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Things We Learned: Newfound play-makers could make No. 7 Notre Dame’s offense enough at Georgia

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was a question sparked by a simple fact. The inquiry itself was rather simple, really.

No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) gained 591 yards of total offense in its 66-14 thrashing of New Mexico (1-1) on Saturday. When was the last time the Irish gained more than that?

Quickly, logic posited sometime in 2017. That 10-3 season was led by a record-setting rushing attack, after all. Remembering Notre Dame broke 500 yards on the ground at Boston College that season, it was offered as a decent guess.

Close, but no cigar.

In fact, three games in 2017 featured Notre Dame gaining more than Saturday’s yardage. In order of their occurrence, from September through November:

— vs. Temple, a 49-16 victory, 606 total yards with 422 on the ground.
— at Boston College, a 49-20 victory, 611 total yards with 515 on the ground.
— vs. Wake Forest, a 48-37 victory, 710 total yards with 380 on the ground.

The Irish outburst this weekend was not unique because of its high-scoring, even if that was a Brian Kelly Era high topping the 62 scored against UMass in 2015, or because of the massive gains. Rather, the difference came in how it all occurred.

Notre Dame knew its offense would determine its ceiling this season, and it knew that offense would depend on its passing game more than its groundwork, even more so as injuries have already cut through the running backs. As much as Kelly preached “run the ball and stop the run” in August, he was more acknowledging the unknown aspects of his team, not the driving forces behind it.

Against the Lobos, Irish senior quarterback Ian Book and his litany of receivers showed how far the aerial attack could possibly carry Notre Dame.

“It felt good to get in a rhythm, both in the second quarter and third (when the Irish scored 45 total points), to keep scoring and keep rolling and keep scoring touchdowns and keep putting points on the board,” Book said after a day that saw him throw for 360 yards and five scores. “A big confidence booster for all of us, and for those younger guys to be in there and get some touchdowns was awesome.”

It was not a perfect day for Book — either he twice threw to senior receiver Chase Claypool’s wrong shoulder or Claypool twice looked over the wrong shoulder or some combination thereof, as an example — but it was a massive step forward from the struggles of the season opener. Notre Dame left Louisville wondering where its quarterback was, the one that sparked the Irish to the College Football Playoff a year ago, and whom the imposter wearing No. 12 was.

Book circa 2018 returned Saturday, now boasting some willingness to fire downfield. (For that matter, his two backups went 2-of-3 for 74 yards and a touchdown. Not a bad day for any Notre Dame passer.)

Those wonderings about Book were largely reactionary and rash, focused on the sample size of one game rather than the 10 he had started previously, working efficiently in nine of them.

Pondering who Book would connect with, however, was a question stemming from an absence of evidence. Aside from senior receiver Chase Claypool and, to a lesser but still notable extent, fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, Book had no established targets to rely upon. With No. 3 Georgia not far into the offing, the injuries to junior tight end Cole Kmet (presumed to return next week), junior receiver Michael Young and junior running back Jafar Armstrong only worsened the vacuum.

In step senior receiver Javon McKinley, sophomore receivers Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy, sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble and junior running back Avery Davis.

Sure, some polite disclaimer needs to be offered here: This was against New Mexico. Next week the Irish face a different beast. That applies less to Book, who has succeeded against the likes of Stanford, Virginia Tech and USC, and more to these newfound possibilities. But, nonetheless, Notre Dame now knows it at least has theoretical threats for Book to work with.

“We needed this game to find some of the pieces that are going to be needed to make explosive plays,” Kelly said. “You’re not going to beat Georgia by just three yards here, four yards [there]. You’re going to have to make some explosive plays. We needed to see that happen today.”

That’s why the Irish may have kept some of Davis’ showcase moments in the figurative back pocket. That’s why McKinley providing another strong, deep target downfield could open up life for Claypool. The same can be said of Tremble, re: Kmet. That’s why Notre Dame will not panic about its running game.

Sans the expected star running back, currently without the likely goal-line wrecking ball (sophomore Jahmir Smith), the Irish know their strength is not in the running game. Nor is that the best way to win in college football in 2019.

“From an offensive line standpoint, could we have been better today? Probably,” Kelly said. “But [New Mexico wasn’t] going to let us run the ball up inside, so we are going to move to some of the things that we can do. We threw for almost 450 yards.”

434, to be exact, while running for a total of 164 (sack adjusted). That ratio is somewhat tolerable, especially when remembering that in the first quarter, Notre Dame gained 10 yards on five rushing plays and 22 yards on nine passing plays.

If only one of those could be improved because of the Lobos’ defensive scheme, the Irish needed it to be the latter half. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has that track record of rushing success, first established in 2017 and emboldened by Dexter Williams last year. Depending on the pass is a new recipe for success, but a necessary one.

“That’s the nature of college football today,” Kelly said. “You’d better be able to do both. If you can’t run it because they don’t want you to run it, you’d better throw it. If you can’t, you’re in trouble.”

There is still a bounty of room for improvement — going 1-of-10 on third downs is only somewhat mitigated by a 5-of-5 showing on fourth down; having only one of 20 running back carries break 10 yards is far from ideal — but there is also renewed reason to think Notre Dame’s offense may be as powerful as expected all offseason.

Scoring 66 points against New Mexico is not what revives that belief. How the Irish did so is: Through the air, with varied weapons and designs, using multiple looks to inflict the scoreboard pain. That “how” is the best Irish chance at success next week, if not all season.

Even Notre Dame’s defense knows as much. Counting the blown field goal snap, the Lobos turned over the ball four times. The Irish offense did not touch the ball after one of those, courtesy of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton finding the end zone on his own, but it otherwise scored off each turnover. The defense knows that is likely and dials up its pursuit of the ball a bit more as a result.

“We know we have a high-powered offense, so anytime we get our offense more possessions, we’re going to have a better chance of winning the game,” fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford said after notching an interception himself. “… As long as we get [Book] some more possessions, get our coaches more possessions on offense, we’ll be hard to beat.”

This is a different recipe than the last two seasons’, it is one some traditionalists may not relish, it is one that may at times even make Kelly or Long uneasy, but it is the best recipe on hand given Notre Dame’s current ingredients, some of which first revealed themselves only Saturday.