SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If the cost of a three-week layoff is the first two lost fumbles of the season and some defensive struggles against a run-focused quarterback, then Notre Dame came out of its coronavirus outbreak-induced pause without any long-term, on-field concerns. The No. 5 Irish (3-0, 2-0 ACC) survived a pair of early miscues, each putting their defense in a precarious position, to run past Florida State, 42-26.
“Winning is hard,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Just to be here talking about a victory is really satisfying given the fact that just about 10 days ago we had 36 players that were unavailable to us.”
Those two miscues, perhaps rust-driven or maybe simply miscues, left Notre Dame trailing after the first quarter, 17-14, despite rushing for 128 yards on only seven carries. Three Seminoles scoring drives had covered a total of 98 yards. From there, though, the Irish stopped gifting short fields to Florida State (1-3, 0-3 ACC) and focused on what worked before 30 or so positive COVID-19 tests cost them more than a week of practice and postponed a game to mid-December.
“We gave them 10 points,” Kelly said. “We keep them to 16 (otherwise), and that’s not playing our best, we can play much better. Some of that is attributed to the layoff that we had.”
In the second quarter, Notre Dame’s first three drives included two touchdowns and, not uncoincidentally, nine runs on 13 plays, highlighted by freshman running back Chris Tyree’s 45-yard untouched scoring rush.
The Irish added one more touchdown just before halftime, a drive that relied on a 50/50 split between running and passing given the time constraints, to win the quarter handily, 17-3. That touchdown pass to junior Braden Lenzy was fifth-year quarterback Ian Book‘s second of the day, as he finished with 201 yards on 16-of-25 passing.
Led by Tyree’s 103 yards on 11 rushes and sophomore Kyren Williams’ 185 yards on 19 attempts, the Irish totaled 353 rushing yards, averaging a whopping 8.4 yards per carry. Based on both the stat-sheet showing and what the eyes could see on the field, the three-week layoff may have worked to the offensive line’s benefit, something that fits with what fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg acknowledged after Notre Dame struggled to 178 rushing yards on 42 carries in the opener against Duke.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” Eichenberg said in mid-September. “But at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”
Though the Irish did not practice for a significant chunk of the last three weeks, there were still more practices between two games than would normally be the case.
“From an offensive line standpoint, they excel under those circumstances,” Kelly said Saturday. “The work from them was positive in that sense. That group is a unique group. There’s not a group that I’ve coached — those five guys work so well together.”
Similarly, Notre Dame’s defense grew back into game speed with every blow against the Seminoles. After gaining 142 yards in the first quarter alone, Florida State managed 263 the rest of the evening. Mobile quarterback Jordan Travis put Notre Dame in some quandaries to keep drives alive, but Florida State still lacked the dynamism needed to overwhelm Clark Lea’s defense. Travis ran 19 times for 96 yards, adding 204 yards on 13-of-24 passing, but that approach was not consistent enough to genuinely worry the Irish once they stopped handing Travis short fields.
“I’ll give credit to Florida State, they were bringing it to us with the run game,” sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton said after logging a team-high eight tackles. “… We just had to adapt, and I think we did, and slowly they started to fade away, and we got stronger as the game went on.”
PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
Fumbles happen, even if they do not seem to for Irish running backs. The stretch of 47 games without losing one (Nov. 21, 2015, to Nov. 2, 2019) was an otherworldly fluke, not a new normal. But when Williams fumbled his first touch, on Notre Dame’s second play from scrimmage, to hand the Seminoles possession at the Irish 32-yard line, the mistake was glaring and concerning.
“It was kind of hard coming in at first, not being able to play for 21 days, seeing live action, live bullets right away,” Williams said. “We had to get into our groove. I know I had to get into my groove. I had to feel comfortable again.”
Notre Dame wasted no time making sure Williams was comfortable, handing off to him again on the first play of its next possession, at which point he took off on a counter for 65 yards and a first-and-goal.
“I just had to tell myself to reset and play how I always play the game of football,” he said. “I told myself all day today it’s the same game since second grade. I just kept that mindset after I fumbled and I was able to bounce back and help my team.”
Book connected with freshman tight end Michael Mayer for an 8-yard touchdown two plays later, the first of Mayer’s career, showing the Irish would be able to move the ball efficiently, as long as they held onto it.
Williams mentally rebounding so quickly set a tone, one that pushed through the rust of the layoff and back into a dominant ground game.
“He’s a competitor,” Kelly said. “We just reminded him about ball security. Again, he wasn’t hit a lot. We only had one opportunity in these last three weeks to live with our guys. …
“Great competitors put that play behind them and they move on. That’s the kind of competitor he is. He moved on from a mistake he made, showed the kind of athlete that he is.”
In nearly every respect, Williams’ first two carries summarized Notre Dame’s week: Nerves and uneasiness about the layoff quickly giving way to the muscle memory of talent and potential.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
In the moment, it seemed to be just another long run like Williams’ 65-yarder, even if Tyree’s 45-yard dash actually reached the end zone. It did not give the Irish the lead, they already had it. But it did turn out to be the game-winning score, and its ease illustrated how Notre Dame could control Florida State.
Some run counters do not truly include the initial, misleading jab step; instead, they simply wait a beat to give the pulling blockers a chance to get to their spots. As fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer and Mayer crossed behind the line of scrimmage, Tyree bided his time. And then, poof.
Thanks to fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley’s downfield block, no Seminole came near the freshman speedster.
“They have really good guys blocking for them,” Kelly said. “There’s five guys up front. There’s receivers blocking for them, there’s tight ends that are blocking for them. We got a lot of guys that are doing a lot of really good work for the backs.
“Then they’re making good, decisive cuts, seeing things very well. It’s a combination of all those things. Good backs that are making really patient cuts, letting the offensive line do their work.”
There is one other piece to that combination, one so obvious it is ignored: the play calls leaning on the running game.
“When you are able to run like we were tonight, why would you want to stop something that’s working like that?” Book joked.
STAT OF THE GAME
Averaging 8.4 yards per rushing attempt is not unheard of, but doing so against a Power Five opponent, no matter how scuffling that program might be, is the mark of a ground game a level above. To put into context Notre Dame’s 353 yards on 42 carries, take a look at the best performances of the 36-6 Irish stretch since the start of 2017. These three-plus years have very much been built on the backs of offensive linemen and the legs of running backs:
2019: Four games with more than 5 yards per carry, with three more north of 6, topped by 6.86 yards per attempt at Duke.
2018: Three games with more than 5 yards per carry, with one more north of 6 and one, against Florida State, at 7.3 yards per attempt.
2017: Three games with more than 5 yards per carry, three more north of 6, one against Temple at 9.59 yards per attempt and one, a record-setting afternoon at Boston College, at 10.1 yards per attempt.
In a very literal way, what Notre Dame did on the ground against the Seminoles on Saturday compares to the 2017 running game, one led by two top-10 offensive linemen, a pair of explosive running backs and a mobile quarterback.
Williams’ standard for the offensive line is far below 8 yards per rush, which only serves to underscore how impressive that figure is.
“Whenever we can get five yards a pop, we have the best O-line in the country,” Williams told NBC Sports after the game. “I firmly believe that. As we saw tonight, they couldn’t stop our run, and that was mainly because our offensive line was moving the line of scrimmage.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
At one point in the last few weeks, the Irish were without nearly 40 players. Keeping the team engaged was a responsibility not just for the coaches, but for the team itself, as well, beginning with its captains, such as Book. How did he help hold the roster together? More than anything else, he acknowledged a fact we have all come to know too well.
“That’s just how 2020 is going. You never know. Every day is different.”
SCREENSHOT OF THE NIGHT
Liam Eichenberg's eye. #NDInsider pic.twitter.com/bRy3XY5i4T
— Tyler James 🦖🦕 (@TJamesNDI) October 11, 2020
12:03 — Florida State field goal. Ryan Fitzgerald 42 yards. Florida State 3, Notre Dame 0. (4 plays, 8 yards, 2:07)
10:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 8-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 3. (3 plays, 75 yards, 1:20)
6:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 46-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Florida State 3. (5 plays, 76 yards, 2:19)
2:51 — Florida State touchdown. Travis Jordan 4-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Florida State 10. (3 plays, 19 yards, 1:13)
0:38 — Florida State touchdown. Tamorrion Terry 48-yard pass from Jordan. Fitzgerald PAT good. Florida State 17, Notre Dame 14. (4 plays, 71 yards, 1:13)
12:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Florida State 17. (8 plays, 75 yards, 3:11)
5:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 45-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Florida State 17. (4 plays, 81 yards, 1:50)
1:17 — Florida State field goal. Fitzgerald 26 yards. Notre Dame 28, Florida State 20. (13 plays, 67 yards, 4:08)
0:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 6-yards from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Florida State 20. (8 plays, 57 yards, 0:58)
12:25 — Florida State touchdown. La’Damian Webb 7-yard rush. Two-point conversion attempt failed. Notre Dame 35, Florida State 26. (7 plays, 75 yards, 2:35)
8:40 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Florida State 26. (8 plays, 73 yards, 3:39)