For the first time in three games this season, a wide receiver led Notre Dame in receiving yards.
Graduate senior Javon McKinley ended the mini-drought and then some as the No. 5 Irish (3-0) defeated Florida State (1-3),42-26, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. McKinley caught all five of his passing targets and turned them into a career-high 107 yards.
Quarterback Ian Book had struggled to unlock the deep passing game through Notre Dame’s first two contests. Two of his completions to McKinley were on passes of 36 and 38 yards.
Some of McKinley's production came against preseason All-ACC cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.
“He can't be defended,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of McKinley. “I mean, there's nobody, I don't think, in college football that can defend that kid. I mean, (Asante) Samuel is one of the best corners in the country. He didn't have much of a chance defending him. If he just continues to work the way he's been working, he's been one of our better practice players, he is a great leader with those wide receivers. I've been telling him he's got a chance to do some special things.”
McKinley called his performance an “expected surprise.” If McKinley impressed in practice, he struggled to translate those flashes into receiving production. He caught just one pass for seven yards against Duke and South Florida combined. McKinley had recorded more than two receptions in a game only one other time: Bowling Green (five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown) last season.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound McKinley established himself more as a renowned blocker who Notre Dame uses on the perimeter in outside running situations. His wide catch radius and athleticism always made him an option downfield and in congested areas like the red zone.
FSU head coach Mike Norvell said his defense mostly operated in man-to-man coverage. So McKinley took advantage with arguably the best outing of his five-year career.
“It was exciting. It was very fun,” McKinley said. “I wish I got a little more (yards) after the catch, but just to be able to get on the field and beat the man across from you and get open, catch some balls, get some yards, help my team out — not just from blocking, but in the passing game — it was fun.”
Book established a rapport with McKinley while operating an offense that inched closer to full strength. The Irish were depleted at the position to start the season but finally had all their key receivers available. Top receivers Kevin Austin Jr., Ben Skowronek and Braden Lenzy all missed time.
Austin made his much anticipated return after being suspended last season and suffering a broken foot in preseason camp. Kelly stayed true to his word from earlier this week and played Austin in limited fashion. He accrued just one target — an overthrown deep pass in the first half that fell incomplete.
In his first appearance since tweaking his hamstring against Duke, Skowronek saw limited action. Notre Dame also missed speedy receiver Braden Lenzy in that season opener, but he played against USF and FSU.
Lenzy (three catches for 29 yards and a touchdown) and Avery Davis (one reception for 13 yards) were the only other Notre Dame wide receivers who caught at least one pass. No Irish player besides McKinley tallied more than three catches or at least 30 receiving yards.
“I was going there a lot (in practice) this week,” Book said, “and he was making the plays. I knew it was his time to shine. That was a matchup we all wanted to see. I know he could come out on top.
“Their (defensive backs) were great players, but I believe in Javon to go make the big play when you have that opportunity. He is an unbelievable player for us.
“He’s someone on the perimeter I want to get the ball to.”
Chemistry with McKinley
Losing tight end Cole Kmet and receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke after last season meant Book needed to work with a mostly fresh cast of playmakers.
From a chemistry perspective, McKinley offered a familiar face for Book among returning players. The two arrived at Notre Dame together through its 2016 recruiting class.
While Book came in as a middling three-star recruit, McKinley brought lofty expectations. Only three other receivers to sign with the Irish under Kelly have been ranked among the top 112 overall players in their recruiting classes by Rivals and 247Sports: Davonte Neal (2012), Justin Brent (2014) and Jordan Johnson (2020).
Those expectations have proven to be difficult for McKinley to meet. He did not register a reception until last season. Kelly essentially once called McKinley a late bloomer who needed to bring a consistently dominant mentality.
A strong practice this week left Book more confident in McKinley and the deep passing game. He completed 16-of-25 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
“He was very calm in the pocket,” Kelly said of Book. “I thought he saw the field well. He was aggressive in pushing the ball down the field. It was nice to see. If we continue to see that from Ian Book, he's going to be very difficult to defend.”
McKinley helped Book feel comfortable. Can he continue to find a role in the passing game? The Irish hope McKinley won’t have to keep carrying the workload regardless. Their inexperienced receiving corps should return to full strength soon and start to establish better chemistry with Book.
In the meantime, Book said he will be able to rely on his fellow graduate senior.
“Javon has done an unbelievable job,” Book said. “Not just this last week, but he works really hard. It was his time to shine. We knew that matchup was going to be a good one. I just believe in Javon. I’ve been with him. He’s in my class. I’ve been with him — we are on five years now. Our connection is great. Our chemistry is good.”
• Notre Dame had two players record at least 100 rushing yards (running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree) and one with at least 100 receiving yards (McKinley) for the first time since Stanford in 2015.
• Book tied Jimmy Clausen for No. 3 all-time in Notre Dame history with 60 career touchdown passes. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is No. 2 with 61. Book tied Rees for No. 7 all-time in wins (23) by a quarterback in program history.
• For the first time since 2000, the Irish scored at least 42 points in back-to-back games.
• No FBS team has a longer active winning streak than Notre Dame’s nine straight victories. The Irish have their longest home-winning streak in the modern era with 21 consecutive victories.
• Freshman tight end Michael Mayer caught his first career touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Book in the first quarter. Mayer is the first true freshman tight end to score a touchdown since Kyle Rudolph against Purdue in 2008.
• Dr. Matt Leiszler and director of athletic training Rob Hunt received game balls for their efforts in handling the program’s COVID-19 protocols.
• Notre Dame’s defense has held 28 of its last 29 opponents to 30 points or fewer under defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
• Starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and rotational buck linebacker Jack Kiser were unavailable to play.
• Team captain right tackle Robert Hainsey represented Notre Dame for the opening coin toss.