Hansen: Are the pieces falling in place fast enough for Notre Dame to come together at Georgia?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The first time Bob Davie served as a head coach in Notre Dame Stadium, the toilets overflowed.

And the sellout crowd went home more peeved about other things — namely the warts in a too-close-for-comfort 17-13 survival of Georgia Tech back in September of 1997.

Both aspects turned out to be foreboding of what was to come the next five years, figuratively if not literally.

Saturday’s 66-14 trampling of New Mexico by Brian Kelly’s seventh-ranked Irish, in what was supposed to be a Notre Dame Stadium reunion for eighth-year Lobos head coach Davie, was another reminder of just how different those two eras of Irish football have been.

Kelly’s 2017 team won the Joe Moore Award for outstanding offensive line play. Davie fired the iconic assistant coach roughly 20 years earlier, then was successfully sued by him for age discrimination.

Kelly has tolerated and even at times embraced Notre Dame’s difficult schedules and high academic standards. Davie lamented them as too unrelenting.

And while Notre Dame under Kelly teams have gotten pushed off the biggest stages more than they’ve thrived there, the Davie-coached ND teams really didn’t play their way into those kinds of opportunities.

Like next Saturday night’s showdown at No. 3 Georgia (3-0), the Irish fan base’s fixation since Clemson clobbered ND, 30-3, Dec. 29 in the College Football playoff semis.

The third question Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book fielded in his New Mexico postgame meeting with the media involved the Bulldogs. And the senior — who set career highs Saturday for passing yards (360), TD passes (5) and pass-efficiency rating (257.3) — didn’t try to defer it to a seemingly more appropriate time.

“We've been looking forward to it,” he said. “It's time to take advantage of it.”

Even Kelly admitted the Irish won’t fully observe their 24-hour rule that followed almost every game of his regime and instead get an early start on Georgia at roughly 1 p.m. Sunday.

“So whatever it is, the math on that,” Kelly said with a smile.

The question is: Can the Irish (2-0) take advantage of this opportunity?

The beauty of Kelly’s 10th Irish team is clearly not what it is, but what it can turn into. The scariest part of his 10th Irish team is the uncertainty of how close are they to a big evolutionary step.

Both were apparent Saturday if you looked hard enough.

“This team’s got juice” offered defensive end Daelin Hayes. “You’ve seen it, baby.”

He was talking about young, emerging players like freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, whose 34-yard pick-six in the first quarter started the highest scoring output by the Irish in a home opener since a 73-0 trouncing of Haskell in 1932.

And Avery Davis, who got the game ball from Kelly after a 59-yard catch and run for a TD the first time he touched the ball on offense in 2019. Davis went back to running back from cornerback last week after starter Jafar Armstrong went down for at least a month with an abdominal injury.

“It was a little bit awkward,” Davis said of the shift back to offense after being moved to defense in the spring. “It took me a while to get back into the groove of things, but I was really humbled and grateful for the opportunity. I just wanted to take advantage of it.”

Kelly hinted there would be more opportunities at Georgia and beyond for the fastest healthy back on the roster.

“We wanted to get him involved a little bit today and we didn't want to show a whole lot today,” Kelly said. “He's a smart kid, played high school football at a very good program. Knows the game well. Was able to retain most of our offense.”

Others to emerge included sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy (two catches for 74 yards and a TD) and senior Javon McKinley (two catches for 85 yards and two TDs).

“I think we needed this game to kind of find some of the pieces that are going to be needed to make explosive plays,” Kelly said. “You're not going to beat Georgia by just three yards here, four yards. You're going to have to make some explosive plays. We needed to see that happen today.”

But the Irish also need to sync up closer to what Kelly identified in August as two key pieces of its desired identity — being a strong running team and being good at stopping the run.

In the latter phase, the Irish entered weekend play 126th out of 130 nationally and coughed up 212 rushing yards to the Lobos. Admittedly some of the big chunks came in garbage time, but 16 of those rushing yards came in the first half.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, gained 158 yards on 37 carries, with the Irish quarterbacks accounting for more than half. Senior Tony Jones Jr., the presumptive No. 1 back with Armstrong out, ran for 17 yards on six carries.

The Irish offense did convert all five fourth-down conversions but was 1-of-10 on third down.

“I mean, we've got to have better,” Kelly said. “We'll get that cleaned up. We're not getting pushed off the ball. We're not getting manhandled. None of that concerns me at all.

“From an offensive line standpoint, could we have been better today? Probably. But they weren't going to let us run the ball up inside, so we are going to move to some of the things that we can do. We threw for almost 450 yards.

“That's the nature of college football today. You'd better be able to do both. If you can't run it because they don't want you to run it, you'd better throw it, and if you can't, you're in trouble, and I think we can do both.”

A serious-but-undisclosed health issue that popped up in New Mexico’s 39-31 victory over Sam Houston State two weeks ago kept Davie from presiding over the Lobos Saturday in person. Offensive run game coordinator/offensive line coach Saga Tuitele is the acting head coach until further notice.

That means all the records from Saturday officially go on Davie’s docket. For all his shortcomings, though, Davie was very good in Notre Dame Stadium. His Irish were 24-7 there, with the biggest loss coming by 16 points.

It was his 11-18 mark away from Notre Dame Stadium that proved to be his undoing.

Kelly’s next game away from Notre Dame Stadium could help define him as well, or at least this season.

“I thought that our team kind of found themselves a little bit today,” he said. “We had been looking to go into a second week here and put the pieces together, and I think by and large, they started to fall together for us today.”

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Notre Dame’s Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) and Drew White (40) tackle New Mexico’s Jay Griffin IV (23) during the Saturday’s game in Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) is upended by New Mexico’s Johnny Hernandez (32) during the Notre Dame-New Mexico NCAA Football game Saturday, September 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.