Notre Dame’s most unorthodox season opens with conventional win against Duke

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — ACC logos on the field, a young running back getting a chance to impress and only 10,097 fans in the stands; gold on their helmets, an inconsistent offensive showing and two years added onto Brian Kelly’s contract. The more things change at Notre Dame, the more they stay the same.

The Irish defense stood firm enough in scoring situations to provide the backbone of a 27-13 Notre Dame victory against Duke, with sophomore Kyren Williams scoring the first two Irish touchdowns. He finished the day with 112 rushing yards on 19 carries, a 7.6 yards per rush average, as well as two catches for 93 yards.

As the game moved along, the sputtering offense found a slight bit more rhythm, though that was a low bar to clear after the first quarter included all of seven yards. All the same, Notre Dame (1-0, 1-0 ACC) used the break between quarters to announce a three-year contract extension for head coach Brian Kelly, a deal originally reached in December but not announced until the Irish could return to the football field.

“When the University transitioned to remote learning in March, we decided to wait to make this announcement until we were able to return our attention to football being back in action,” Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said in a statement.

Saturday’s rust should hardly color the reaction to that extension. The delay in its announcement comes from the same source as fifth-year quarterback Ian Book’s rust did. Attention was not on football — assuredly Book’s was, but far from the usual structures of spring practices, offseason conditioning and preseason practices sans distraction.

“It’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that for such a long time,” Kelly said. “So my expectation was that it was going to be a process that we just had to be patient, and you saw we were patient and we stuck with what we were doing, and we had to make some adjustments at halftime.

“We looked like the team we should have in the second half after we made some adjustments and settled into some things. I thought we took control of the game in the second half.”

Taking control in the second half featured 202 yards while giving up only 82 yards. The Irish had the ball for 17:46 in the latter half, after just 13:26 in the first half. Book used an 8-0f-14 second half to finish the day 19-of-31 for 263 yards and a touchdown.

And in another rendition of things staying the same, Kelly expects more from Book before long. In an example of them changing, Kelly puts much of Book’s growth on the skill players at his disposal; so few of them contributed at al last year, there will need to be time to work into the offense, time not had in spring or this preseason.

“Ian Book has a whole new offensive group of skill players around him, and he’s still working through that process,” Kelly said. “It’s not in a situation where he knows exactly where they are going to be. …

“At times Ian wants to be great, and he can’t be great yet because those guys are young and they need some more time. So just some of those easy plays and he’ll be fine.”

Thus, an inconsistent offensive showing made sense, just as it made sense an athletic specimen made two decisive defensive stops to keep the Irish afloat in the first half. Twice the Blue Devils got well into the red zone, once looking for the afternoon’s first score and once looking to retake the lead. Twice sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey got into the Duke backfield to curtail the drive, forcing a field goal on each occasion.

Foskey’s play gave Book and the offense time to find footing beyond Williams. Once they did, two fourth-quarter scores followed, furthering the thinking that their initial struggles stemmed from the nine-month layover between even mildly competitive snaps.

That layover finally ended. That fact alone brings some renewed stability to Notre Dame, just as Kelly’s contract extension will for the program as a whole.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Every so often, a piece of historical praise is heaped on a player that sounds like there is a comparison coming. 

“He did something that had not been done here in 25 years — receiving yards over 90, rushing yards over 90, pretty good opener for him,” Kelly said of Williams’ first genuine collegiate action, leaving the open-ended question of who matched that in 1995.

But as often as not, “25 years” is included only because the media relations department was able to get back just that far before its postgame duties began. In other words, Williams’ day was so impressive, we are not sure of the last Irish player to match it.

What may stand out most about his day is not the way he refused to be denied on the first score or the way he utilized fifth-year senior receiver Javon McKinley’s block to reach the end zone a second time, but rather, his patience. Williams took 13 carries for 39 yards in the first half. He was, quite frankly, not getting any blocking and going nowhere.

In the second half, Williams rumbled for 73 yards on just six rushes.

“We knew 2-3 yard gains would burst into big gains,” Williams said. “So we knew if we kept doing that, then those big gains would come. …

“It took about a couple drives to get my flow, to finally be able to relax, breath, be the player I am.”

Coming from a sophomore whose only real chance as a freshman was a one-play cameo featuring a dropped pass, That level of calm and confidence is unexpected but welcome for Notre Dame.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s offense had not found its stride. Duke’s was nearing its. The Blue Devils were on the Irish 2-yard line, hoping to cap off what was to that point a 90-yard drive with a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

Instead, Foskey came around the edge and got to Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice before he could throw the ball away. It was the second time Foskey had blown up a Brice thought in the backfield in the red zone, the first coming when Notre Dame dropped its defensive tackles into coverage and confused Duke’s offensive line, a new wrinkle from defensive coordinator Clark Lea and defensive line coach Mike Elston.

“Some people would be happy that [Foskey] would be their featured player and he’s a depth player for us,” Kelly said. He’s an outstanding football player, let’s just put it that way, and we are just blessed that we have a lot of depth and you saw that starting to kind of show itself.”

The 9-yard sack cost the Blue Devils any hopes of a fourth-down attempt, forced a field goal and preserved the Irish lead. Notre Dame scored the next 10 points, and Duke never again had the ball while within one possession.

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the previous Irish drive into the red zone, Book wasted a 75-yard screen pass to Williams by firing a short pass to junior tight end Tommy Tremble about twice as hard as it should have been, not to mention on a well-covered route. The subsequent deflection led to an interception and more shuffling of Notre Dame’s feet.

“What I said to Ian on the sideline was he has to make some of the easy plays, the layups, if you will,” Kelly said of this third-year starter.

Book’s 17-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Avery Davis was hardly a layup. Instead, one of the “really good things” Kelly said Book did, as well. Mostly, though, Davis deserves credit for perhaps the most impressive grab of his ripe-with-position-changes career.

“It was just a seam, man coverage, he covered me pretty well,” Davis said. “But when the ball was in the air, I just needed it. Couldn’t let that opportunity pass.”

STAT OF THE GAME
The last thing anyone needs to do is add hype to the conversation around freshman running back Chris Tyree. The heralded recruit may be the only player whose public perception was somehow aided by the lack of practice reports this offseason. There was never a chance to temper expectations, and then he returned the first Duke kickoff a quick 38 yards, with an emphasis on quick.

He also took six carries for 20 yards. Those may seem like modest numbers, but they elicit a comparison to two freshmen from a few years back.

In the 2015 opener, a 38-3 victory against Texas, freshman Josh Adams took five carries for 49 yards while classmate Dexter Williams gained 24 yards on seven attempts.

SECOND STAT OF THE NIGHT
Notre Dame has never lost a conference game.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
The University had previously said it would allow up to 15,525 fans into the Stadium, exactly 20 percent of its capacity. Only 10,097 turned out, with approximately 90 percent of them students, an understandable downtick given the 48 hours before the game were spent pondering the very real possibility of thunderstorms delaying the 2020 season further.

Anyone claiming they thought a 12 percent-filled stadium would create a viable atmosphere would be spouting nonsense, but when Davis admitted as much and then granted the crowd credit, he came across as authentic.

“Honestly I was expecting a lot less,” he said. “I didn’t think there would be that many people in there, so to see them and to hear them and feel their energy, that was really exciting.”

INJURY UPDATE

 

Northwestern graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek had a hamstring injury, per Kelly, “Not severe but enough that he couldn’t play at 100 percent.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
7:01 — Duke field goal. Charlie Ham 29 yards. Duke 3, Notre Dame 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:53)

Second Quarter
10:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 1-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Duke 3. (12 plays, 96 yards, 4:37)
3:20 — Duke field goal. Ham 30 yards. Notre Dame 7, Duke 6. (11 plays, 80 yards, 4:12)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Notre Dame 10, Duke 6. (9 plays, 54 yards, 1:13)

Third Quarter
7:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 26-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Duke 6. (7 plays, 59 yards, 3:32)
2:19 — Duke touchdown. Chase Brice 2-yard rush. Ham PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Duke 13. (6 plays, 39 yards, 2:24)

Fourth Quarter
10:58 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 17-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Duke 13. (15 plays, 83 yards, 6:14)
5:21 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 34 yards. Notre Dame 27, Duke 13. (6 plays, 40 yards, 3:45)