Notre Dame could afford a sluggish performance offensively with the way its defense played.
The No. 4 Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) relied on rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Co. in their 12-7 win over Louisville at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. They kept the Cardinals off the field, limited big plays and were efficient on third down (3-of-9).
What a difference a week makes.
Against Florida State last week, the roles were reversed. Notre Dame had to match the Seminoles punch for punch offensively. The Irish recorded 353 rushing yards in the 42-26 victory while yielding 405 total yards to a quarterback making his first career start in Jordan Travis.
Louisville entered Saturday averaging 424.2 points per game but gained just 233 yards, the twelfth-lowest total in the Brian Kelly Era. Notre Dame needed its defense to hold on while the offense missed opportunities and faltered in the red zone.
Owusu-Koromoah attributed the one-week turnaround to coordinator Clark Lea simplifying the defense.
“Just cutting down the amount of calls that we had,” said Owusu-Koramoah, who finished with five tackles and a team-high three tackles for a loss. “Just making it easy for everybody to understand, to be able to go out and play really fast. So that was really what we keyed in this week, was playing fast and playing physical. So when you take out a lot of the calls, you take out a lot of the checks and things like that, you start to get more comfortable in the defense.”
The impact started on first down. Of Louisville’s 19 first-down plays, 11 were runs that combined for 21 yards. Then Notre Dame’s secondary dropped back to mitigate chunk plays. Irish safety Kyle Hamilton sometimes helped over the top with speedy wide receiver Tutu Atwell.
The Cardinals generated just three plays that gained at least 15 yards. The Irish registered eight tackles for a loss.
“We had a plan of throwing the ball underneath and trying to convert that way,” Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield said. “I think that’s why (quarterback) Malik (Cunningham) was better in his completion percentage. We just didn’t have as many big plays as we would have liked.”
Running back Javian Hawkins and Atwell established themselves for the Cardinals last season. Hawkins ranked No. 7 nationally in rushing yards (1,525). Atwell topped the ACC in receiving yards (1,276), touchdowns (12) and yards per game (98.2).
Notre Dame held Hawkins to his lowest rushing total as a starter and 66 yards below his rushing average this season. He turned 15 carries into 51 yards while catching five passes for 46 yards. Atwell earned 32 yards on four receptions and ran for a four-yard gain on his lone carry.
“The first thing you do with both of them is to understand their tendencies,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Tendencies are useful when you talk about defending great players, so with those two in particular we noted that they like to go long. They like to jet. That was one thing we really tried to key in on when defending those two.”
The biggest lapse for the Irish defense came on back-to-back drives after Notre Dame punter/holder Jay Bramblett failed to convert a fourth-and-9 on a fake field goal play. Louisville’s offense accumulated 143 yards on 21 plays across its next two possessions.
Taking over at their own six-yard line with 39 seconds left in the half, the Cardinals were able to move the ball in time to set up a 52-yard field goal attempt. James Turner’s kick missed short as time expired, grazing the bottom of the crossbar.
Tight end Marshon Ford’s one-yard touchdown reception capped Louisville’s 13-play, 83-yard drive to open the third quarter. The Cardinals converted a third-and-5 and fourth-and-3 on that possession.
“They made some adjustments in the game,” said Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes about that drive. “Any time we’re taking on water or if there’s a mess up or anything like that, we stick to our game plan: head, body, head, body. That was a situation where there are going to be mistakes in a game. It is what it is. You just have to take that body shot and keep throwing your punches. We stayed patient and we were able to bounce back.”
There were plenty of problems with Notre Dame’s offense.
The Irish generated only 12 points on five trips to the red zone, though they were milking the clock to end the game on the fifth opportunity. Quarterback Ian Book misfired on several throws, completing just 11-of-19 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. The receivers continued to be unproductive, catching a combined six passes for 70 yards.
How Notre Dame’s offense controlled the game flow, though, played a role in why its defense succeeded.
Four of Notre Dame’s seven offensive possessions comprised at least 12 plays. Three of those four drives lasted at least seven minutes. The Irish were on the field for the last 7:55 of the game, draining more than half of the fourth quarter on a 14-play, 57-yard drive that included three third-down conversions.
Staying off the field appeared to be a critical objective for Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish were still bringing multiple players back to speed. They endured a 21-day layoff between games before returning against FSU. As many as 39 players were in quarantine or isolation for COVID-19 protocols during that hiatus.
“I don't even know if it aesthetically looked bad,” said Kelly about the win. “We controlled the line of scrimmage. We controlled the time of possession. I think we had one or two penalties. 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.”
Louisville entered the game ranking No. 2 in the ACC in time of possession, averaging 32:59 per game. The Cardinal offense saw only 45 snaps on seven drives across 23:45 of possession time. They tallied 12 plays following their opening drive of the second half.
“Some of the fewest plays I think I’ve ever ran in a game,” Satterfield said. “They did a great job of staying on the field. And we didn’t do as good of a job with that. We had a couple penalties late in the second half that hurt us offensively that put us behind the sticks. It’s hard against a good defense to get first downs when you have that situation happen.”
• Kelly is now third all-time in program history with 96 wins at Notre Dame, passing Ara Parseghian, when not subtracting the NCAA-vacated wins in 2012 and 2013.
• Notre Dame owns the longest active winning streak (10 games) and second-longest home winning streak (22 games). The latter is the longest modern-day streak in Irish history.
• Book passed Tommy Rees at No. 7 all-time in program history with 24 wins as a starting quarterback. He passed Brandon Wimbush at No. 2 on Notre Dame’s career rushing list (1,159 yards). Tony Rice tops the list with 1,921 rushing yards.
• On the first possession of the game, Irish wide receivers Ben Skowronek and Kevin Austin Jr. caught their first passes of this season.
• All of Notre Dame's wide receivers have combined for 259 yards and two touchdowns on 23 receptions this season. Through the first four games of his 2019 campaign, former Irish receiver Chase Claypool caught 21 passes for 286 yards and one touchdown.
• Defensive end captain Daelin Hayes represented Notre Dame for the opening coin toss.