Notre Dame's offensive line, running game carry Notre Dame past Florida State
SOUTH BEND — Liam Eichenberg’s bruised and swollen left eye didn’t tell the story.
If Eichenberg wanted to tell his friends, "You should see the other guy,” the fifth-year Notre Dame left tackle would be well within his right.
The appearance of Eichenberg’s eye was more indicative of what No. 5 Notre Dame’s offensive line did to the Florida State defense in Saturday night’s 42-26 Irish victory in Notre Dame Stadium.
The offensive line, with assists from the Irish tight ends and receivers, continued its dominance in clearing paths for Notre Dame’s running game. The Irish (3-0, 2-0 ACC) totaled 353 rushing yards — the most in a game since the last time Florida State visited South Bend in 2018 and allowed 365 rushing yards.
Sophomore running back Kyren Williams and freshman running back Chris Tyree both took advantage of the sizable running lanes. Williams led the way with 19 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns in his second 100-yard performance of the season. Tyree racked up 103 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries for his first career 100-yard game. Both capitalized with long touchdown runs — Williams from 46 yards out in the first quarter and Tyree from 45 yards out in the second quarter.
The offensive line certainly didn’t look like it hadn’t played in 21 days.
“When you have an offensive line like we do — one of the best offensive lines in the country — there’s not much rust in their play,” Williams said. “They don’t ever show any weakness. We always trust in our line and I’m excited for next week. We’re trying to get the offensive line the (game) ball next week, so we’re going to try to do what we can.”
The game balls Saturday went to Dr. Matt Leiszler, the team physician, and Rob Hunt, the team’s head athletic trainer, for guiding the Irish back to the playing field after a COVID-19 spike shut practice down and led to the postponement of the Sept. 26 game at Wake Forest. On Sept. 28, the Irish were without 39 players with 25 of them in isolation for positive COVID-19 tests and 14 in quarantine as a result of contact tracing.
On Saturday, only two players on Notre Dame’s depth chart who would have been expected to play otherwise — defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and linebacker Jack Kiser — were announced as unavailable. That didn’t mean other non-contributors weren’t still impacted and unavailable, but it shows how far the Irish have come in less than two weeks.
“We couldn't be here today without their extraordinary efforts to get our football team safe and healthy,” Kelly said of Leiszler and Hunt. “Just overwhelmed with a sense of pride that we have such a great support group that was able to get this group together.”
The medical staff was tested Saturday by Eichenberg when he appeared to get accidentally poked in the eye by of Florida State defender in the second quarter. Eichenberg eventually emerged from the locker room icing his eye. He returned to the game in the third quarter looking like a battered boxer and sporting a visor on his helmet for added protection.
Kelly said Eichenberg, a captain, showed no hesitation at all about returning to the game.
"It's crazy,” Book said. “Looked like he got hit right in the face. He's just strong and he wants to be out there. He's tough.”
Even though Eichenberg is arguably Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman, the unit didn’t seem to miss a beat while he was sidelined. Left guard Aaron Banks slid out to left tackle and senior Dillan Gibbons entered at left guard.
Book didn’t couch his words like Williams did when talking about the Irish offensive line. He’s convinced they’re the best in the country, not just one of the best.
Florida State (1-3, 0-3 ACC) learned firsthand just how good that unit is. Notre Dame’s running game executed schemes Florida State prepared for, linebacker Amari Gainer said. The Seminoles still couldn’t stop them.
“In what they are being asked to do, they are well established,” FSU head coach Mike Norvell said of the Irish offensive line. “They’ve been a successful offense the last few years. You can see that continuity and just how well they play together. Whether it was movements or different things that we tried to do, they handled it pretty well.”
The first half turned into a bit of a shootout, with Florida State’s offense managing to keep pace with Notre Dame. The Seminoles even took a 17-14 lead late in the first quarter following a 48-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jordan Travis to wide receiver Tamorrion Terry. Sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford moved down from safety to play cornerback and got beat deep.
Kelly said the Irish called on Crawford, who later intercepted a pass at the goal line, to play cornerback because some of their other options weren’t quite ready to play following recent quarantine and isolation periods.
Florida State’s offense was aided by a pair of Notre Dame fumbles that set up short fields for the Seminoles. Williams fumbled on the second play from scrimmage, which led to a Florida State field goal. Then Lawrence Keys III muffed a punt later in the first quarter, which led to a four-yard touchdown run by Travis.
Still, the Irish defense ceded plenty of ground to the Seminoles. Travis finished 13-of-24 passing for 204 yards and one touchdown and led Florida State in rushing with 96 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries.
Limiting the Seminoles to only one touchdown in the second half — a seven-yard run by running back La’Damian Webb — allowed the Irish to put the game away.
“Our defense did not have their 'A' game today,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has to do with a combination of really good players. And Travis, he played extremely well. They had a good scheme for him that made it difficult for us in terms of making some adjustments.
“But again, we gave them 10 points. We keep them to 16, that's not playing at our best. We can play much better. Some of that is attributed to obviously the layoff that we had.”
The layoff may have actually helped Notre Dame’s passing game, which struggled to stretch the field in the first two games to open the season. When Book wanted to gain chunks through the air, he looked to fellow fifth-year Javon McKinley. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound wide receiver set a career high with 107 receiving yards on five receptions.
“I wish I got a little more YAC (yards after the catch),” McKinley said, “but just to be able to get on the field and beat the man across from you and get open, catch some balls, get some yards, help my team out — not just from blocking, but in the passing game — it was fun.”
McKinley, a former four-star recruit who didn’t catch a pass at Notre Dame until his true senior season, had most of his big moments last year in lopsided games against New Mexico, Bowling Green and Michigan. His biggest moments of the 2020 season before Saturday came as a blocker.
Kelly called McKinley a beast during his postgame press conference and insisted McKinley needs to start playing with that kind of confidence. McKinley was waiting in the room as Kelly shoveled praise his way.
“He can't be defended,” Kelly said. “There's nobody in college football that can defend that kid. (Asante) Samuel (Jr.) is one of the best corners in the country. He didn't have much of a chance defending him.
“If he just continues to work the way he's been working, he's been one of our better practice players, he is a great leader with those wide receivers. I've been telling him he's got a chance to do some special things.”
Book said he was confident McKinley would win his matchups against Florida State. Delivering passes to McKinley allowed Book to finish with a line of 16-of-25 for 201 yards and two touchdowns and a season-best passing efficiency rating of 157.94. Book’s two touchdown passes went to freshman tight end Michael Mayer (eight yards for a career first TD) and junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy (six yards for a season first).
Junior Kevin Austin Jr. (foot) and grad transfer Ben Skowronek (hamstring) made little impact with limited snaps and no catches. Clearly the Irish passing game has room to grow, but when the running game is working so well, that development might come a bit slower.
As long as the Irish are playing physical, scoring points and winning games, that’s all right with Book.
“When you're able to run like we were tonight, why would you want to stop something that's working like that?” Book said. “That just helps open up the pass.
“Strictly in the passing game, it's going fine. We can grow in the running game and in the passing game. Nothing specific.
“We're doing what we have to do to win. It's about winning football games. That's hard to do. I'm just happy to be out there, happy to be playing."