Notebook: Tony Jones Jr. records second career 100-yard rushing performance in Irish win
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — By the time Notre Dame lined up for its third drive of the season, it had already lost three offensive starters.
Junior running back Jafar Armstrong joined tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young. Both went down in preseason camp with broken collarbones. Armstrong appeared to suffer an injury in his groin area, though head coach Brian Kelly was uncertain of its nature and severity in his postgame press conference.
“We don’t know that it’s serious,” Kelly added.
On a Monday night in which quarterback Ian Book struggled, No. 9 Notre Dame needed production elsewhere. Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. answered the call in Armstrong’s absence, turning 15 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown.
The second 100-yard rushing performance of Jones’ career helped propel Notre Dame (1-0) to a 35-17 victory at Louisville (0-1). Armstrong did not return to action after rushing twice for 10 yards and catching a pass for 16 yards on the opening drive. He did not carry his helmet with him after halftime.
While carrying a majority of the workload, Jones heard Armstrong’s voice echo the visiting sidelines of Cardinal Stadium. Armstrong hovered around the running backs to offer encouragement and advice.
“He was being a leader,” Jones said.
The Irish will need similar leadership from Jones if Armstrong remains absent for an extended period of time. An offense without three of its best weapons leaves Book vulnerable.
That became clear when Book finished the night 14-of-23 for 193 yards passing and a touchdown. The junior seemed impatient in the pocket when facing pressure on early downs. Louisville did not yield easy, high-percentage throws for all but a few drives. Book also rushed on 14 occasions for 81 yards and a touchdown.
With Kmet, Young and Armstrong sidelined, the Irish turned to their veteran in Jones, who recorded 87 rushing yards and a touchdown on seven carries through the first three possessions. The Irish averaged 10.6 yards per carry in the first quarter.
Jones’ effort helped overcome UL’s early 14-7 advantage. The Cardinals found the end zone on their first two drives with ease. Jones evened the score at 14 with his 11-yard rushing touchdown.
“I’m more confident in myself,” Jones said. “I know the plays better. Coach tells me, ‘Just think you are the better player on the field and no one can stop you.’ I’m more confident in myself. I think when dudes think a lot, they move a lot slower because they don’t want to make the wrong cut.”
Sophomore running back Jahmir Smith figures to be the next-best option behind Jones. He served the No. 2 role, tallying eight carries for 24 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore C’Bo Flemister and freshman Kyren Williams were limited to just a few plays.
Flemister’s action came in garbage time. Williams received reps early and even lined up as the kickoff returner. He did not see the field on offense, though, after dropping a routine pass in the flat.
Armstrong served as the 1A option while Jones had the 1B role. The duo shared reps this offseason and during the four games in which former running back Dexter Williams served a university-imposed suspension to start last season.
An increased workload would be an adjustment for Jones. As the game progressed, Smith saw an uptick in carries and Jones’ volume decreased. Jones recorded two carries for zero yards in the second, four carries for 22 yards in the third and two carries for one yard in the fourth.
Jones still produced in ways that don't appear on the stat sheet. Book’s lone touchdown pass — a 26-yarder to tight end Tommy Tremble down the seam — came thanks to a blitz pickup from Jones.
“I think he’s really comfortable with his role,” Kelly said. “He knows exactly what we’re asking of him and I think that has made him much more comfortable with what he’s doing on a day-to-day basis. I think there we times where he wasn’t certain what his role was and it caused him some anxiety at times.
“He knows exactly what his role is, what we’re asking of him, and he’s been excellent in fulfilling that.”
The eight preseason practices observed by the media provided a snapshot of Kyle Hamilton’s prowess.
The standout freshman safety was expected to see the field in high-leverage situations, particularly on obvious passing downs. What maybe most didn’t envision was Hamilton’s involvement in Notre Dame’s base defense.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder displaced both starters in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott for multiple drives. Hamilton tallied two pass breakups in ND’s base defense and four tackles on the night.
“We saw 14 (Hamilton) and his ability to be someone in the middle of our defense as somebody who can defend the pass,” Kelly said.
The following 10 freshmen also made the travel roster: punter Jay Bramblett, place-kicker Harrison Leonard, defensive tackle Howard Cross III, nose guard Jacob Lacey, defensive end Isaiah Foskey, rover Jack Kiser, cornerback K.J. Wallace, offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic, running back Kyren Williams and quarterback Brendon Clark.
Bramblett’s six punts traveled an average of 39.3 yards. His longest punt traveled 46 yards. He booted two inside the 20. Lacey recorded a tackle.
• Notre Dame had to choose four of its seven team captains for the coin toss at Monday's game. Defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, receiver Chris Finke and safety Jalen Elliott earned the honor. Right tackle Robert Hainsey, safety Alohi Gilman and quarterback Ian Book were left out.
• The Irish played in the state of Kentucky for their first time in school history. Notre Dame has played football in 36 other states.
• Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah lined up with every starting linebacker variation. The middle and buck linebackers saw a few different groupings. Drew White (mike) and Asmar Bilal (buck) started the game. Drew White (mike) and Shayne Simon (buck), as well as Shayne Simon (mike) and Jordan Genmark Heath (buck), were two other combinations. Jack Lamb received snaps for certain passing downs.
• The Irish defense yielded a pair of touchdowns on 163 yards in the first two Cardinal drives. Notre Dame's adjustments resulted in allowing 25 yards on the next 18 plays to end the half.
• Notre Dame recovered three fumbles for the first time since its 2012 season opener against Navy.
• In Book’s first five starts last season, he completed 127-of-167 passes (76 percent). In Book’s past five starts, he’s 98-of-167 passing (58.7 percent).
• Book completed passes to seven different players. Three of the seven recorded the first reception of their career: senior receiver Javon McKinley, sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble and sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys III. Tremble led the bunch with three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. McKinley’s lone catch went for 11 yards, while Keys grabbed two passes for 15 yards.
• One of Book’s nine incompletions actually connected — but with the face of a UL cheerleader on the sidelines. Book’s pass sailed well over his intended receiver and nailed her. She claims the throw's impact broke her nose. A video of the sequence made the rounds on social media.
Ian Book just NAILED a Louisville cheerleader trying to throw the ball out of bounds. Mercy pic.twitter.com/tVySxlw6Vi
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) September 3, 2019