Notre Dame offense wakes up with explosive plays to rout New Mexico

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When the eventual onslaught came from Notre Dame’s offense, New Mexico couldn’t do anything about it.

The Irish found a different gear in the second quarter and throttled the Lobos will eight successive scoring drives — seven touchdowns and one field goal — in a slightly delayed, 66-14 college football rout in No.7 Notre Dame’s home opener.

Quarterback Ian Book lit up the scoreboard with a career-high five touchdowns passes on 15-of-24 passing for 360 yards. Five different Irish players finished with more than 50 yards receiving. But with No. 3 Georgia (3-0) looming next Saturday in Athens — a recurring topic in postgame interviews — it remains to be seen if the events against New Mexico were momentum building or mirage creating.

Regardless, the offensive effort provided a needed confidence boost following an uneven performance against Louisville and the first quarter of Saturday’s New Mexico game.

“It felt good as an offense just getting the confidence up and going out there and being able to execute,” Book said. “It wasn't a game we were going to look over.”

Two of Book’s five touchdown passes were more statistical illusion than throws. He made short pitches forward in the backfield to running back Avery Davis and wide receiver Chris Finke that ended in long touchdowns.

Davis, who switched back to running back last week after spending the entire preseason working as a cornerback, gave the offense its first spark with a 59-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Irish a 21-0 lead. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound junior used his speed to expose a big opening in the New Mexico defense. He wasn’t touched until a diving defender hit his legs as he crossed the goal line.

Finke did the same except to the left side of the offense rather than the right side like Davis. He took the forward pitch for a 54-yard score to extend the lead to 45-7 early in the third quarter.

With Notre Dame (2-0) playing without injured running backs Jafar Armstrong (torn abdominal) and Jahmir Smith (sprained toe), the forward sweeps by Davis and Finke served as a complement to a struggling running game that was limited to 157 yards on 38 carries.

Ten different Notre Dame players recorded at least one of the 17 receptions thrown by Book and backup quarterbacks Phil Jurkovec and Brendon Clark. Chase Claypool led the way with four catches for 96 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

“We knew our passing game was going to be fine,” Claypool said. “It was just a matter of when and who against. Now that we have everything clicking — the rush game against Louisville and the pass game here — we can put those two together.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from senior wide receiver Javon McKinley. He recorded his first career catch against Louisville. He upped the production Saturday with touchdowns on both of his catches. He avoided multiple missed tackles on his way to a 65-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The 6-2, 220-pound McKinley did most of the work after catching a short pass from Book.

In the third quarter, McKinley made a leaping catch over a defender in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.

“He’s practicing like a superstar,” Claypool said of McKinley. “It was only a matter of time before they got him out on the field and got a touchdown. That’s a big play. So I’m super excited for him. I told him his time is coming, and it came.”

McKinley’s time at Notre Dame appeared like it may have been coming to an end earlier this year. In February, McKinley was charged with illegal consumption of alcohol and two counts of battery for allegedly hitting campus police officers who were helping him to his dorm. McKinley was initially suspended from the team then conditionally reinstated for spring practice.

In April, McKinley entered a pretrial diversion agreement that would lead to a dismissed case if he follows the conditions of the agreement, which partially included 40 hours of community service and not committing a crime during a one-year period.

Kelly said a lot went into the decision to keep McKinley on the team.

“Advocacy from across campus,” Kelly said. “He had really, a clean record with us. This was — I don't want to say an aberration — but it was something that had never happened before, which earned him the opportunity to get a second chance.”

That second chance could result in an important role in Notre Dame’s offense if he plays like he did Saturday.

“We like his size,” Kelly said. “We like what he's done. Look, he would have been playing a long time ago if we had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that. He is practicing well. He is doing the right things both on and off the field.”

Even Notre Dame’s backups found success late in the game with sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister scoring his first career rushing touchdown and sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy catching a touchdown pass from freshman Brendon Clark, both career firsts.

The offensive eruption of 66 points — the most in a Notre Dame home opener since 1932 — was afforded the opportunity to be delayed thanks to the performance of Notre Dame’s defense. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton actually started the scoring in the game by returning his first career interception 34 yards for a touchdown. Senior defensive end Daelin Hayes deflected the pass by New Mexico quarterback Sheriron Jones which made for an easier catch for Hamilton.

Hamilton, rated as a five-star recruit by 247Sports, has continued to show his playmaking abilities that he flashed repeatedly in preseason practice.

“The defense kind of set it up for us, the big interception by that kid, 14, who is around the ball,” Kelly said. “He just has a great nose for the football and the interception for a touchdown got us some great momentum, and then we were able to feed off that.”

The Irish intercepted three passes from Jones, who finished a 4-of-15 passing for just 19 yards. Safety Jalen Elliott and cornerback Shaun Crawford corralled their interceptions in the second quarter as Notre Dame opened up a 38-7 lead by halftime.

What little success New Mexico had offensively came in the running game. The Lobos needed 46 carries to reach 260 yards, but both touchdowns came on the ground — a 47-yard run by Bryson Carroll late in the second quarter and a 37-yard run by Bobby Cole late in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame’s backups.

Kelly said he’s confident the defense will clean up some of its mistakes. Linebacker Asmar Bilal led Notre Dame’s defense with eight tackles and two tackles for a loss.

“We're not getting pushed off the ball,” Kelly said. “We're not getting manhandled. None of that concerns me at all.”

That confidence will certainly be tested against Georgia’s offense, which has averaged 286.7 rushing yards through its first three games. The Irish offense will find out if its big plays will translate against Georgia too. The Bulldogs have surrendered only 23 points through three games.

The answers will be clear soon enough.

“We know a little bit more about our football team,” Kelly said, “which allows us to put together a plan of action as we go and tackle a very good opponent on the road.”

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Notre Dame’s Javon McKinley (88) celebrates scoring during the Notre Dame-New Mexico NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.