Games like the one fourth-ranked Notre Dame found itself in Saturday at home against lowly Louisville seem to surface somewhere along the way of every college football season.
They just kind of happen for the Irish. They arrive out of nowhere. There’s no red flag of a warning. The Irish are expected to play well, to dominate. Then for whatever reason they don’t. Just when you’ve got these guys figured out, they leave you wondering what the $%&$#@ was that? They're as flat as last night's soft drink left out on the patio.
It happened in the heat and humidity of South Florida in 2017 (Miami). It happened in the late-summer sun of Notre Dame Stadium in 2018 (Ball State). It happened in the whipping wind and relentless rain and overall misery up in Michigan last October (no further reminder of that one needed).
Notre Dame plays at least one of these every season. On Saturday, it was weirdness revisited.
Notre Dame 12, Louisville 7. Points and production were hard to procure. There were nearly as many combined punts (seven) and penalties (10) as points. The Irish defense again tilted at times more toward disinterest than dominant. Best news about this one was that it sailed along in a snappy two hours and 52 minutes. Just in time for some dinner with the fam. That’s not all bad.
“I don’t even know if it aesthetically looked bad,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly.
It did, in ways that it shouldn’t look for an Irish team that planned to start quickly on offense and play better defensively. Kelly’s job requires he put a nice and neat and happy bow on this one, because, well, it was a win. He's paid to win games. His team won a game. It moved to 4-0 overall, 3-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Keep moving forward, even with a step or two back.
What’s Kelly supposed to say? The Irish stunk? That’s not true, well, not entirely.
Notre Dame finished 1-for-5 in the red zone for touchdowns. Fourth-ranked teams can’t do that against opponents that are winless in league play. The Irish allowed three sacks the previous three games, then allowed Ian Book to be sacked four times.
Guess we can table that best line in the country stuff for this week.
Aesthetically, that one was tough to watch offensively, as it was defensively. At one point, NBC cut to its camera in the Irish coaching box, where defensive coordinator Clark Lea promptly buried his face in his hands late in the second quarter when Louisville was finding its collective confidence.
The Big Ten doesn’t return to college football business until next weekend, but this one sure felt like your classic Rutgers-Wisconsin rock fight in the heart of Big Ten Country. A cold wind whipping around the stadium. Plenty of empty seats. Fall colors abound. So few points. So much for the ACC touting its near-record scoring pace in last week’s football notes.
“Winning’s hard,” Kelly said.
Doesn’t mean the Irish have to make it look that way. Previous time out against Florida State, it was the defense that seemed a step slow. On Saturday, it was everyone — offense, defense, even special teams, which got in on the act with a failed fake field goal (bad call) and near turnover off an onside kick (bad prep) that was nullified because of a Louisville penalty.
The Irish were there, but seemingly not all there. Still, they did enough to win the game. They did what they needed to do late — get a stop, chew clock, play mistake-free — to win the game.
“It was a fun day,” said defensive end Daelin Hayes.
Obviously, one’s definition of fun can differ.
This was game four on the schedule, though Kelly indicated afterward that it felt like game two because of the program pause for coronavirus last month. Finished product at the midway point of October? Usually, yes. Not now. Kelly didn’t expect it. Not this season. Not after taking those two weeks off.
“This team is nowhere near where it can be, and where I think it will be,” Kelly said.
Don't book that December trip to Charlotte just yet.
Saturday was the third time in this four-game home stand that Notre Dame has trailed. Fourth-ranked teams really shouldn't ever trail at home to three teams (Duke, Florida State, Louisville), that as of late Saturday had a combined overall record of 3-12, 1-12 in the league. Eventually, that catches up to you. Like on the road, also against underwhelming teams, where Notre Dame goes for the next two weeks against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.
Just when it looked like Saturday might get even weirder, when it seemed like this whole season might go south, guess who steps in and makes the plays necessary to make sure this undefeated season — and consecutive home win No. 22 — stays on track?
Book. The quarterback. The three-year starter who doesn’t always do this or do that to everyone’s liking. All he does is win. Like Saturday.
Book completed a pair of critical third-down tosses late in the fourth quarter. He found Javon McKinley for seven yards across the middle on third and six. He found Ben Skowronek for 12 yards on a crossing route on third and seven. It kept the chains moving. It kept the clock running. It kept that Irish sideline believing.
“As a quarterback, it’s up to me to spread the ball around the field and be smart with it,” Book said. “I just want to rally the guys. That’s my job.”
That’s also Book, now a staggering 24-3 as the starter. That’s who he’s always been. He also had the pocket presence earlier in the third quarter when everything broke down and nothing good offered itself, to just tuck it and run and find the end zone for the go-ahead score. The only touchdown for the Irish.
Notre Dame needed that from Book. He delivered. But what else is new?
“Look, he wins,” Kelly said. “When the game’s on the line, you can count on Ian Book to come up and make big plays for us. That’s a good feeling to have.”
How weird was this one? When was the last time Notre Dame played a football game that featured zero touchdowns in the first half? Anyone? Notre Dame’s final possession of the game — which ended with a Book kneel-down — was its seventh ... of the entire game. Clemson scored touchdowns on seven of its drives against Georgia Tech earlier in the day. Seven scoring drives … in the first half.
Maybe Saturday was a sneak preview of what’s to come for Notre Dame. How it might not always be pretty, but the end result is productive.
“When you’re a top-five team in the country, you’re going to get the opposition’s best game,” Kelly said. “That was a team that played its absolute best.”
Their best still wasn’t enough. Good for the Irish was good enough. Even for this weird one.