NOTRE DAME, Ind. — In retrospect, it was not the safest tactic taken by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Coming off an oh-so-close loss at No. 3 Georgia, he essentially told the No. 10 Irish that game did not matter. After they had nearly pulled off an upset that would have launched them into the upper echelon of the sport, after nearly surviving all that was Sanford Stadium a week ago, after coming a play away from a win to remember, Kelly diminished that entire weekend.
That may be an oversimplification of his approach this week, but only to a degree.
“It was not an easy week,” Kelly said after Notre Dame beat No. 18 Virginia. “Challenged our football team, right after the Georgia game — this would be a defining game. That’s hard to do after playing a very emotional game against Georgia to come out as the head coach and tell your team this week will be a defining game.
“In some instances, that’s not very fair, but we challenged them. They accepted the challenge.”
For a half Saturday, accepting that challenge took the form of doing just enough to hang with the Cavaliers, perhaps not a blue-blood program but inarguably a strong foe this season and one on the rise in the long-term. In previous years, that recipe would equal not only an ending with poor Saturday evening taste for the Irish but also an ending to any big-picture dreams in 2019.
Those years are not that far in the rearview mirror. Kelly remembers them and acknowledged as much.
“Maybe teams earlier that I’ve had here would not have found a way to win that game,” he said. “But this is a group that has really developed a persistence about them in the way they do things on a day-to-day basis.”
Kelly used persistent exactly a week ago, as well, shortly after that 23-17 defeat between the hedges. It is not a word he has used often in his 10 years at Notre Dame, immediate memory lacking any recall of it. To repeat it in back-to-back weeks is surely no coincidence.
“We’re a physical team, we’re a fast team, we’re a team that is persistent that will play for four quarters,” he said in Athens.
“They were exactly what I wanted them to be,” he said this weekend. “They were determined, they were persistent, they didn’t panic.”
While not a flattering compliment, those words may help identify the Irish floor, one set by a ferocious and deep defensive line, one set by a quarterback who does not turn a mediocre showing into a costly one, a floor once again threatened by injuries.
It will always help to have a defensive line like Notre Dame enjoys this season. While a coach might call a bad game, a quarterback might make a few bad decisions or a crowd might shake a roster, a talented defensive front will always pin its ears back and pressure the opposition.
Even if that had not yet resulted in sacks for the Irish — going without any the last two weeks — it undoubtedly impacted opposing game plans. Julian Okwara and Co. broke through against Virginia to the tune of eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss with five more quarterback hurries.
“In the second half we were able to get to [Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins] quickly and he had to get the ball out of his hand quickly and that was really the difference in the game for us,” Kelly said. “They could not run the ball between the tackles when they wanted to run the football with a five-and-a-half man box. If they could, that would have required us to do other things.”
Look at that defensive front’s impact in the simplest of ways: Virginia ran 72 plays. On more than a fifth of them, a Notre Dame defensive lineman made a play behind the line of scrimmage. Producing at that rate against a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback like Perkins makes it all the more impressive.
“I don’t think anything really changed (from previous weeks),” said senior end Khalid Kareem, who had 2.5 sacks. “We just kept coming, didn’t back down. We understand the d-line, we’re the tip of the spear and everything starts with us so we just kept coming and sacks came.”
It is again an oversimplification to suggest sacks were inevitable, but something to that effect should be offered out of deference to the depth of the line. Seven different linemen made plays behind the line. If healthy (more on that at the end), senior end Daelin Hayes would have likely made it eight.
That is the type of defensive line presence previously unseen in Irish uniforms, the type hyped in the preseason, the type that makes persistence a more natural trait to the team as a whole.
Similarly, senior quarterback Ian Book’s version of a poor showing made a 35-20 victory possible.
There is no way to paint Book’s 17-of-25 for 165 yards as a strong performance. Charitably, he completed 68 percent of his passes and avoided a turnover while adding 12 rushing yards. He also averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, went 2-of-9 when asked to convert a third down and never put pressure on the Cavaliers defense. (The two third-down conversions? The first two.)
“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively,” Kelly said. “We have not.”
Yet, Book did not do too much. His every play was needed a week ago. Attempting 47 passes for 275 yards at Georgia was the only chance the Irish had against the title contender. He did not need to be so aggressive against Virginia, and he thus kept things in check.
Is that an endorsement? No, but it is also not an indictment. Book’s lack of mistake kept the Irish afloat long enough for that persistence to take hold and do the rest.
Now that persistence can look forward, specifically to the return of junior running back Jafar Armstrong. Kelly has pointed to the Oct. 12 matchup with USC as Armstrong’s likely return.
In the interim, Notre Dame relied upon senior Tony Jones while activating sophomores Jahmir Smith and, more so, C’Bo Flemister. The latter finished with 27 yards and a touchdown on six carries. That may not seem like much, but six of 28 carries from running backs is a notable workload.
“He is a dog,” Jones said of Flemister. “He grinds. He is always in the film room. He’s always out there late after practice doing something. It showed today.”
Flemister may best serve as relief to Armstrong, just as Smith shines as a pile-driver at the goal line and Jones fits as a workhorse in all aspects. Each is currently putting in time one rung further up the ladder than those designations. A strong rushing performance — 190 yards on 33 carries (sacks adjusted) for a 5.76 yards per attempt average — in such circumstances, especially against a stout rush defense, helped the Irish persist past Book’s middling Saturday.
In Kelly’s past, one factor lagging may have doomed the whole. Beating a feisty top-20 opponent with one hand tied behind the back is a step toward greater consistency, a standard where three consecutive 10-win seasons is not considered a surprise. That possibility looks to be an utter likelihood at this point for Notre Dame, a mark earlier Kelly teams reached only twice in his first seven seasons.
A defensive front, a quarterback with an understanding of his role and unexpected performances show the differences between these Irish and those of the past.
Kelly did not have much in the way of updates on Notre Dame’s injury concerns immediately after Saturday’s victory. Hayes injured his shoulder, fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered an elbow injury and senior receiver Chase Claypool tweaked his ankle.
“Claypool rolled up his ankle, so he was fighting through that, did the best he could,” Kelly said. “Crawford, elbow. We’ll get an MRI on that, see where he is. Daelin Hayes is a shoulder and we’ll get that looked at here tomorrow.
None of those are good situations — Claypool’s absence may be magnified by senior receiver Javon McKinley’s two drops Saturday — but the Irish worked through those worries for one weekend, a nod toward depth they have long hoped for and rarely enjoyed.
Kelly should have further updates on Crawford and Hayes mid-Sunday afternoon.