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Hansen: Rush hour finally arrives as Notre Dame defense helps subdue Virginia

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The statistical weirdness Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium was curbed a bit by the fact Irish defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was an aspiring and actual quarterback until halfway through his middle school football career.

More directly related to the 285-pound junior’s 48-yard fumble return in the most critical juncture of 10th-ranked ND’s 35-20 subduing of plucky No. 18 Virginia was that what was supposed to be the unquestioned strength of this Irish team finally arrived in game 4.

In style and in substance.

The Notre Dame pass rush.

It also helps explain how Irish reserve defensive end Ade Ogundeji accounted for more scoring than quarterback Ian Book, how ND may have a dilemma with its plan to redshirt Jamir Jones, and how Notre Dame (3-1) — down 17-14 at half — survived a third quarter in which it got punked by an onside kick, amassed 20 total yards of offense and one first down, and survived giving the Virginia offense the ball in Notre Dame territory on a Chris Finke muffed punt.

In simpler, less-anecdotal terms, the Irish defense totaled eight sacks — against the most mobile QB it has faced to date, and forced five turnovers — three fumbles, and interceptions by safeties Alohi Gilman and Kyle Hamilton.

Notre Dame had amassed a combined four sacks in its first three games. To go with its Brian Kelly Era-high eight Saturday, and partly due to the sacks, the Irish defense held Virginia to four yards rushing, the fourth-lowest total since the last season of the Lou Holtz Era (1996). Senior QB Bryce Perkins, who came into the game as the leading rusher for the Cavaliers (4-1), netted minus-29 yards on 16 carries.

“They were determined. They were persistent. They didn’t panic,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Maybe teams I’ve had earlier here wouldn’t have found a way to win that game, but this is a group that really has developed a persistence about them in the way they do things on a day-to-day football.

“And it showed up.”

In the middle of most of that were bookend defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, each of whom deferred their NFL dream to return to ND for their senior seasons. They looked NFL-ready Saturday, with a press box teeming with scouts looking on. Afterward they shared the game ball from Kelly.

On Sunday, Okwara was named the Walter Camp Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week.

Kareem accounted for 2.5 sacks Saturday. Okwara netted his first three of the season. On the first he stripped Perkins and recovered the fumble that led to an Irish score. On another, Ogundeji scooped up the ball and covered all 23 yards to the end zone as the Irish started to pull away, 28-17, with 1:41 left in the third quarter.

“I love what Julian did,” Kelly said of the 6-5, 248-pounder generally projected as a first-rounder in next spring’s NFL Draft. “He got back to playing really physical football.

“I think Julian would tell you the whole kind of sack thing was too much of a personal thing, and he got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense and it really showed itself today. And he’s going to take off from here.”

The Irish running game finally took off in the fourth quarter, with senior running back Tony Jones coming alive with several long runs, including a 30-yard scoring jaunt that put the Irish up 18. He finished with a career-high 131 yards on 18 carries as the Irish amassed 178 on the ground against the nation’s No. 12 rush defense.

But overall, the offense labored — a lot.

Book didn’t throw any interceptions, but he didn’t throw for any TDs either. He was sacked twice and had two intentional-grounding penalties. Another key piece returned from the injury list, and wide receiver Michael Young contributed three catches for 19 yards.

Fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool, battled through a turned ankle to lead the Irish with six receptions, for 30 yards.

“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively. We have not,” Kelly said. “We’re far from where we want to be. We’ve got a lot of things to sort out and figure out offensively, personnel. Finding a balance within our offense is still a work in progress.”

A Twitter follower suggested perhaps Tagovailoa-Amosa should join the running back rotation. He certainly looked the part.

Virginia. Leading by three, had recovered an onside kick to open the second half, but the Irish defense forced a three-and-out. The Cavaliers pinned ND at its own 2-yard line with excellent punt coverage, and the Irish only were able to advance the ball four yards before having to punt themselves.

The Cavs started their next drive at the Irish 38. On third and 10, Perkins went back to pass and Jamir Jones poked the ball out of his hands. Tagovailoa-Amosa plucked the ball out of the air and started running. Perkins caught him at the Virginia 7.

Two plays later, Tony Jones powered into the end zone from two yards out at the 9:20 mark of the third quarter as the Irish took the lead for good, 21-17.

“Jamir Jones stepped up, stepped in,” said Tagovailoa-Amosa, whose QB career arc was ended by the rise of Taulia Tagovailoa, Myron’s cousin and the younger brother of Alabama starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“(Jones) made a big play attacking the QB, and I was just in the right position at the right time. It was a dream honestly — running with the ball, catching the ball. That’s the D-line’s dream right there.

“I have to finish that dream by getting in the end zone, which I didn’t. Hopefully, I get that opportunity again.”

Jamir Jones’ opportunities are muddled, given the Irish ideally would love if they could limit his action to four games this season and redshirt him to return in 2020 for a final year of eligibility. Last week at Georgia was his season debut, but he spent this week on scout team.

A shoulder injury to senior defensive end Daelin Hayes coaxed the staff to put Jones into the game in his place.

“They should get my wife up there — she knows more about this than I do,” Kelly said with a laugh when pressed about Jamir Jones’ situation for the rest of the 2019 season.

“We’re going to have to see what Daelin Hayes’ situation is, to be quite frank with you. We’re here to win this year, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

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Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had a GIF-worthy fumble recovery and run. See more photos from Notre Dame's 35-20 win over Virginia here: https://t.co/vOsJNKhson@SBTribune#NDInsider#UVAvsNDpic.twitter.com/9uv9OCz5vS

— Michael Caterina (@MLCaterina) September 29, 2019

Notre Dame’s Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) picks up a fumble during Notre Dame’s victory over Virginia Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.