SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense bumbled through the first quarter only to explode in the second Saturday afternoon. Three lightning-quick touchdowns highlighted a 31-point quarter, sending the No. 7 Irish (2-0) well on their way to a 66-14 victory against New Mexico (1-1) on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s offense hardly functioned in the first quarter, bringing back memories of the opening half at Louisville, as it failed to score on two drives and gained all of 32 yards on 14 plays. On five running plays, the Irish gained 10 yards, while on nine passing plays (including one sack), they managed 22.
Aside from a 34-yard interception returned for a touchdown by freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, nothing seemed set to go well for Notre Dame. Even when the Irish got a first-and-goal inside the five-yard line, they needed four plays to literally shove senior quarterback Ian Book across the goal line.
Things changed and changed quickly when Book flipped the ball a foot to junior running back Avery Davis for a 59-yard score. Then he found senior receiver Javon McKinley for a 65-yard score featuring at least five broken/missed Lobos tackles. Not yet done, Book hit senior receiver Chase Claypool in stride for a 37-yard score.
“I thought we might have started a little slow in the beginning, but I think you saw that we were able to pick it up as the game went on,” Book said. “That’s huge. We need that in the offense.”
Those three touchdown drives took a total of 49 seconds and five plays to cover 193 yards. In game time, the drives stretched 4:54. A frustrating 14-0 Irish performance had switched into a 35-0 rout. And once the gloves were off, they were not going back on, no matter who might be next up on Notre Dame’s schedule.
“It felt good as an offense just getting the confidence up and going out there and being able to execute,” Book said. “[New Mexico] wasn’t a game we were going to look over.”
Book later completed another “pass” to fifth-year receiver Chris Finke for a 54-yard score, as well as added a second to McKinley, the first two of McKinley’s career. While those catch-and-runs inflated Book’s stats, his line still stood out both for its raw numbers and its efficiency. Book completed 15-of-24 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns, adding nine carries for 46 yards and a score. Claypool finished as the leading receiver, in fact the only one with more than two catches, with four receptions for 96 yards.
The damage was so quick and severe, Book was able to cede duties to sophomore Phil Jurkovec before the third quarter ended. Jurkovec completed one pass, a 52-yard bomb to sophomore Braden Lenzy, the first completion and reception for each part of that equation, to kickstart a drive that concluded with yet another Notre Dame touchdown on a one-yard run from sophomore C’Bo Flemister, another first tally. To keep with the theme, freshman quarterback Brandon Clark got his first touchdown on a mid-fourth quarter 22-yard throw to Lenzy.
The Irish defense may have played well — it is hard to argue otherwise when its scoring output nearly matches the opponent’s — but that offensive explosion was the salve needed to cure the worries sparked by the inefficient performance in the opener, particularly with No. 3 Georgia awaiting in a week.
Make no mistake, as Book insisted Notre Dame did not look past the Lobos, and a 52-point margin would agree with him, the Bulldogs were on his mind by the time he got to the post-game podium.
“It felt really good to be able to put it away (today), and like I said, it’s just Georgia week. We’ve been talking about this since the year began.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Who knows what exactly shifted when the Irish began that run, but when it did, the initial competitive nature of Saturday afternoon immediately dissipated. The shift took about as long as it took Davis to run from one edge of the field around the opposite side of the Notre Dame offensive line. Once he cleared that corner and hit the ensuing seam, the Irish sidelines may as well have started thinking about Athens, Ga.
For anyone who lost track of Davis on the roster in addition to on that play, he arrived at Notre Dame as a quarterback, moved to running back, then to defensive back, and finally back to running back last week to provide depth amid injuries. His impact was clearly felt.
“Avery Davis’ electric run really got the entire team and the stadium into it,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.
It spurred momentum, which manifested itself in McKinley’s pinballing run and Claypool’s paradoxically untouched score.
“Javon McKinley needed to make a play,” Kelly said. “He made a couple of really big plays. He’s been a guy that has been kind of lost in cyberspace, if you will, and he’s now going to have to play a significant role.”
The offensive onslaught began so quickly it could hardly be noticed. Its start came from players few would have expected. And it resulted in the most points of Brian Kelly’s 10 years in South Bend, topping the 62 scored against UMass in 2015.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
His statistical impact may have been limited to only the one play, but Davis’ contributions reached further than that, not that a 59-yard touchdown scamper does not have its own impact.
Let it be known: This space had settled on Davis for this honor before learning Kelly gave him the game ball, another piece of deserved recognition.
He may not have been the most heralded recruit, but he was a quarterback coming to Notre Dame. Certain buttresses to an ego naturally come along with that, but Davis never made much of an impact on the quarterback depth chart, and his time at running back last year was marked more by miscue than by production. Thus, his flip to cornerback this spring. By all accounts, his athleticism fit there. The Irish were optimistic about his future on defense.
But losing junior Jafar Armstrong for a month or two (torn abdominal muscle) and sophomore Jahmir Smith for at least this week (sprained toe) left Notre Dame without much depth at one of the most physically-punishing positions. Davis was called upon again.
“We gave (him) the game ball, for him being so humble a player and so unselfish to flip from quarterback to running back to defense and back to the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said.
Davis did not need to be so easy-going about it all. Many players past and present would not have been. His pay-off? That 59-yard score and at a minimum one moment of spotlight, at a maximum a distinct role back within the Irish offense.
Yes, more could be coming.
“[His package in the offense] was bigger than what we featured today,” Kelly said. “We wanted to get him involved a little bit today and we didn’t want to show a whole lot today. He’s a smart kid, played high school football at a very good program. He knows the game well, was able to retain most of our offense.”
Book was just happy to have another play-maker at his disposal.
“Someone, you might switch their position, you might think it’s going to be a bigger issue than it was with [Davis],” Book said. “Shows the type of player he is and where he’s at mentally and he’s ready to go. Nothing better than to see him get that run tonight.
“I’m excited for him and I know he was, too. I like to say he belongs on offense. That’s what we like and we’ll keep him there.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
By the end of the second-quarter fireworks, not to mention Book’s two additional touchdowns in the third quarter or the pair of touchdown drives led by backups in the fourth quarter, the only score of the opening frame had been all-but-forgotten.
Down the road, it may be oft-cited as the first public moment of stardom from freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. Senior defensive end Daelin Hayes deserves a fair amount of credit for the interception returned for a touchdown, as well, being it was his astute tip of the ball that put it right into Hamilton’s breadbasket. Then it was off to the races, Hamilton needing nearly every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to reach the pylon.
“The defense kind of set it up for us,” Kelly said, implicitly nodding his head at the offense’s slow start. “The big interception by that kid, No. 14, who is — he’s around the ball. He just has a great nose for the football. The interception for a touchdown got us some great momentum, and then we were able to feed off that.”
With two pass breakups in the opener and now this interception, Hamilton is off to an aggressive and impressive start, to say the least.
STAT OF THE GAME
By the letter of the law, Davis’ and Finke’s touchdowns were passes. The ball left Book’s hand and moved forward through the air to them. That is, by definition, a pass. After all, words have to have meaning, lest society fall into a disarray lacking any viable means of communication.
But even Book knows those shovel passes (or jet sweeps) are more akin to handoffs than throws. And in real-world terms, the distinction does not matter. Yards gained are yards gained. Touchdowns are touchdowns. The results are the results.
“I guess it feels good because it’s considered a pass,” he said. “But either way, if it was a run, I’d have been just as excited. I’d run down there and celebrate in the end zone, regardless.
“But when you have guys like that with speed who can really get around on the edge, it’s a great play design and being able to do that twice and get some big chunk plays was awesome.”
The “passes” exaggerate Book’s stats, but even if removing them, his afternoon was prolific and productive. Minus the two completions for 113 yards and two scores, Book went 13-of-22 for 247 yards and three touchdowns.
That is 11.23 yards per pass attempt, 19.0 yards per completion. Book may not yet have the best deep arm, but he did target Claypool downfield a few times, drawing a pass interference flag, and he targeted sophomore Lawrence Keys on another about 35 yards downfield, a ball Keys will learn to catch but it would be overly-critical to describe as a drop. These are the numbers and the plays of an offense finding its footing.
10:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyle Hamilton 34-yard interception return. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, New Mexico 0.
11:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book one-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, New Mexico 0. (10 plays, 49 yards, 3:59)
6:34 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 59-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, New Mexico 0. (1 play, 59 yards, 0:10)
3:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Javon McKinley 65-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, New Mexico 0. (2 plays, 80 yards, 0:28)
1:50 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 37-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, New Mexico 0. (2 plays, 54 yards, 0:11)
0:29 — New Mexico touchdown. Bryson Carroll 47-yard rush. Andrew Shelley PAT good. Notre Dame 35, New Mexico 7. (5 plays, 75 yards, 1:21)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 36 yards. Notre Dame 38, New Mexico 7. (4 plays, 46 yards, 0:29)
13:24 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 54-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, New Mexico 7. (2 plays, 60 yards, 0:39)
7:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. McKinley 20-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 52, New Mexico 7. (6 plays, 65 yards, 1:58)
14:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 1-yard run. Harrison Leonard PAT good. Notre Dame 59, New Mexico 7. (9 plays, 58 yards, 4:01)
7:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 22-yard pass from Brandon Clark. Leonard PAT good. Notre Dame 66, New Mexico 7. (10 plays, 88 yards, 3:49)
6:26 — New Mexico touchdown. Bobby Cole 37-yard rush. Shelley PAT good. Notre Dame 66, New Mexico 14. (2 plays, 75 yards, 0:48)