SOUTH BEND — A game week that started with scout team reps for Jack Kiser ended Saturday with a game ball.
The sophomore Notre Dame linebacker didn’t know for sure that he would be starting until Saturday morning. Then he went out and led the Irish with eight tackles, including two tackles for a loss, in a 52-0 blowout victory over South Florida.
“You always have to be ready,” Kiser said. “Playing on the scout team, your goal is always to make it up and get to the next level. So when I found out, the mentality was ‘All right, let’s go.’ I knew the game plan.”
The game plan for Notre Dame’s personnel changed throughout the week. Kiser was one of several Notre Dame players asked to play an increased role Saturday.
The No. 7 Irish (2-0) were without nine players who appeared on the depth chart for their season opener against Duke. Only two of those players — wide receiver Ben Skowronek (hamstring) and safety Kyle Hamilton (ankle) — were known to be dealing with injuries from last week’s game.
Prior to facing the Bulls (1-1), the Irish football program announced seven other players listed on the depth chart would be unavailable for the game: last week’s starting buck linebacker Marist Liufau and his backup Shayne Simon, starting cornerback TaRiq Bracy, starting punt returner Lawrence Keys III, No. 3 defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, No. 2 quarterback Brendon Clark and reserve running back Jahmir Smith.
USF announced seven players were unavailable, including starting offensive linemen Brad Cecil and Demetris Harris.
Notre Dame’s policy for pregame availability reports is to not detail whether a player is unavailable due to injury, a positive COVID-19 test or a mandatory quarantine from contact tracing. Players not listed on the week’s depth chart also aren’t included in the pregame reports.
The Irish will likely share their full week of COVID-19 testing results, without identifying players, on Monday as they did following the season opener. Even head coach Brian Kelly did his best to avoid detailing exactly when he found out certain players wouldn’t be available for Saturday’s game.
“It's an ongoing process,” Kelly said. “During the week or 2 in the morning or 12:50 before kickoff, you just kind of roll with it.”
No one made more of his opportunity than Kiser, a former three-star recruit from Pioneer Junior-Senior High in Royal Center, Ind. Playing at Notre Dame alone has been a dream come true for the 6-foot-2, 227-pound linebacker from a town with a population of less than 900 and no stoplight.
“Notre Dame is the peak of the mountain in terms of college football and especially in Indiana,” Kiser said. “Wearing a golden helmet and just being on the team, those are dreams that many kids (have) here in the state of Indiana. So to put the helmet on, walk down that staircase and then get on that field, it’s surreal.
“And then to actually take live snaps and contribute to the defense, that’s just amazing. And then to get the game ball, you just don’t think things like that will happen to you.”
Kelly said the team was pretty excited in the locker room after Kiser, who played mostly on special teams in only four games last season, was given the game ball.
“It’s just confirmation that all of that hard work that you put in, working in the shadows, the guys in the locker room see that,” Kiser said. “And it was just great. It was awesome to hear that.”
Junior safety Houston Griffith and freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis stepped into the starting defensive lineup as well with Hamilton and Bracy sidelined. Griffith and Lewis tied for second on the team with five tackles each. Both recorded one tackle for a loss, and Lewis broke up three passes.
The entire defense elevated its game to limit Bulls to 231 total yards and zero points in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr.’s return to Notre Dame Stadium.
Kelly demanded a shutout — the fourth of his Notre Dame tenure — during a halftime locker room speech shown on the USA Network TV broadcast.
“We’re scoring every time we’ve got the football,” Kelly said at halftime. “We’re not letting them score any points. We want a shutout. We’re playing for a shutout. This thing is too damn hard. I’m tired of being the nice guy.”
Griffith said the speech resonated with the players.
“It brought a lot of juice to the locker room,” Griffith said. “Guys were really excited. We were just prepared and ready to go out there and finish off the opponent.”
USF starting quarterback Jordan McCloud threw just 14 passes with eight completions for 64 yards. He was sacked once and finished with 21 yards on five carries. Running back Johnny Ford recorded the longest play of the day for the Bulls with a 42-yard run and finished with six carries for 70 yards.
“They are a fast and physical team,” McCloud said. “That’s obviously tough to play against. In all aspects of the game, every single player was fast and physical.”
Notre Dame’s offense came through with the fast start it couldn’t muster the week before against Duke. The Irish scored touchdowns on five of their six possessions in the first half against USF after scoring just 10 points in the first half last week.
The only first-half possession against USF that didn’t result in a touchdown ended with a failed 38-yard field goal attempt from Jonathan Doerer.
“It builds confidence when we can start fast,” Irish quarterback Ian Book said. “When we play like that with tempo, we're a really good offense.”
Book, who finished 12-of-19 passing for 144 yards, scored three rushing touchdowns in the first half. The first drive ended with a four-yard scramble. The other two came on one-yard quarterback sneaks.
It was the second time Book scored three rushing touchdowns in a game in his career and the first time an Irish quarterback in the modern era (post-1936) has done so in the first half of a game.
“Those one-yard rushes don't count,” Book said. “You give those touchdowns to the running backs who brought us all the way down there and the O-line. I'm following all those guys up front and they're paving the way for me and I have to get a yard. I don't want to take credit for those.”
Notre Dame’s running game took the lead in the offense Saturday with 45 carries for 281 yards. Running backs Chris Tyree, C’Bo Flemister and Jafar Armstrong each scored rushing touchdowns.
A one-yard touchdown in the first quarter was a career first for the freshman Tyree, who finished with eight carries for 65 yards. Flemister, a junior, set a career high with 127 yards on 13 carries. Starter Kyren Williams logged 10 carries for 62 yards.
“We knew these guys were strong, physical runners,” USF head coach Jeff Scott said. “And we knew and stressed that we needed to do a really good job of wrapping up. We did not. They broke a lot of tackles and created some explosive plays.”
Armstrong’s five-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter came on fourth-and-goal with 2:15 remaining. Some of the 10,085 fans in attendance, of whom Notre Dame estimated roughly 90% were students, started a “go for it” chant before the play. The Irish won their 20th consecutive home game, breaking the modern era program record of 19 set from 1987-90.
USF’s struggles included punt team blunders, too. Punter Trent Schneider fielded a bad snap in the second quarter and barely got rid of the one-yard punt before being drilled by Notre Dame freshman Jordan Botelho. Later, backup punter Kenny Scribner had a punt blocked following another bad snap by Ian Deneen. Irish linebacker Osita Ekwonu blocked the punt and Botelho returned it for a one-yard touchdown.
Because USF didn’t have any backup long snappers available, the Bulls finished the game with its offense handling the punting responsibilities. That’s how the day went for USF, which looked outmatched in just about every aspect of the game in Scott’s second game as head coach.
As it should, Kelly’s team looked much more talented and better prepared. That’s how a third-string linebacker ends up with the game ball.
“He's a remarkable young man that can help our offense get prepared for South Florida's defense and then put himself in a position where he can lead our team in tackles,” Kelly said of Kiser.
“I was kidding (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach) Clark (Lea). I was like, ‘What are you doing? Why hasn't he been starting all year?’”
“You know, tongue-in-cheek. But he's prepared himself very well.”