Notre Dame’s home opener went the way you’d want. An easy victory, a ton of young players getting experience, and a team back on track with Michigan State coming to town next weekend.
And while head coach Brian Kelly said all the right things about a Nevada team that threw the kitchen sink at the Irish, Wolf Pack head man Brian Polian probably said it best.
“If we were supposed to beat Notre Dame, we wouldn’t be in the Mountain West conference.”
It wasn’t all easy. The Irish offense was slow out of the gate. The defense struggled on their opening series, but made some game-changing plays and held Nevada to just 300 yards. After after a first 20 minutes that was as forgettable as any from last season, the Irish’s talent took over, a victory inside Notre Dame Stadium that leveled the team to 1-1 on the year.
Let’s find out what we learned.
The loss of Shaun Crawford will be felt on and off the field.
The defense suffered a painful loss Saturday afternoon when Shaun Crawford went down early with a season-ending achilles injury. The sophomore was hurt after breaking up a pass that initially looked like a forced fumble and recovery. And instead of it being another big play by the diminutive defensive back, it’s a heartbreaking second-straight lost season for Crawford.
A season after not having a Plan B when Crawford went down in August, the Irish will now deploy theirs. That means Nick Coleman back to corner, a week after getting torched at Texas. True freshman Julian Love moves to nickel. And freshman Donte Vaughn will continue to get a look as the Irish secondary waits for junior Nick Watkins to recover from his broken arm.
Earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Coleman’s need to rebound and stay ready. Little did he know that a few days later, he’d be back in the starting lineup.
“Nick played with much better technique and a lot more confidence,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be that player for us with Shaun lost for the season.”
The defense woke up and made some plays.
The Irish defense played much, much better on Saturday, a relief not just to the 80,000 inside Notre Dame Stadium and the millions watching at home, but to a coaching staff that had to be wondering what to make of the unproven unit.
Especially after Nevada’s opening drive.
The Wolf Pack marched 62 yards on their opening possession, moving the chains and sustaining a 10-play drive that saw Polian eschew a field goal attempt for a 4th-and-1 run inside the Irish red zone. But Asauni Rufus never had a chance when Daniel Cage knifed through the line and the stop was a big momentum changer for the Irish defense, giving up just 61 yards the rest of the first half.
“We needed some confidence,” Kelly said postgame. “So that fourth-down stop was really a confidence builder for our defense.”
Also building their confidence was Jarron Jones’ interception, the fifth-year senior snagging a screen pass and setting the Irish offense up with the ball near the goal line. While the defense’s two other big plays—Crawford’s forced fumble and Tranquill’s return, along with a very nice interception by Cole Luke—were both overturned by referees, the defense played more than respectable after getting bludgeoned in Austin.
It took a group of back-ups to finally give up a touchdown to Nevada and the Wolf Pack were held to just 300 total yards— a big step forward for a unit that focused not on mixing and matching exotic looks, but playing fundamentally sound football.
“I thought we tackled better, played the ball better in the air, and just made the kind of improvement that we were looking for from week one to week two,” Kelly said.
DeShone Kizer is the engine of this offense.
After earning the starting job, DeShone Kizer backed it up with a near flawless performance, a 15 for 18 day with two touchdowns, the only poor throw on the afternoon an underthrown deep ball to Kevin Stepherson. Add in another touchdown on the ground and two more through the air and Kizer’s responsible for nine touchdowns through the first two weeks, elite play by the junior signal caller.
Kelly praised Kizer’s poise, applauding that he’s willing to take what the defense is giving him. He also praised Kizer’s development in the scoring area, the Irish scoring all six times they were in the scoring zone, with five touchdowns and just one field goal.
“I think he was a little bit more patience in certain areas,” Kelly said. “Especially in the red zone. Where now he’s had two touchdowns in the red zone where he’s been really patient, hitting his third and fourth option down there.”
With the game in hand, Kizer turned the keys of the offense over to Malik Zaire, who played well in relief, making a few big plays and driving the Irish to a score. But Kizer is the most important piece of the puzzle for this team, and his efficiency—even while breaking in a young group of receivers—has been really impressive.
With Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, the Irish have two young, dynamic talents at receiver.
Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has two emerging stars at wide receiver. Both Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders continued their hot start, with both sophomores playing large without Torii Hunter available.
St. Brown had 85 yards and six catches, nearly breaking two big plays early. Sanders’ numbers might have been more modest, five catches for 46 yards and a score, but he came through with a clutch fourth-down conversion and scored the team’s first touchdown.
With Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Kelly talked about the challenge to replace that trio and fill their shoes with the next generation.
“We had the spring and the summer to really spend the time at developing. We knew they had to be the next guys in,” Kelly said. “And we had a lot of confidence that we were going to be able to turn over a very good group. But they needed to obviously work together.”
While Kelly applauded the jump in play from week one to week two for the defense, the same step forward was made by the young receivers, with Kevin Stepherson scoring his first touchdown, Corey Holmes converting a clutch third-and-long, and Chris Finke and Chase Claypool making their first career grabs.
“We wanted to get them involved early. We felt like it was important to get Corey and Stepherson some touches early,” Kelly said. “Get them some confidence and they’ll make some plays for us.”
Kelly will keep rotating backs, but Josh Adams is quickly establishing himself as a workhorse.
Josh Adams had a big Saturday. And Notre Dame’s record-setter as a freshman did his best to take a three-man rotation and make it a one-man show. Adams only needed 10 touches to get past 100 yards, running for 106 yards and breaking off a nifty 43-yarder in the third quarter.
Though Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams each got ten carries, Kelly was asked postgame if Adams is starting to emerge as the team’s No. 1 back.
“He’s good. You can call him whatever you want. No. 1, No. 101,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those things where Folston had 10 carries, Adams had 10 carries and Williams had 10 carries, but you can make the argument that (Adams) should get 20.
“But Folston is a pretty sharp guy and Dexter is explosive. I think we’ll keep a balance in there, but Adams looked good today.”
In his first extended playing time this season, Williams showed a burst that might have been better than both Adams and Folston. So while the loss of C.J. Prosise (and his home-run speed) has changed the complexion of the Irish ground game, Adams’ ascent is coming at a perfect time—with Michigan State just around the corner.