SOUTH BEND — Points were at such a premium Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium that a decision to attempt a fake field goal in the second quarter could have cost the Irish the game.
Fortunately for No. 4 Notre Dame’s offense, the defense returned to its stingy self in a 12-7 victory over Louisville.
The Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) were able to move the ball against the Cardinals (1-4, 0-4), but the momentum repeatedly stalled in the red zone. Notre Dame’s first two trips to the red zone ended with 32- and 30-yard field goals by Jonathan Doerer. Then with a 6-0 lead late in the second quarter, the Irish were faced with a fourth-and-9 from the Louisville 13.
Notre Dame opted for deception instead of three points. Holder Jay Bramblett, the starting punter, took the snap from Michael Vinson and ran to his left. With blocks developing on the inside, Bramblett first tried to beat the defense around the edge, spun back inside to avoid a tackle and ran into offensive lineman Aaron Banks. The rest of the offensive line tried to push Bramblett forward, but he still came up two yards shy of a first down.
Head coach Brian Kelly said the call for a fake field goal was informed by a Louisville weakness the coaching staff identified during film study.
“I felt like that was the right time to take a shot at it,” Kelly said. “The only thing you can question is the distance, how far it was. The rationale behind it was that the way it was set up, we felt like it was a play that we'd go for a touchdown.”
The only time the Irish offense found the end zone was when quarterback Ian Book scrambled, made a defender miss and dove for a 13-yard touchdown on third-and-8 with 3:34 remaining in the third quarter.
Book made some plays with his feet throughout the game, but he was also sacked four times. He finished second on the team with 12 rushes for 47 yards.
“Louisville threw some new looks at us,” Book said. “They did a good job with some movement and they had a good D-Line and they were able to get home a couple of times. It might look like one of the O-linemen missed and maybe I should have gotten the ball out. Got to go watch the film. Shouldn’t blame anybody for that.”
The running game wasn’t much of an issue for the Irish, though it didn’t have as many big plays as it did the week prior against Florida State. Running back Kyren Williams totaled 127 yards on 25 carries to give the Irish a 100-yard rushing performance for the fifth consecutive game, dating back to the Camping World Bowl last season.
A productive running game (232 yards), no turnovers and a third-down conversion rate 57.1% (8-of-14) allowed the Irish to control time of possession (36:15 to 23:45).
“Offensively, we didn’t have very many plays at all today,” Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield said. “Some of the fewest plays I think I’ve ever ran in a game. I think 45 plays. They did a great job of staying on the field. And we didn’t do as good of a job with that.”
Notre Dame’s offense iced the game away with a 14-play, 57-yard drive that ate up the final 7:55. Book made crucial completions to wide receivers Javon McKinley (seven yards on third-and-6) and Ben Skowronek (12 yards on third-and-6) to keep the drive going.
That efficiency through the air wasn’t there for much of the game. Book said on NBC that it was the windiest game he had ever played in. The weather report at kickoff cited winds of 20 miles per hour. Kelly estimated gusts of up to 30 mph in his postgame press conference.
That didn’t stop the Irish from trying to throw the ball. Book completed 11 of his 19 passes for 106 yards. The passing game lacked deep throws with the longest reception going to wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. for 18 yards.
“The weather conditions weren't great today and conducive for that,” Kelly said. “It's like anything else. When you're dealing with a team that loads the box, you have to make some plays on the perimeter.
“Kevin Austin has to make more plays for us. Ben Skowronek has to make more plays for us on the outside. Javon McKinley. Braden Lenzy was limited today with a soft-tissue injury. He has to make more plays. Those guys have to be involved.”
Skowronek caught his first two passes in an Irish uniform for 28 yards. Wide receiver Avery Davis and running back Chris Tyree each logged a pair of catches for 17 and 15 yards, respectively. Austin (18 yards) and McKinley (7 yards) were limited to one catch each. Lenzy, who dealt with a hamstring issue earlier this season, was held catchless.
Despite only a five-point margin, Notre Dame appeared to be destined for victory for the majority of the game. The outcome started to come into question when Louisville took a 7-6 lead on the opening drive of the second half.
Quarterback Malik Cunningham converted a fourth-and-3 near midfield with an eight-yard run. The Cardinals were on the move when Cunningham hit tight end Marshon Ford for a 10-yard reception and running back Javian Hawkins for a 29-yard reception on a wheel route. Cunningham and Ford connected again for a one-yard touchdown pass to give Louisville a lead.
The Cardinals gave the Irish a scare on the ensuing kickoff, which was originally recovered by the Cardinals. But the onside kick recovery was overturned upon review. Louisville’s kickoff team initiated contact with Notre Dame’s front line before the football went 10 yards, which merited a five-yard penalty and a re-kick.
Notre Dame immediately responded with its only touchdown drive of the game, that ended with Book’s run. The Irish failed to convert a two-point conversion when McKinley couldn’t hang on to a jump ball from Book.
The margin of error remained slim for Notre Dame’s defense all game long as the offense failed to open up a two-score advantage at any point. The defense never sacked Cunningham but limited his opportunities for big plays in the passing game. He completed 16 of his 19 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown. Elusive wide receiver Tutu Atwell was held to four catches for 32 yards.
Running back Javian Hawkins, who entered Saturday averaging 117 rushing yards per game, was bottled up for 51 yards on 15 carries.
“We try to stay as consistent as possible by making sure you keep the energy up on the sidelines, by making sure that you’re rooting the offense on and making sure that everyone’s on one accord,” said rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who led the Irish with three tackles for a loss. “So when you’re talking about playing a slow-paced game, you want to make sure everything stays consistent, everything stays the same and just continue to play to the best of our ability.”
In a game that lacked many explosive plays, the crowd of 10,182 didn’t have a lot to cheer about on a gray and dreary day in South Bend. But Kelly found a share of silver linings in the victory.
“I don't even know if it aesthetically looked bad,” Kelly said. “We controlled the line of scrimmage. We controlled the time of possession. I think we had one or two penalties (It was three). We didn't turn the football over.
“I've coached a lot of games over 30 years. 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're like, ‘Ew.’ But this game was a little different. It was hard-fought.”
That recap falls in line with Kelly’s mantra of it’s hard to win football games. With Saturday’s win, the Irish extended their modern program-record home winning streak to 22 games. If the NCAA’s ruling of vacated wins in 2012-13 is ignored, Kelly just won his 96th game as Notre Dame’s head coach, which moves him past Ara Parseghian for third in program history.
Those numbers are nice for résumés and record books, but the 2020 season will eventually be measured by how the Irish fare on Nov. 7 when No. 1 Clemson (5-0, 4-0) comes to town. The Tigers rolled over Georgia Tech, 73-7, on Saturday while the Irish continued to exhibit growing pains.
The same Georgia Tech team beat Louisville 46-27 the previous week. And Louisville limited Notre Dame to its lowest point total since a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal.
If significant improvements aren’t made by Notre Dame in the next couple of weeks at Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, the pain could worsen and the home winning streak will come to a halt.
The Irish have sandwiched four victories against disappointing teams around a pair of Saturdays spent recovering from a COVID-19 outbreak. The hiccups can be excused only if there’s better yet to come.
“We're still developing our wide receivers. We're still developing from a defensive standpoint and getting our personnel back. We had a number of defensive players out,” Kelly said. “I think it's almost game two for us in a sense because of our stop then restart. Pretty early in the season for us.
“We're going to be a better football team as we continue to grow and develop. Yeah, this team is nowhere near where it can be and where I think it will be.”