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Ekanayake reflects on historic 2020 football season

| Friday, May 21, 2021

The 2020 Notre Dame football season was truly like no other. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Irish were forced to temporarily join a conference for the first time in their tenured history. As a member of the ACC, the Irish finished the regular season with a perfect 9-0 conference record and 10-0 record overall. The Irish ultimately ended up losing to the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship game and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl.

The Irish opened their season against the Duke Blue Devils. Although they struggled at times, the Irish were able to win 27-13 and record their first ever conference victory.

In that game, it was apparent that running back Kyren Williams was going to be a huge part of the Irish offense going forward. Williams finished with over 100 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, and he would build off of that performance all season and prove to be one of the most prolific running backs in the country.

Cameron Ekanayake, who was a senior on the 2020-21 team and a 2020 Rhodes Scholarship Finalist, discussed what it meant to play in a conference for a season.

“It’s just another way that the season was so unique compared to other seasons with Notre Dame in the ACC,” Ekanayake said. “It was very interesting … for the past three years, we played as an independent school. But then we get the chance to play in the ACC, and we kind of beat up on the ACC. Obviously we would have loved to win the ACC Championship, but just given the chance to play in an ACC Championship game as a Notre Dame player is something that no one got to experience before, and that’s very unique.”

After cruising to a 52-0 win over South Florida in the second game of the year, the season was placed on hold, and a game against Wake Forest was cancelled due to positive COVID-19 cases within the Irish program. Ekanayake discussed the difficulty of the shutdown midseason.

“Our program is kind of built to deal with adversity, and our coaches and strength staff kind of prepared us inadvertently for this moment throughout my four years,” Ekanayake said. “We were able to really deal with COVID and then hunker down and when we got back to it, we were very dedicated, and we were very focused on what we had to do.”

The Irish returned to action after a lengthy delay for a night game in Notre Dame Stadium against Florida State. Despite being close early, the Irish were able to pull away towards the end of the second half and secure a comfortable 42-26 victory over the Seminoles.

After the Florida State game, the Irish secured another victory against Louisville. However, the offense struggled mightily throughout, putting up only 12 points en route to a 12-7 victory. Ekanayake discussed the team’s response to the sluggish victory.

“We knew that that wasn’t indicative of our ability, but it didn’t really get us down,” Ekanayake said. “We were confident … we knew what we were capable of as an offense. I don’t think anyone lost faith in any position group or group of guys. We knew what we’re capable of. And we knew we had to show that, and that’s what we did.”

The Irish offense showed their capability on the road over the next two weeks in victories over Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, winning by scores of 45-3 and 31-13, respectively. In both of those games, the offense put up over 400 yards and looked to be clicking on all cylinders.

After winning both of those games, the stage was set for the biggest moment of the season with undefeated, top-ranked Clemson coming to Notre Dame Stadium to face the fourth-ranked, undefeated Irish.

The game could not have been more entertaining. Despite the Irish jumping out to an early lead in the first half, Clemson battled back and was able to take a seven point lead with only minutes left in the fourth quarter. Although it looked bleak for the Irish, quarterback Ian Book and the Irish offense were able to tie the game after a legendary 91 yard touchdown drive that was capped by an Avery Davis touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.

The game would go to double overtime, where the Irish scored on offense first before sacking Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei twice to force the Tigers to turn the ball over on downs and secure the victory.

Ekanayake said that seeing the fans rush the field after the Clemson victory was the highlight of the year for him.

“It was one of the most memorable moments,” Ekanayake said. “It was kind of a reward per se for enduring all the tribulations that COVID had put on us all summer. All spring, we were forced to have meetings with spring ball over Zoom and we were forced to work out with masks. It is needless to say it put a lot of stress on the season, and beating Clemson made it all worth it.”

The following week, the Irish took care of business on the road against Boston College (45-31), which set up a top-25 matchup two weeks later against the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Although the Irish defense gave up touchdowns on the first two Tar Heels’ drives, the Irish defense stiffened after that and only allowed three more points over the remainder of the game. A Kyren Williams touchdown with just over a minute remaining secured the 31-17 road victory for the Irish.

The final game of the regular season came against Syracuse on Senior Day, and the Irish rolled to a 45-21 victory. With the victory, Ian Book secured his 30th career win at Notre Dame, which is good for the most in school history. Ekanayake talked about what Senior Day was like this year in the midst of the pandemic.

“It looked a little different than normal Senior Days, but it kind of gave it a very intimate feel to the whole night, more so than a normal Senior Day night,” Ekanayake said. “You had your family and your best friends up there watching you … Being a walk-on, it was really awesome to get some more carries on Senior Day, and sharing that with a lot of my walk-on buddies and just sharing that with my senior buddies — scholarship or walk-on — it was really special.”

After securing the victory, the Irish were set up for a rematch against Clemson in the ACC Championship game. Unfortunately for the Irish, this game was much different from November’s game in South Bend, and Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense were able to roll against the Irish and secure a convincing 34-10 victory.

Despite the loss, the Irish were still selected for the College Football Playoff, setting up a matchup against top-ranked Alabama in the Rose Bowl. The game would be played in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, due to COVID-19 concerns in Pasadena. Ekanayake discussed what it meant to him to play in the Rose Bowl.

“It was very special,” Ekanayake said. “I’ve dreamt of it. I think half my teammates had dreamt of playing in the Rose Bowl. Granted, it was in Dallas and not Pasadena, but it was still the Rose Bowl nonetheless, and everyone could feel that … Playing against the best in the country in Alabama is something that, as a Notre Dame student, you don’t really know if you’re going to get an opportunity to play Alabama, but it was really special.”

It was apparent from the start that the Crimson Tide was the better of the two teams, and Alabama cruised to a comfortable 31-17 victory over the Irish. Despite the loss, Ekanayake was very fortunate to experience the Rose Bowl with his teammates.

“Despite the outcome, our team is such a tight knit group and it’s really a brotherhood,” Ekanayake said. “Win or lose, we have each other’s back and we stick together and that’s no different in the Rose Bowl against Alabama … I was just fortunate to be out there with my best friends and my brothers for life and to be able to play on the biggest stage and support those guys.”

Although Ekanayake’s time as a part of the Notre Dame football team is over, he has big academic and career plans for himself going forward.

“My plan is to go to medical school, and then I want to go into surgery … some sort of special surgery like cardiothoracic surgery,” Ekanayake said. “I want to get my master’s in policy too, and try to figure out a way to implement a new and innovative system to look at healthcare policy to try to increase healthcare accessibility for people in developing countries.”

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

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