Noie: Didn't see that coming from this Notre Dame team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Nobody really said anything about anybody.

Four hours in the car with four others on a holiday road trip to Monday’s game between No. 9 Notre Dame and Louisville should have produced consistent chatter about the key characters on a big night.

Instead, all the way down U.S. 31, there was nothing. In Kokomo and then around Indianapolis. Silence. Down Interstate 65 and across the Ohio River and into the 'Ville. All was quiet on the conversation front. Everyone quietly expected they’d see something from someone, be it from quarterback Ian Book or running back Jafar Armstrong or defensive end cornerstones/captains Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. That much, everyone knew.

Or thought they knew.

Nobody expected to witness what eventually unfolded on the turf of Cardinal Stadium. It was an evening of starts and stops and ups and downs for the Irish, who did just enough to feel relatively good (relieved?) about a 35-17 victory in front of a record crowd of 58,187.

All those main guys expected to deliver? Turns out there wasn’t much to discuss about them even after the game. Well, maybe everyone not named Book, who looked sure at times, uncertain at others when he occasionally bailed out of pass plays for scrambles up and around the field. On a night gift-wrapped for the veterans — road atmosphere, opener, expectations as heavy as the Commonwealth's humidity — it was the other group, one that no one saw coming, that helped get this all back on track.

Monday was about the young guys, the guys who hadn’t been there before under the brightest of lights. About the guys who were supposed to follow the veterans' lead. You know them, the older guys we spent much of August hearing from and writing about. The Books. The Armstrongs. The Kareems. The Okwaras. The dudes.

Instead, with Armstrong out early and hurt (again) with a midsection injury, we heard a lot from sophomore Jahmir Smith (eight carries, 24 yards, two touchdowns). We heard more from junior linebacker Drew White (four tackles) and freshman defensive back Kyle Hamilton (four tackles, two passes defended). About junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who made his first start and finished with nine tackles.

On this night, the other guys were the main guys.

We didn’t hear all that much from Kareem and Okwara, each tagged with critical third-down offsides penalties within the first 14 plays. Can't happen. Not from them. Not now. But the line was buoyed with the steady play of senior backup defensive end Ade Ogundeji, who delivered three tackles, including one for a loss.

"We had adversity in the first half," Ogundeji said. "We just continually got better through the third and fourth quarters. We played ball in the second half."

A sophomore (Smith) scored the season’s first touchdown. Another (Tremble) snared the season’s first touchdown catch. White beat Kareem and Okwara to the pass-rush punch for the season’s first sack.

Who had those three doing that? How about no one? On a night when the young guys had to pitch in, they more than pitched in. When the old guys found it tough to block and tackle and make plays and lead, it was the younger guys who helped show the way.

Despite a lack of style points — this was no “Wow!” opener for these Irish — that might be what Brian Kelly felt best about as he left the stadium well after midnight. Even at such a late hour, it served as a wake-up call for Notre Dame’s old guys.

“We actually need our veterans to step up their level,” Kelly said. “The younger players showed themselves.”

Showed themselves much like the thoroughbreds that run circles around Churchill Downs not far from Cardinal Stadium. They were young and occasionally a little too wild, but they were good when the Irish needed them to be good.

White missed a few tackles, but made a few more. Tremble’s athleticism screams matchup problem over the middle while Smith just punishes anyone in his path. Owusu-Koramoah just keeps coming.

Now if the Irish can blend young AND old ... whoa.

“We’re aligning ourselves with the kind of things I want to see,” Kelly said. “We’re not there yet.”

Monday wasn’t pretty. It didn’t flow. It didn’t send a message — hey, keep an eye on the Irish — to the rest of college football (or to Paul Finebaum). It wasn’t about style points, just scoring more of them than the opposition. There were tackling and scheme issues with the defense early. There were efficiency issues with the offense throughout. The Irish allowed what was a bad team last year look too long like a good one this year.

At the end of the night, it was all right. For this group, at this time, one that’s still trying to find itself, winning was all that mattered. They might not have liked how they got there, but they got there. The Irish would take that, and their P.F. Chang’s takeout waiting on their way out, and fly back to Northern Indiana in the middle of the night. They won. In a couple of days, that’s all that’s going to matter.

“That’s OK,” said junior safety Alohi Gilman. “These are things you expect in Week One, to get it out now so we know who we are, what we can do to get better.”

Who are these Irish? They’re resilient. They’re persistent. What can they do better? Everything. That wasn’t a potential College Football Playoff team we saw Monday night. That wasn't even a New Year's Bowl team. There’s much to clean up — the miscues, the missed tackles, the penalties, the missed plays.

Tony Jones Jr., had a big night (15 carries, 112 yards, 1 TD), yet classified the opener as "sloppy."

“First game, maybe some jitters,” Book said. “Just gotta put that behind us, but at the end of the day, we’re happy we’re 1-0.”

Opening on the road in the type of atmosphere Notre Dame saw Monday — electric (sort of) crowd, national television audience, the blimp overhead — is demanding. It’s difficult. There’s a reason ranked teams tend to stay close to home to start. It’s hard. It’s unpredictable. It’s a gamble.

Know what else is? Notre Dame’s trek back to a College Football Playoff. This one wasn’t easy in a season that might not be easy. Young or old, home or road, that’s just the way it all might work.

Notre Dame’s Jahmir Smith (34) celebrates during the Notre Dame at Louisville NCAA football game Monday at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky.