting it was to see Notre Dame’s first special teams trick play in years because I was trying to snap some good photos of it (and you best believe I did), but it was still dope. But more than that, it’s emblematic of how the offense consistently leans on the other units of the Notre Dame football team, and unfortunately those other units can’t always make a little magic happen like Bramblett did here.


Sept. 19 vs. USF — “I just love contact”

Poetic words from Tommy Tremble here. There wasn’t much to take away from this game, except for the idea that maybe Tremble would turn into Notre Dame’s go-to receiving threat.

That didn’t happen, but it was a beautiful thing to see any member of the Irish’s stable of running backs running behind Tremble as a lead blocker. Absolutely beautiful. So his postgame on-field presser where he gave this gem of a quote makes for the moment of a game in which the Irish completely dominated and rinsed their mouths of the bitter aftertaste from that September day in 2011 when they last played the Bulls.


Oct. 10 vs. Florida State — Matt Salerno becomes the full-time punt returner

I hate to make it a downer moment in an otherwise enjoyable game. I could go with one of the running back rushing touchdowns through the chasms the offensive line was opening for them, Liam Eichenberg playing through a swollen-shut eye or with Shaun Crawford recording Notre Dame’s first interception of the season.

But after Lawrence Keys III muffed a punt in the first quarter that led to a 17-14 deficit at the end of that period, one of the Brians (Kelly or Polian) made the decision to yank Keys from the starting punt returner role, relegating him to the bench for the remainder of the season. From then on, it was just garbage time chances for Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver (not counting Northwestern transfer Ben Skowronek) in 2020.

Seriously? All due respect to Matt Salerno, but seriously? This is the best you could do? Way to signal to everyone in the universe that you are throwing in the towel on having any kind of punt return game. Too bad there wasn’t a good alliterative nickname for Salerno like there was for “Fair-Catch” Chris Finke.


Oct. 17 vs. Louisville — Kevin Austin’s near-first career touchdown

It was a dreadful game, that’s for sure. But Notre Dame was in control more than the final margin indicated, and that control would have been more apparent had Ian Book and Austin connected on this play.

Austin just barely stepped out of bounds as he caught the would-be touchdown pass from Book. Considering the windy conditions, it was a really good throw, and few receivers (maybe none) could have made that catch aside from Austin. It’s the play of the game because it just about sums up what could have been for the Notre Dame passing attack had Austin stayed healthy.

That said, I’ll shout out Book’s toe-tap dance into the end zone to convert the go-ahead and ultimately game-winning touchdown.


Oct. 24 at Pitt — Ben Skowronek answers the bell

Screw it, let’s just go with the obvious here. After that Louisville game, there were a LOT of questions about this receiver group and their apparent inability to stretch the field, and Skowronek seemed to quell that at least a little bit with two receiving touchdowns, especially a 73-yard bomb.

Granted, Pitt’s defense was very aggressive, which made it boom or bust. But it was still impressive — in just his second game back from a hamstring injury — to see Benny snagging balls out of the air and putting on the jets after the catch (see what I did there?). Also, due respect to Book for staying poised in the pocket and ripping it to Skowronek on this play in particular.


Oct. 31 at Georgia Tech — Kyle Hamilton with the fourth down stop

It’s a majestic thing to see K-Ham breaking through the line of scrimmage to trip ’em up in the backfield — or to see him make pretty much any play on a football field.

There was very little to take away from this game one week before the Clemson matchup. There was a near full-field scoop ’n score for the Yellowjackets that didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

The main reason I pick Hamilton here, honestly, is to atone for not picking his trip-up of Malcolm Perry on fourth down in 2019’s Navy game as the moment of that contest. Still, while I credit Hamilton for making yet another incredible play for the Irish, I’ll give a brief mention to junior receiver Joe Wilkins for his first career touchdown catch in this game. Now there’s a guy with a story you can root for.


Nov. 7 vs. Clemson — Take your pick…

I can’t choose from this one, so I leave it to you:

  • Kyren Williams’ 65-yard house call on the first (official) play from scrimmage.
  • “And it’s in the hands of Owusu-Koramoah!” (Thank you, Mike Tirico, for the fantastic soundbite).
  • Jay Bramblett, a football player from Tuscaloosa, Ala., preventing a kick-6 before the half.
  • Ian Book going 53 yards to Avery Davis.
  • Book throwing the game-tying, overtime-forcing touchdown to Davis.
  • The student section chanting “F— you, Dabo” after he intimidated the referee into picking up a pass interference flag against Clemson.
  • Daelin Hayes sacking D.J. Uiagelelei in double overtime.
  • Storming the field (sorry not sorry).
  • The postgame locker room celebration video.


Nov. 14 at Boston College — Ben Skowronek flexes on ’em

Oh, to wail on Backup– I mean, Boston College. It’s a wonderful thing, especially when your former backup quarterback is starting for them, and even more especially when that backup quarterback shared an edit insinuating that Brian Kelly was lobbying the NCAA to not grant Jurkovec his waiver for immediate eligibility last season.

And, in case you forgot, it was kinda funny (and very annoying) when the refs in this game dished out three largely unwarranted unsportsmanlike penalties to Notre Dame. That included one when Skowronek flexed his guns after one of his three receiving touchdowns in the first half. It was a great TD catch despite a defensive pass interference, so credit to Ben, but if K-Ham hadn’t dropped that would-be pick-6 then that would easily be the play of this game.


Nov. 27 at North Carolina — “For TP”

I seriously considered giving this to Book for his Jesus-take-the-wheel flick pass to Michael Mayer, or maybe to Kyren Williams for what Lebron James called “The Silencer” in his tweet shouting out the ND running back.

But some things are bigger than football, and Tommy Rees tweeting out an aerial snapshot of Notre Dame in 14 personnel getting ready to convert said “Silencer” is just too special. That’s because the caption read, “For TP,” in reference to Tyler Plantz, whose brother Zac passed away over Thanksgiving night before the Black Friday game vs. UNC.

I recommend you read the (free) story Matt Fortuna and Pete Sampson did on the Plantz family for The Athletic if you haven’t already.


Dec. 5 vs. Syracuse — Chris Tyree’s 94-yard touchdown run

Yes, Book became Notre Dame’s all-time winningest quarterback with the victory over Syracuse, but that isn’t really a ‘moment’ unless I take when the clock hits zero, and that’s not very fun. Plus, I’ve already picked a couple of postgame moments with Tremble’s “I love contact” and Rees’ tweet.

So I’m going with Tyree letting loose because it really felt good to see the guy who we’d heard was nothing but speed, speed and more speed all year finally break a real home run. Who cares if it was against Syracuse in garbage time? That’s what Notre Dame has to look forward to for at least the next two seasons, and ideally more of it if the coaching staff will put Tyree and Kyren Williams on the field together more (which, and I know I’m beating a dead horse here, they should absolutely do).


Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game vs. Clemson — “Doink!”

Onomatopoeia. You hate to see (and hear) it. It’s often a foreboding sign of bad things to come when the pigskin bounces off the upright and the ensuing reverberations drive an eerie feeling into the very core of your being. That’s what happened to senior kicker Jonathan Doerer, in the red zone, on Notre Dame’s second drive of the ACC Championship game against Clemson. And after it hit the upright, it hit the fan.

This is one of those very rare instances where I’m mildly tempted to pick a play by the opposition as the play of the game, but there wasn’t really one play by Clemson aside from Amari Rodgers torching Shaun Crawford for a 67-yard touchdown. The “doink” just felt like the one to go with considering the Irish were already settling for three points in the red zone up just 3-0 on a fully-loaded Tigers squad. That said, for the next (and final) game, I have to pay respect for the moment that I think was undoubtedly the defining one of the contest.


Jan. 1 Rose Bowl vs. Alabama — Najee Harris hurdling Nick McCloud

This was an objectively awesome play, if not one aided by McCloud making the worst possible attempt at a tackle.

But, like I said, I gotta give credit where credit is due, because Harris not only hurdled a dude, but he hurdled a 6-foot-and-one-half-inch McCloud who was standing nearly straight up. And, after that, he proceeded to rumble downfield for 53 yards — coincidentally the same number of yards on Book’s fourth quarter pass to Avery Davis in the first game against Clemson (but I think that’s just the nostalgia making me bring that up).

It’s a shame that the last two moments of this piece, the ones that recency bias is going to make stick in our heads, are such downers. But I look forward to hopefully seeing another football beat member take up the torch on these defining moments pieces, because looking back on snapshots of a season can be both exhilarating and despair-inducing.

That’s just how it is when you only play a 12-game season. It’s the beautiful thing about college football. And as someone who had the absolute privilege of spending two years covering not just one of the most historic college football programs ever, but one going through an awesome resurgence throughout my four years as an undergraduate, I couldn’t be more thankful.

And I’m sorry to have lied to you, dear Observer Reader, because this isn’t entirely certified fresh. I just can’t think of a better way to wrap up this piece than how I wrapped up the last one. Because in a year where the value of sports was enhanced by their absence, I feel the need to rehash the same closing words:

“Let’s let sports do what they’re best at and make a few memories.”

Well put, if I do say so myself.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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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.

Contact Hayden