Hansen: Sudden attrition shows both how fragile, and resilient, Notre Dame's aspirations are

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The way Brian Kelly meandered around the question, there was a bit of decoding involved in ascertaining that his Notre Dame football team’s first serious COVID-19 ordeal came this week in waves.

The 11th-year Notre Dame head football coach, whose team and campus had been shining examples this month of how to dodge the Q-word, offered 2 o’clock in the morning one day and 12:50 p.m. — less than two hours before Saturday’s kickoff — as two of the junctures when the bad news likely came his way.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Kelly said when pressed for specifics about eight players missing Saturday off the Monday’s Irish two-deeps. “You just kind of roll with it, you know.”

First-year South Florida coach Jeff Scott provided the ultimate context in just how the seventh-ranked Irish rolled in a 52-0 dismissal of the Bulls (1-1), Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Scott spent the past five seasons as Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator, facing Kelly teams twice during that juncture (2015 at Clemson and in the 2018 College Football Playoff semis).

“Before (watching) video and after the game, I feel like this is the best team that coach Kelly has had during his time here,” Scott said. “I think he feels the same way. I think he’s made some comments about that leading up to it. It’s definitely a playoff-caliber team.”

And that was without preseason All-America safety Kyle Hamilton, the only one of the eight players listed on a pregame status report from ND that was definitely ruled out because of injury (sprained ankle).

The school doesn’t differentiate between injured players in the report and those in isolation over positive COVID-19 testing or in quarantine because of contact tracing. Irish players are tested at least three times a week, and sometimes as often as once a day if circumstances warrant that.

The three players who on Saturday replaced Hamilton and two other missing starters — linebacker Marist Liufau and cornerback TaRiq Bracy — were all instrumental in helping ND (2-0) pitch the fourth shutout of the Kelly Era in the 1,300th game in school history. This against a Bulls offense coordinated by Charlie Weis Jr., in his first visit inside Notre Dame Stadium since his father's final home game as ND's head coach in November of 2009.

Sophomore buck (inside) linebacker Jack Kiser, a scout-teamer through Wednesday and a third-string option when the week began, in fact, received the game ball after amassing a team-best eight tackles (seven solo), including two for losses, and a quarterback hurry.

Kiser said he knew earlier in the week of the potential he’d play more, but didn’t find out until Saturday how much.

Liufau’s tag-team mate at buck linebacker, Shayne Simon, was also on the unavailable list.

“When Shayne Simon and Marist go down, that sucks,” Kiser said. “You don’t want that to happen to anybody. But they’re texting me like, ‘Hey, this is your time. Let’s go.’ And that means a lot.”

Bracy’s absence, meanwhile, pressed freshman Clarence Lewis into starting duty. He responded with five tackles, including a tackle for loss, and three pass breakups.

And junior Houston Griffith, the stand-in for Hamilton, had a tackle for loss among his five solos.

“We all prepare like we’re all starters,” Griffith said, “so everybody’s got to be prepared when we’re all called upon. And you know we go out there and we swarm to the ball.

“And we play great defense and we play Notre Dame football and we play 60 minutes of hell.”

Speaking of hell, the days and moments leading up to Notre Dame’s lone venture outside the ACC Saturday in its temporary, one-year conference experience, showed how fragile the season could suddenly become, even for teams whose talent matches their lofty ambitions.

The world changed seismically this week for the Irish, and not just because of COVID-19.

What were 76 FBS teams competing for four playoff spots became 90 this week, when the Big Ten opted back into the fall season with an Oct. 24 starting point and three legit playoff contenders in Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State.

The Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences hope in the coming days to fluff up the number of competing FBS fall teams, but they lack an obvious national powerhouse now that Oregon and USC have been diluted by so many star players opting out.

They also might not be able to start in time to get enough games in to get the CFP selection committee interested.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s COVID concerns could linger into its ACC matchup next Saturday at Wake Forest because of quarantine time.

The good news for ND — and all of college football — is that science continues to surge. Multiple manufacturers with cheaper, reliable lateral-flow tests in the FDA pipeline will likely make daily testing for all players at Notre Dame and the ACC an affordable reality sometime during the season.

That, in turn, theoretically mitigates the need for long quarantines.

The even better news was how Notre Dame handled the present circumstances in what turned out to be its 20th successive home victory. Seventeen players made their ND debuts Saturday, including 11 scholarship freshmen and plenty of them found the spotlight in a good way.

Among them, freshman defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger, trapped in his native Germany for most of the summer because of travel restrictions, had two tackles for loss, including a sack, in his coming-up party. Ehrenberger had been the scout team nose guard this week.

Fellow freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho, meanwhile, scooped up a blocked punt by Osita Ekownu and tumbled into the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown.

“We live in this world where right now, you're never prepared for it but we are aware of it and we know it could happen,” Kelly said of the COVID-coaxed lineup shuffling. “I think our players responded well. Our coaches were prepared and they responded well.

“You hate to see anybody not be available, but it's the reality that we live in and our guys did a great job. And it's why we've prepared, you know, so deep in the ranks in terms of giving guys reps and opportunities to be prepared.”

And the Irish were prepared from the start. Notre Dame scored on seven of its first eight drives of the game, five of them touchdowns, after laboring for a half in the season opener last weekend against a Duke team that got clobbered at home by former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Boston College, 26-6, on Saturday. 

Particularly dominant Saturday was the Irish offensive line, with zero sacks and a consistent push in the run game for a 6.2 average per carry. C’Bo Flemister, who missed the Duke game with a collarbone injury, led the way with a career-high 127 yards on 13 carries and a TD.

Quarterback Ian Book was a quieter contributor, though he did have three first-half rushing TDs. He also hit some statistical milestones, moving ahead of Tom Clements into third place in career rushing yardage for a ND quarterback (1,075), moving past offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and associate athletic director for football Ron Powlus into third place for career total offense (7,604 yards) and leapfrogging Steve Beuerlein into fifth place for career passing yards (6,529).

Book left the game late in the third quarter with the Irish leading 45-0, giving way to freshman Drew Pyne to see his first college action. Normal No. 2 QB, sophomore Brendon Clark, was one of the eight players ruled out Saturday.

Book finished 12-of-19 passing for 143 yards with no TD passes or interceptions.

“There are a couple balls I thought in the red zone that he could have been a little bit more finessed with,” Kelly said of the third-year starter, “but all in all it was a really good performance.

“I thought he led our team to the kind of fast start that we wanted. He was really tuned in. I thought he had a great week of practice. Really liked his demeanor.

“Really worked on his pocket presence. I liked his calmness in the pocket. It was a really good progression from where he was last week.”

COVID or not, progression is the key to Notre Dame’s weirdest season ever becoming one of its most special, at least in the years that have followed its most recent national championship (1988).

Each week is a building block to the Nov. 7 Notre Dame Stadium showdown with No. 1 Clemson (2-0).

“I tip my cap to them,” Scott said of the Irish. “I felt like I was playing Clemson out there for a majority of the day — just in gold helmets.”

Head coach Brian Kelly will hit the practice field on Saturday for Notre Dame's first spring football practice of 2021.