Hansen: Amid the mixed messages against Florida State, context best defines Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

By the time that Brian Kelly finished explaining why safety Shaun Crawford’s surprise move back to cornerback was about survival and not strategy, the context of what unfolded in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night finally became apparent.

Not that the Irish head coach’s decision to give the game ball to team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler and head trainer Rob Hunt, instead of ND’s oppressive offensive line, wasn’t a strong hint.

“We’ll try to get (the O-line) the (game) ball next week,” assured redshirt freshman Kyren Williams, a flash of brilliance himself with a career-high 185 rushing yards and two TDs among what initially seemed to be a smattering of mixed messages delivered in No. 5 Notre Dame’s 42-26 eventual dismissal of Florida State.

The rough edges for the Irish (3-0, 2-0 ACC) on Saturday night may turn out to be more mirage than malignant. But the best-case scenario of what this team could evolve into is almost as muddled in mid-October.

Or at least disjointed.

Given that No. 1 Clemson smothered seventh-ranked Miami on the stat sheet (550 yards to 210) and the scoreboard (42-17) Saturday night on a competing network is a reminder how urgent it is for the Irish to convincingly evolve between now and the Tigers’ Nov. 7 visit to Notre Dame Stadium.

A peek behind the curtain during the longest regular-season hiatus for Notre Dame— 21 days between games — since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic shows that evolution was hardly at a standstill against Florida State.

Just hidden.

The conventional COVID-19 math heading into Saturday spit out that just two Irish regulars would not be available — starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and surging sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser.

That was down from 39 players unavailable during the peak of the crisis that included a postponed game with Wake Forest and a nine-day hiatus from practice.

“Actually my first thought when the operation shut down was if I’m going to play again?” said grad senior Javon McKinley, a surprising force against the Seminoles (1-3, 0-3) with a career-high 107 receiving yards on five catches.

A look at the Irish cornerback position helps tell the story of why this wasn’t a matter of a team with COVID hangover, but one still very much intertwined with the virus.

Starting cornerback Nick McCloud wasn’t cleared until Thursday of this week — too late to get any meaningful contact work. Same for freshman Clarence Lewis, who started the USF game Sept. 19, in place of game 1 starter TaRiq Bracy.

McCloud’s backup, Cam Hart, wasn’t cleared until Friday.

“So it was TaRiq and a bunch of freshmen that really weren't particularly ready,” Kelly said. “Shaun had played the position (prior to 2020). He was selfless in the sense that he moved over to the cornerback position and bailed us out in a very, very difficult time, playing a position that he hadn't been repping at all because he had played all those safety reps.”

The 5-9 Crawford got burned on a 48-yard TD pass from first-time QB starter Jordan Travis to 6-4 receiver Tamorrion Terry as 21-point underdog Florida State took advantage of a couple of early Irish turnovers to surge ahead, 17-14, with 38 seconds left in the first quarter.

But the sixth-year defensive back gathered himself and finished with two pass breakups, three tackles and an interception on third-and-goal from the 5 midway through the fourth quarter.

“(Crawford) has played more snaps than everybody in the DB room combined,” said safety Kyle Hamilton, who returned for a Sept. 12 ankle injury to co-lead the Irish in tackles with eight. “So he’s seen a lot of football. He knows what he’s doing. You don’t really have to worry about him doing his job.

I think he just rubs off on everybody else in the room.”

The most concerning hiccups Saturday night on the surface were Florida State’s ease at running the ball at times, with Travis accounting for 96 of FSU’s 153 rushing yards and a TD run, and a defense that overall came perilously close to coughing up more than 30 points for what would have been only the second time in Clark Lea’s 29 games as ND’s defensive coordinator.

“Good teams win when they have their ‘B’ or ‘C’ game,” Kelly said. “Our defense did not have their ‘A’ game today.”

And wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s coming-of-age party never really materialized, perhaps in part because of the effectiveness of McKinley. In his first game since the 30-3 2018 College Football Playoff loss to Clemson, the junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., didn’t catch a pass and was barely targeted.

Still, the glimmers of promise from the Irish were actually more plentiful than the final score and Twitter commentary might have suggested.

Williams shook off a fumble on his first carry to run for 65 on his second. By halftime the Irish had run for 240 as a team — 40 more than Miami had done so over the course of an entire game against FSU.

And the 353 rushing yards Notre Dame amassed by game’s end was the eighth-highest total of the Kelly Era. Freshman Chris Tyree crossed the 100-yard threshold for the first time in his career, with 103 yards and a TD on 11 carries.

Quarterback Ian Book had 259 yards in total offense, enough to push him past Jimmy Clausen into second place on the ND career list behind only Brady Quinn. He threw for two TDs and ran for one, but every bit as importantly looked comfortable and efficient in the deep passing game.

“It was a conversation that he kind of had with us this week,” Kelly said of his QB who was 16-of-25 for 201 yards through the air without an interception. “He said he felt really good, as good as he's felt in quite some time.

“I don't know, maybe a perspective that he had gained. He was very calm in the pocket. I thought he saw the field well. He was aggressive in pushing the ball down the field.

“It was nice to see. If we continue to see that from Ian Book, he's going to be very difficult to defend.”

Louisville (1-3, 0-3) at home next week, followed by road games at Pitt (3-2, 2-2) and Georgia Tech (2-2, 2-1) precede the gristle in ND’s schedule — Clemson (4-0, 3-0), Boston College (3-1, 2-1) and eighth-ranked North Carolina (3-0, 3-0), in succession.

Perhaps by then this Notre Dame team will more resemble its aspirations than its mid-October reality, twisted by a virus that at least 45 Irish players have tested positive for since June and at least 27 since ND’s 52-0 skunking of USF on Sept. 19.

What is apparent is the Irish have the resilience to put themselves in a position to find out.

“That's just how 2020's going,” Book said. “Every day's different. You never know who's not going to be able to make it with COVID. This team has done an unbelievable job of just focusing and going one day at a time.

“I talk about it all the time, but the next-man-in mentality. That couldn't be more of a thing this year. You never know when your opportunity is going to be.

“Everybody's preparing that it's going to be their time on Saturday. We just have to keep doing that. That's what Notre Dame's about. I'm happy to see that."

RIGHT: Shaun Crawford has shown flashes of playmaking ability throughout his Notre Dame career including an interception at Boston College in 2017, which he celebrates here.