Hansen: Notre Dame's opener becomes more about building and less about finding normalcy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Normalcy?

Considering how decidedly abnormal the six months were leading up to Notre Dame’s 27-13 slow escape from Duke Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium it was — at the very least — a tolerable reality.

With room to grow.

In a season opener with as many surreal touches as historical footnotes, resiliency was the most valuable Irish asset for a team with a No. 10 national ranking and even higher aspirations.

Two seismic fourth-down conversions, a breakout game for new No. 1 running back Kyren Williams, an unlikely hero at wide receiver and a defense that first solved, then wore down a plucky Duke offense keeps that premise percolating going into week two against South Florida (1-0).

But in the first Notre Dame football game in 102 years played in a pandemic, in the first conference football game in ND’s 132 seasons, and in front of the smallest home crowd since the Great Depression (10,097), third-year starting quarterback Ian Book laboring at times was part of the weirdness.

“If (you were) expecting that we were going to come out like a shiny new car,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said, “(you’ve) been reading too much Internet chatter.”

Yet just five days prior, Book and the Irish concocted one of the best Tuesday practices in Kelly’s 11 seasons at ND, by Kelly’s own estimation — and his own chatter. Duke, though, schematically surprised the Irish on both sides of the ball Saturday as the Blue Devils rudely welcomed the Irish to ACC play.

At the end of the first quarter, Duke held a 151-7 advantage in total yards, a 39 to minus-3 command in rushing yards and a 6-0 edge in first downs, but only was able to milk a 3-0 lead out of that.

It was at that point the school announced a contract extension for Kelly that had been agreed to way back in December. The new deal adds three years to the current contract and takes the 11th-year head coach contractually through 2024.

Irish adjustments, particularly on a defense that flexed its depth, helped ND extend its home winning streak to 19 games, tied for second-longest in school history, and avoid being the first top 10 team to lose to Duke since No. 7 Clemson fell 21-17 in 1989.

Individually, Book recovered to finish 19-of-31 for 249 yards with one TD and one interception for a 136.7 pass-efficiency rating, almost 13 full points below last season’s final standing.

The Blue Devils, incidentally, face Book’s former backup, Phil Jurkovec and Boston College next Saturday in Durham, N.C.

“Missing spring practice and then being delayed a few times of our practice in fall camp or whatever it may be. Those are important reps that you wish you had,” Book said of the challenge to just get to the starting line of a season that at times looked certain to be derailed or at least pushed back due to COVID-19.

“Every day counts, especially with quarterback-receiver timing. It's huge. Chemistry is everything. It’s trust.

“I was extremely excited with the way that guys wanted to put in work when we were together. We're working with the chemistry every day. I'm a lot more comfortable with it."

There was a lot to be comfortable with in terms of the Irish finding their potential eventually this season, at least by game’s end.

Among them, Williams, a redshirt freshman who transformed his body and his rep this offseason, made his first career start and finished with 112 rushing yards on 19 carries with two TDs and 93 more yards on two receptions.

He also received the game ball from Kelly.

Junior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. entered the game late in the second quarter after starter Ben Skowronek left the game with a hamstring injury. He had three catches in ND’s scoring drive just before halftime that led to a 48-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal as time expired for a 10-6 Irish lead.

Wilkins, with zero career catches coming into the game, finished with four for 44 yards. Fellow junior wideout Braden Lenzy, a late-season sensation in 2019, didn’t play. No additional information was provided other than he was dressed and available and ND’s entire roster made it cleanly through all three rounds of COVID-19 testing this week.

Even if the offense continues to sputter for a while beyond this week, the defense flashed enough muscle, speed and numbers to appear ready to do the heavy lifting until Book and Co., find their rhythm.

It wasn’t just preseason All-Americans like rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) and safety Kyle Hamilton (7 tackles, 1 pass breakup before leaving with an ankle sprain).

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea rolled in subs regularly throughout the front seven, and none of them was more conspicuous than redshirt freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey, with 1.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, among his two tackles.

He also had two quarterback hurries of Clemson transfer Chase Brice, in his first start at Duke, and a pass breakup.

“Some people would be happy that he would be their featured player, and he's a depth player for us,” Kelly said. “He's an outstanding football player, let's just put it that way.

“What we are blessed with is great depth and you could kind of start to see that show itself in the third and fourth quarter, where we started to take the game over.”

Duke managed 88 total yards and 24 on the ground after halftime after rolling up 246 and 51, respectively in the first half. Notre Dame, which led the nation in fumble recoveries with 19 last season, coaxed two in the second half from the Blue Devils.

“It's difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven't had that for such a long time,” Kelly said. “So my expectations (were) that it was going to be a process, that we just had to be patient.

“And you saw we were patient and we stuck with what we were doing and we had to make some adjustments at halftime. I thought we looked like the team we should have in the second half.”

And yet surrounded by the unfamiliar.

Because of safety protocols, Notre Dame capped ticket sales at 15,525, and only students, faculty and staff, players’ families and a few hundred seats for Duke were available.

Perhaps the threat of severe weather, which never materialized, tamped down the numbers. At 10,097, it was the third-smallest crowd in 90-year-old Notre Dame Stadium. Only Kansas in 1933 (9,221) and Washington of St. Louis in 1936 (9,879) drew fewer fans.

"I was trying to not think about that at all,” Book said of the largely empty 77,622-seat facility. “I didn't want to run out there and be disappointed or anything. That was no part of my gameplan. I wanted to pretend like it's going to be 80,000.

“Honestly, when I got out there I was pretty happy with the crowd that we had. They did a great job. It felt like more people than I thought it would be. I loved it. The crowd was great. It's a good home atmosphere.”

The marching band sat instead of marching, and spread out in the stands. There was no tailgating, no player walk, no pep rally, nothing at the concession stand but water and soda pop. It looked like a poorly attended spring game where everyone had forgotten to wear deodorant.

Even the press box was capped at 26 media members, spread out 12 feet apart from one another.

There were masks on the sidelines and a socially distanced singing of the alma mater by the ND players after the game.

“You are used to wrapping up with your brothers and showing them love,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “But at the same time, it is what it is. We have to adjust to the culture nowadays. And we have to adjust to everything that's going on.”

And if the Irish do, there was an unmistakable energy in the stadium that seems to suggest all this oddness off the field and some wonkiness on it still may lead to something special — at the end of a blur of quarantines, social justice gains and pushback, the #WeWantToPlay movement, player empowerment and the ongoing Big Ten soap opera in ND’s backyard.

“It was a blessing,” Williams said of just getting through the opening weekend, “because we all know six months ago we had no idea if we were ever going to be back in the stadium this year to play.”

For those seeking something closer to perfection against a 20 ½-point underdog, Saturday’s game was ripe for overreaction. And for those seeking normalcy, there were at least hints of it.

What Saturday turned out to be above all else was a building block. Unglamorous, unfinished but decidedly unspoiled.

Notre Dame’s marching band social distances itself as part of the third-smallest crowd Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium history. As part of ND’s COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed inside Notre Dame Stadium.