SOUTH BEND — Julian Okwara doesn’t get to play in front of his father very often.
His father, Julius, lives and maintains multiple businesses in Nigeria and hasn’t been able to attend many Notre Dame football games in person the last few years. But Julius sat in the stands of Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday next to his wife Melda, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., watching their son dominate.
Julian Okwara recorded his first three sacks of the season and twice forced fumbles on those sacks in No. 10 Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory over No. 18 Virginia.
“I love what Julian did,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He got back to playing really physical football.
“I think Julian would tell you the whole kind of sack thing was too much of a personal thing, and he got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense and it really showed itself today. And he’s going to take off from here.”
Okwara’s big day came with his parents in the crowd and personnel from eight different NFL teams watching in person, including Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
The potential first-round NFL Draft pick came into the season with high expectations and a personal goal of 18.5 sacks for the season. Yet through the first three games of 2019, Okwara failed to record a single sack.
Okwara and the rest of Notre Dame’s pass rush showed plenty of life in sacking dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins eight times. The Irish (3-1) registered only four sacks in the first three games combined.
The 6-foot-5, 248-pound Okwara stripped Perkins on his first sack and recovered the fumble himself. His third sack, which came in the third quarter, resulted in a Perkins fumble that defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji scooped up and returned 23 yards for a touchdown and a 28-17 lead.
The defense carried the day for Notre Dame by forcing five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions — and allowing Virginia (4-1) to total only four rushing yards. The Irish offense, which struggled to find consistency throughout the game, managed to turn three of the turnovers into three touchdowns. The only Virginia turnover that didn’t result in a Notre Dame score came at the end of the fourth quarter when the Irish ran out the clock.
“We have some weaknesses to expose, if we had executed better in those areas, we would have had a chance to win the game,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall. “I still think that. However, eight sacks, five turnovers: Those numbers are substantial.”
Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem finished with 2.5 sacks. Fellow senior Jamir Jones, playing in just his second game of the season, recorded a strip sack that defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa returned for 48 yards in the third quarter.
Perkins finished the game 30 of 43 passing for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdown passes — to Joe Reed in the first quarter and Hasise Dubois in the second — came in the first half as he racked up 235 passing yards before the break. His two interceptions, caught by safeties Alohi Gilman and Kyle Hamilton, came in the second half.
Perkins gained 30 yards rushing, but his negative runs and sacks pushed his net total to negative-29 yards on 16 carries.
“We had to get a great pass rush and we had to contain him with our front four,” Kelly said. “We had to put our corners on an island quite a bit and force him to throw the football. Which he did, give him credit, first half he was great.
“In the second half we were able to get to him quickly and he had to get the ball out of his hand quickly and that was really the difference in the game for us.”
Notre Dame’s running game managed just 45 rushing yards in the first half, but running backs Tony Jones Jr., on a five-yard run, and C’Bo Flemister, on an 11-yard run, scored the first two touchdowns of the game in the first quarter.
Jones added two more touchdown runs in the second half as the Irish found more success on the ground while trying to close out the game. His 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter all but iced the game away with 10:28 remaining with the Notre Dame leading 35-17.
An 18-carry, 131-yard, three-touchdown performance by Jones covered up a lackluster passing game by Notre Dame. Quarterback Ian Book completed 17-of-25 for 165 yards. Wide receiver Chase Claypool, who battled through an ankle injury, finished with six catches for 30 yards. Tight end Cole Kmet caught a 37-yard pass as part of his four-catch, 65-yard day.
“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively,” Kelly said. “We have not. We’re far from where we want to be. We have a lot of things to sort out and figure out offensively, personnel, but what we did is we gave Tony Jones a break. So he ran hard in the second half and in particular the third and fourth quarter.”
Flemister (six carries for 27 yards) and running back Jahmir Smith (three carries for eight yards) spelled Jones throughout the game. But the production lagged offensively as Notre Dame’s defense kept making plays.
“We’ll have spurts like there at the end of the fourth quarter we did really well,” Kmet said. “We’ll have quarters here and there where we don’t really do much. Putting a four-quarter game together, being able to run and pass the ball efficiently would be the next step for us.”
Despite trailing 17-14 at halftime on Saturday a week after a tough loss at Georgia, Kelly’s team responded in the second half. In the Georgia postgame, Kelly said this team would be defined with how it rebounded against Virginia.
It wasn’t pretty at times, but the effort was enough to win.
“They were determined. They were persistent. They didn’t panic,” Kelly said. “Maybe teams earlier that I’ve had here would not have found a way to win that game, but this is a group that has really developed a persistence about them in the way they do things on a day-to-day basis.”