SOUTH BEND — Cole Kmet alluded to the boom-or-bust nature that has seemingly become the identity of the Notre Dame football team’s offense.
“We just need to put in four quarters together total,” said the junior tight end following ND’s 35-20 victory over Virginia. “We will have spurts; like there at the end of the fourth quarter, we did really well. We will have quarters here and there where we don’t really do much.”
The Irish defense eased the pressure, generating 13 tackles for loss, eight sacks and five forced turnovers. Four of those turnovers resulted in touchdowns, including a 21-yard fumble return score from defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji.
No. 10 Notre Dame (3-1) needed that kind of performance from its defense. Five three-and-outs plagued the Irish until the final few drives against the No. 18 Cavaliers (4-1). Only until the end did running back Tony Jones Jr. take over, rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in the fourth quarter.
“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensive. We have not,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We’re far from where we want to be. We have got a lot of things to sort out and figure out offensively, personnel.”
With the exception of a missed field goal and garbage time, each Irish possession resulted in either a score or three-and-out. Quarterback Ian Book’s first incompletion came midway through the second quarter after connecting on his first eight passes. The Irish offense amassed 162 yards on their first 30 plays, resulting in 14 points through their opening three possessions.
But then five of ND’s next six possessions resulted in a three-and-out. Part of that had to do with the limited condition of top wide receiver Chase Claypool. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound Claypool suffered a left ankle injury in the first half that required heavy taping. He finished the game but looked hobbled throughout.
Jones then recharged the offense and helped steer the Irish to their 13th consecutive home win. His fourth quarter consisted of powerful runs for extra yardage and quick cuts to the outside. Jones had also converted on three short yardage situations on third down earlier in the game. He totaled a career-high 131 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 18 attempts.
“That was just heart. It’s about that heart and dog in you,” Jones said. “Teams get tired, and then things spray open. Coach tells us that if we are just getting two- or three-yard runs, just keep hitting them the same way. And then, you are going to bust out. That’s what happened.”
Jones found little running room against Georgia, amassing just 21 yards on nine rushes. That looked to be the challenge for him against UVA through the first three quarters. Jones’ first 11 carries went for 34 yards.
The usage of sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister helped Jones remain fresh in the fourth. Flemister turned a career-high six carries into 27 yards and a touchdown and also added a reception for 13 yards. Sophomore Jahmir Smith recorded eight rushing yards on three carries.
“What we did is we gave Tony Jones a break,” Kelly said. “So he ran hard in the second half and in particular the third and fourth quarter. When we got C’Bo in there and we got Jahmir in there, it gave him a chance to run the way he can run. And he’s a hard runner.”
Kelly said before the season that running the football was one of two factors that should determine ND’s success. Following a physical game at Georgia, Kelly challenged his team in that area again this week. He knew the UVA run defense had posed problems.
UVA wreaked havoc on defense through four games, tying for No. 1 in sacks and No. 5 in tackles for a loss heading into the weekend. The Cavaliers also ranked No. 12 against the run and No. 14 in total defense.
Though the erratic Irish offense remains a work in progress, they showed endurance and physicality in the fourth quarter.
“We got off the ball,” Kelly said. “We were much more physical in the third and fourth quarter. What we want to be able to do is have that as part of our offense and it had been missing. So that has to be part of what we do.”
The Notre Dame dime package used for obvious passing situations once again caused problems for the opposing offense.
The Irish recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery in 15 dime snaps. Notre Dame’s defense now has five interceptions (including a pick-six), four pass breakups and three fumble recoveries in 49 dime snaps this season.
Four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs line up in dime for the Irish.
• The 13 straight home victories is the third-longest streak in Irish history.
• Safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott represented the Irish as captains for the opening coin toss.
• UVA’s four rushing yards are the fourth-lowest by a Notre Dame opponent since 1996.
• Only Washington and Notre Dame have held their opponent to 30 points or fewer in 18 consecutive games.
• The Irish registered eight sacks for the first time since recording eight against Hawaii in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl.