'Sloppy' Notre Dame survives early scare at Louisville

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The first quarter in Louisville felt a little too familiar.

Monday night started to feel a bit like a Sunday night in Austin, Texas, from 2016. All that was missing was a quarterback controversy and Brian VanGorder.

Notre Dame never recovered from that bad start in 2016. The Irish spiraled to a 4-8 record following the double-overtime loss to the Longhorns on Labor Day eve, VanGorder was fired as defensive coordinator after four games that season, and head coach Brian Kelly’s program needed some fixes and self-reflection.

The problem-solving Monday night in 2019 came much quicker. By the second quarter the Irish defense recovered from an ugly start and allowed Notre Dame’s offense to work through some issues of its own.

By the end of the night, No. 9 Notre Dame walked out of Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium with a 35-17 victory. But a shaky road win against a team coming off a two-win season left plenty of questions about the trajectory of this Irish team.

“We don’t look like the finished product by any means,” Kelly said, “but we did some things tonight that align us in the kind of direction I want to go, because we had some young players step up today that were really important for us in some areas that were uncertain that played pretty solid football for us.”

The inexperienced contingent of Notre Dame’s roster came up with big moments. Sophomore running back Jahmir Smith opened the scoring with his first career touchdown — a three-yard run — and finished the scoring in the fourth quarter with a one-yard touchdown run. Sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble caught a 26-yard touchdown for his first career reception to put the Irish ahead 28-14 in the third quarter.

Sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah finished second on the team with nine tackles. Fellow linebacker Drew White, a junior, recorded the first sack of the season for Notre Dame.

But those moments of promise were overshadowed by failures elsewhere. Quarterback Ian Book looked out of sorts at times. After Notre Dame marched down the field to score on its first possession, Book followed it up with two poor throws intended for Chase Claypool and an ineffective scramble too early for a quick three-and-out.

Book finished the game 14-of-23 passing (60.9 percent) for 193 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked three times and finished with 81 rushing yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. Only running back Tony Jones Jr. (15) registered more rushing attempts than Book — many of which weren’t by design.

“I just think he was getting out a little quick because there was some uncertainty and maybe thinking a little bit too much,” Kelly said of Book. “You’ve got to trust it, and that’ll come.”

Book fumbled in the middle of a wild stretch late in the first half. Notre Dame took over possession after safety Alohi Gilman stripped Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass. Then Book gave it right back by losing the ball when he ran into the back of tight end Brock Wright while trying to escape the pocket.

Notre Dame regained possession on the next play when sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb fell on a mishandled snap by Pass. The Irish converted on the second chance when Jones scored on an 11-yard run with 29 seconds left in the first half. Despite all the chaos, Notre Dame took a 21-14 lead into halftime.

“He can be better, and we’re not going to beat him with a shoe,” Kelly said of Book. “It’s one game. He needs to be better. He knows that and he will be better.”

Even Book’s completions weren’t as accurate as he’s been in the past.

Book attributed his poor start to being a little bit rusty in the season opener.

“I have to adjust to the speed a little bit,” Book said. “Really no excuses, honestly. So I just have to get better from it.”

Louisville’s quarterback gave Notre Dame fits to start the game. Pass, the first quarterback Notre Dame offered in the 2016 recruiting class, rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. Louisville’s offense looked a step ahead of the Irish.

“You can’t replicate game speed in practice,” Gilman said. “You can go through scheme and stuff like that, but game speed is a lot different. After a few series, first quarter, we were able to settle down. The young guys were able to get all the jitters out. Then just played ball from there.”

Pass only finished 12-of-27 passing (44.4 percent) for 134 yards, but the Cardinals leaned on a rushing attack for 249 yards. Running back Javian Hawkins led the way with 122 yards, ahead of 69 yards from Hassan Hall and 67 from Pass.

Turnovers allowed Notre Dame’s defense to steady itself. The Irish recovered three fumbles — all lost by Pass. Gilman led the Irish with 10 tackles.

An already injury-riddled Notre Dame offense played another man down most of Monday night. Running back Jafar Armstrong didn’t return to action after a short appearance to start the game. The Irish were already playing with starting tight end Cole Kmet and starting wide receiver Michael Young.

Kelly didn’t have many answers about Armstrong’s injury after the game. He said he wasn’t sure if the injury was serious or if it was even a groin issue. He described it as more “mid-line” — whatever that means.

“He was moving around OK,” Kelly said. “We’re hopeful that it’s not something that puts him out very long.”

Jones, a senior, carried the load in Armstrong’s absence. He punished Louisville with seven carries for 87 yards and one touchdown in the first quarter. After being limited to two carries for zero yards in the second quarter, Jones eventually finished with 15 rushes for 110 yards and his second career 100-yard day.

“He knows exactly what his role is, what we’re asking of him, and he’s been excellent in fulfilling that,” Kelly said of Jones.

Notre Dame will have an off weekend to recover from the laborious Labor Day debut. New Mexico will come to South Bend for the season opener on Sept. 14. Then the Irish head down to Athens for a showdown with preseason No. 3 Georgia.

A different version of this Notre Dame team will need to show up by then if the goal of a national championship is going to remain within reasonable reach.

“We’re an unfinished product,” Gilman said. “So every week we’re going to continue to get better. It was a sloppy win for us. But as time goes on, we’ll be better and continue to work on things we can do to get better so we can get to our goals.”

Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates recovering a fumble during the Notre Dame at Louisville NCAA football game Monday, Sept. 2, 2019 at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.