No. 10 Notre Dame overcomes slow start to beat Duke in unique season opener
Notre Dame needed a spark on offense so it turned to punter Jay Bramblett.
That sentence probably would have only made sense before Notre Dame's 27-13 victory over Duke if the Irish were suddenly stricken with a wave of COVID-19.
That wasn't the case for Notre Dame football's season opener Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had no positive COVID-19 tests throughout the week and every player listed on the depth chart was available to play at the start of the game.
Yet the Irish still needed Bramblett to provide the big play that finally kick-started Notre Dame's offense into gear early in the second quarter.
No. 10 Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first three possessions and trailed Duke 3-0 at the end of the first quarter. The fourth possession seemed destined to end with Bramblett's fourth punt on fourth-and-8 from ND's 21-yard line
Instead head coach Brian Kelly, whose contract extension through the 2024 season was announced during the game, called for a fake punt. Bramblett scrambled for 14 yards. It was Notre Dame's longest gain from scrimmage at that point.
"We felt like it was there," Kelly said of the fake punt decision. "It was one of those that you needed to call it in a very vulnerable area. In other words, when you're backed up.
"Jay is a very good athlete, and you saw that he had to cut back to make that first down. But (we) felt very confident that he was going to get an opportunity to convert that. We needed a little bit of momentum, and so I just felt like it was the right time to make the call."
The drive ended with a one-yard touchdown run by running back Kyren Williams and eventually led to Williams taking over as the workhorse in the slow-starting offense. Williams, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound sophomore, showed why Kelly named him the lead back in the preseason. He did a little bit of everything for the Irish including a 75-yard reception on a screen pass and a long run of 26 yards.
"It took a couple of drives to get into my flow, to finally be able to relax and breathe and just be the player I am," Williams said. "I think with the tunnel screen and the long run, we were able to kind of dictate their defense. We knew what they were going to be in. (Offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees took advantage of that and we were able to make a play."
Williams finished his first career start with 19 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns, two catches for 93 yards, no lost yardage and a game ball to take home. Williams only tallied 26 rushing yards on four carries and a three-yard reception his entire freshman season.
"For an opener that's a really good performance and something to build off of," Kelly said. "Certainly there's a number of run-reads and blitz pickups and things of that nature that he's going to get a great learning curve from. But obviously a really good day."
The emergence of Williams allowed starting quarterback Ian Book to work through a sloppy first half. The third-year starter looked out of sorts in the passing game and couldn't seem to connect with his targets even though the stat line wasn't as ugly.
He finished 10-of-15 passing for 174 yards with one interception in the first half. The interception came immediately after Williams' 75-yard reception. Book fired a pass high and hard to covered tight end Tommy Tremble, who let the ball go through his hands and into the hands of Duke safety Lummie Young IV.
Duke intercepted another Book pass on the following drive, but it was wiped out by an offside penalty that occurred before the throw. Book's first completion to a wide receiver went to junior Joe Wilkins Jr. in the final minute of the first half. The previous six completions were caught by running backs and tight ends.
Duke's defense threw some unexpected looks at Notre Dame's offense, Kelly said. That combined with an offseason with fewer practices than normal and new targets working into the offense were all part of Kelly's explanation for the slow start for the offense and Book.
"What I had said to Ian on the sideline was he has to make some of the easy plays, the layups, if you will," Kelly said. "He missed a screen and he missed an easy drive route and he did some really good things, too.
"You have to understand, no spring ball, and let me just go over how many new players that he is blending into this offense. Whether it's Mike Mayer, Tommy Tremble getting a bigger role, Joe Wilkins, Javon McKinley, Lawrence Keys, all the backs, Ian Book has got a whole new offensive group of skill players around him, and he's still working through that process.
"So it's not in a situation where he knows exactly where they are going to be."
The offense, which was already without wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. because of a broken foot, lost grad transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek to a hamstring injury in the second quarter. The offense didn't include junior Braden Lenzy either. Lenzy was dressed and reportedly available to play, but he didn't play a snap on offense or special teams.
Freshman running back Chris Tyree and freshman tight end Michael Mayer each showed flashes of their potential in their college debuts. Tyree rushed six times for 26 yards and returned four kickoffs for 90 yards including a long of 38 yards. Mayer caught three passes for 38 yards.
The start didn't quite go as expected for Book, but he finished the day 19-of-31 passing (61.3 percent) for 263 yards and a 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Avery Davis in the fourth quarter. Book was sacked three times by a talented Duke defensive front that averaged just under three sacks per game last season.
"I planned on going in there and feeling great from the get-go," Book said. "Obviously, I felt like I had a little bit of a slow start. But the team carried me for a little bit and I felt like I got back to where I wanted to be."
A normal Notre Dame Stadium crowd may have rained down some boos on Book and the sputtering offense on a dreary Saturday in South Bend. But with stadium capacity capped at 20% (15,525) and a reported attendance of 10,097, the unpleasantries were less audible.
The cheers and pumped-in crowd noise made Book feel at home even as he tried not to focus on the crowd size. The Irish won their 19th consecutive home game.
"I didn't want to run out there and be disappointed or anything," Book said. "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 crowd was the third-smallest to watch a game in Notre Dame Stadium since it was built in 1930. Only games against Kansas in 1933 (9,221 fans) and Washington University in St. Louis in 1936 (9,879) were witnessed in person by fewer spectators.
The Notre Dame defense gave the crowd enough to cheer about throughout the game. Duke scored its only touchdown with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter when quarterback Chase Brice's two-yard run cut Notre Dame's lead to 17-13.
The most concerning moment for the defense came earlier in the third quarter, when sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton went down with an apparent leg injury. Notre Dame's athletic communications staff described Hamilton's injury as an ankle sprain after the game, which could be good news given how slowly he walked off the field. Hamilton still finished second on the team with seven tackles despite missing most of the second half.
The Irish were causing havoc in the backfield with seven tackles for a loss, including three sacks. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, nose guard Kurt Hinish and defensive end Isaiah Foskey each recorded a sack. Owusu-Koramoah led Notre Dame with nine tackles and added two tackles for a loss and one forced fumble that was recovered by safety Shaun Crawford.
"We executed to the best of our abilities," Owusu-Koramoah said. "They came out with something that was more difficult and something that we didn't expect. Really with the adjustments that we made, I think that was the best aspect of our defense today."
Foskey's impact was felt as part of Notre Dame's defensive line rotation. After playing in only four games last season, he looked ready for a prominent role with two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup in addition to his sack.
"He is truly a ball hawk on the defensive line and willing to get to the quarterback with his strength and everything," Owusu-Koramoah said. "He’s a player who is locked in. He’s not afraid of this game and the speed of it."
The Blue Devils rushed for only 75 yards. Brice finished 20-of-37 passing (54.1 percent) for 259 yards.
The victory marked the first conference win in the history of Notre Dame football with the Irish committed to competing in the ACC this season only. ACC logos were added to Notre Dame's jersey and helmets. The field inside Notre Dame Stadium had two ACC logos painted on it and even the pylons in the end zone had ACC logos covering the ND logos.
Book was asked, likely in jest, what it felt like to be 1-0 in the ACC after the game. The conference affiliation has allowed Notre Dame to push forward with a football season while the likes of the Big Ten and Pac-12 are stuck at home.
A slow start for Notre Dame on Saturday certainly beats no start at all.
"I feel thankful to be in the ACC and be able to be playing," Book said. "Obviously, we've been looking forward to this game today for so long. The fact that we were able to do it, another win in our stadium, to be 1-0 in the ACC, it feels great.
"We have a long way to go, but it's definitely a good start."