Down a handful of players, Notre Dame bull rushes South Florida

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There was no rain delay, only sunshine and clear skies. No goal-line carry resulted in a dramatic end-to-end fumble return, only Notre Dame rushing touchdown after Notre Dame rushing touchdown. Surprise absences did not yield defensive lapses, only another vintage performance from Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit.

Calling No. 7 Notre Dame’s 52-0 win against South Florida a game leans too heavily on euphemism. More accurately, the mauling featured the Irish as the bulls and South Florida as the flailing matador failing miserably to execute a Veronica maneuver, instead getting run over again and again and again.

Notre Dame fifth-year quarterback Ian Book alternated rushing touchdowns with his running backs throughout the first half, giving the Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) a comfortable 35-0 lead. Down three starters and a few reserves, Lea’s defense matched the offense’s impressive start by holding the Bulls to 65 first-half yards, 42 of which came on one rush courtesy of a mishandled assignment by sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford.

Book finished with four rushes for all of nine yards, though that included three touchdowns, while adding 143 yards on 12-of-19 passing, connecting with junior receiver Braden Lenzy three times for 34 yards after the speedster missed the season opener with a balky hamstring and junior tight end Tommy Tremble three times for 60 yards, the second game in a row Tremble has led the Irish in receptions. Discounting Book’s oft-vultured touchdowns and one Lenzy end-around, Notre Dame’s running backs gained 261 yards on 39 carries, a 6.87 yards per rush average.

“Those one-yard rushes don’t count,” Book admirably acknowledged. “You have to give those touchdowns to the running backs who brought us all the way down there and to the o-line. I’m following all those guys up front, and they’re paving the way for me. I don’t want to take the credit for those.”

ABSENCES OF THE GAME
About 90 minutes before kickoff, Notre Dame announced eight players from its released depth chart would be “unavailable” against South Florida. Among them, only sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was somewhat expected, having suffered an ankle sprain in the season opener.

The other seven — sophomore cornerback Tariq Bracy, junior Buck linebacker Shayne Simon, sophomore Buck linebacker Marist Liufau, junior defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark, junior running back Jahmir Smith and junior receiver Lawrence Keys — were unexpected absences and thus now presumed out for next week’s trip to Wake Forest, as well.

Per sophomore linebacker and spot starter Jack Kiser, some of those absences become official Saturday morning, at which point he went from scout team to first-team.

“You always have to be ready,” he said after leading the Irish with eight tackles, including two for loss. “On scout team, your goal is always to make it up and get to the next level, so when found out, it was just a mentality, let’s go.”

Let’s go. This is college football in 2020. This is why college football in 2020 is risky in every sense and deeming this season already a success is a take so far out over its skis that Eddie the Eagle could critique the form.

But thanks to players like Kiser, junior safety Houston Griffith and freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis — all impromptu starters — that listing of absent players is far from cataclysmic, as evidenced by the final score. To pull from pregame press box conversations among suitably-distanced media members, a scenario in which Kiser led the way at Buck linebacker was a feasible one just a few weeks ago, and the Irish coaching staff has been hoping to find moments to get junior Bo Bauer on the field more often. This was not as if Notre Dame had lost both its long snappers due to contact tracing, a thought experiment that would have made this rout much more entertaining, as displayed by South Florida’s misguided snaps on punts, one granting the Irish excellent field position and another gifting freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho his first career touchdown.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
When Pro Football Focus rated Notre Dame’s offensive line the best in the country last weekend, it could reasonably be diminished by pointing out how few games there were, a weekend with only four between Power Five teams. All the same, the line played better against Duke than it seemed on the surface, especially once it got past the first quarter.

“I thought [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] did a great job of being patient and sticking with the running game after not having the success early on,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We had great success in the second half.”

That success very much carried over, and given every back available found success, the credit should land with the offensive line, as well as Rees. Freshman Chris Tyree took eight carries for 65 yards and his first career score. Sophomore Kyren Williams ran 10 times for 62 yards, twice getting within the 5-yard-line only for Book to get the subsequent scoring chance. Sophomore C’Bo Flemister ran wild in the second half, finishing with 13 rushes for 127  yards and the above score. At the end of the festivities, senior Jafar Armstrong got in on the fun, finding the end zone on a 5-yard, fourth-down attempt.

The common denominator? The offensive line.

“They were really good today, and they continued where they left off in the third and fourth quarter last week, picking up movement” Kelly said after the first truly non-conference game in Notre Dame history. “We are starting to get our aiming points down pretty good on the outside zone and our inside punch play, and then once teams start over-committing to that, then you can see how clean the counters look.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When the Irish quickly moved 54 yards in less than three minutes to take the lead it would only build on, they removed the need for any real turning points.

“Really proud of our football team and the way they responded this week in terms of getting off to a quick start,” Kelly said. “That was our point of emphasis, and doing so really put South Florida on their heels.”

Yet, the Bulls were trailing only 14-0 when running back Johnny Ford slipped past Crawford for a 42-yard gain. South Florida didn’t do itself any favors with a holding penalty a play later, but a 3rd-and-9 from Notre Dame’s 37-yard line was still its best chance to threaten and perhaps keep the destruction to a more manageable level.

Instead, Kiser made his second tackle and first real impression, tracking down quarterback Jordan McCloud on a four-yard rush.

Bulls head coach Jeff Scott and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. opted to fake a punt, correctly recognizing they were on the verge of suffering a fatal goring, to revert to the earlier metaphor. The problem was, they forgot to block Irish sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey, something that somehow occurs more often than fathomable. When he notched his first career sack a week ago, Duke left him unblocked, something Lea and defensive line coach Mike Elston prepared him for and Foskey has remembered.

“They told me not to hesitate, just go straight for the beeline right to the quarterback,” Foskey said. “… I don’t expect anyone to try that again.”

South Florida did try it, and it cost the Bulls nine yards, possession and their only trip into Notre Dame territory of the first half.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish found early success not only in the game, but in drives, too. On third downs, they needed to gain an average of 3.9 yards. Compare that to a week ago, when third downs averaged 6.9 yards to go. That very much traces to the offensive line success, the bulls, if you will, making a mockery of South Florida’s attempts to avoid the inevitable.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 4-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, South Florida 0. (7 plays, 54 yards, 2:50)
7:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, South Florida 0. (7 plays, 43 yards, 3:24)

Second Quarter
14:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, South Florida 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 5:07)
11:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 26-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, South Florida 0. (5 plays, 53 yards, 1:57)
1:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, South Florida 0. (4 plays, 25 yards, 0:54)

Third Quarter
6:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 22 yards. Notre Dame 38, South Florida 0. (10 plays, 60 yards, 3:21)
3:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jordan Botelho 0-yard blocked punt recovery. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, South Florida 0.

Fourth Quarter
2:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 5-yard run. Dawson Goepferich PAT good. Notre Dame 52, South Florida 0. (10 plays, 66 yards, 7:00)