Onside technicality saves Notre Dame in 12-7 win against Louisville

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Louisville saw a chance to put No. 4 Notre Dame firmly on its heels and seize all momentum in a groan of a game, only for a Cardinals blocker to follow his instincts and become, apparently, by the letter of the law, a bit too over-eager with the chance. A successful Louisville onside kick instead became strong Irish field position and soon a lead Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) would not give up in a 12-7 victory on Saturday.

The Cardinals (1-4, 0-4) recovered the third-quarter gamble, not touching the ball within 10 yards of kicking it. The play looked clean, Louisville suddenly in excellent field position and already holding a 7-6 lead. But upon a review to confirm recovery outside of 10 yards, the officials deemed Cardinals linebacker K.J. Cloyd engaged the Irish hands team inside those 10 yards, a no-no partly out of deference to player safety and partly to give the receiving team a chance at recovery.

The exact, plain-as-day rule: No Team A player may block an opponent until Team A is eligible to touch a free-kicked ball.

To put that in more literal terms: Louisville could not block Notre Dame until Louisville was eligible to touch the kick, after the ball had covered 10 yards.

The subsequent re-kick gave the Irish possession at the 34-yard line.

After struggling when relying on the passing attack through the first half, Notre Dame turned to the run following the successful-yet-botched onside kick, six rushes by four different players gaining 61 yards, topped by fifth-year quarterback Ian Book scrambling 13 yards, diving the last two, for the winning touchdown.

“It’s not going to go down as an instant classic,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said to NBC afterward, a claim absolutely no one would dispute.

“I’ve coached a lot of games over 30 years, I don’t know that I’ve been in one quite like this,” Kelly added when talking with media via Zoom. “I’ve been in a 12-7 game when it was a stinker, but this game was a little different. It was hard fought.”

Sophomore running back Kyren Williams gained 16 of those yards, along with five receiving, as part of his 127 for the day on 25 carries, the most reliable part of an inconsistent offensive showing. Notre Dame gained a middling 338 yards against what had previously been a suspect Cardinals defense.

“I’m just proud of this team for not giving up,” Book said. “That’s what I saw tonight. A win is a win.”

Three times in the first half, the Irish marched downfield with inefficient drives kept alive by Louisville penalties, and all three times Notre Dame resorted to its field goal unit. The first two occasions, drives that reached the 14- and 12-yard lines, Irish senior kicker Jonathan Doerer knocked through his attempts. The third such drive, reaching the 13-yard line, Notre Dame opted for a fake with punter/holder Jay Bramblett as the ball carrier needing to gain nine yards. Despite his best and admirable efforts, Bramblett was stopped two yards short, part of the Cardinals gaining momentum.

“We felt like we controlled the whole game but were never able to separate because we couldn’t finish,” Kelly said. “We moved the football down, we were scoring goals, not touchdowns. You have to put the ball in the end zone. We didn’t do that today.”

For the crux of the day, though, Louisville’s offense performed worse than its Irish counterpart, totaling 219 yards. In a flip of the script from a week ago, Notre Dame’s defense bought the offense time, just enough time for the Cardinals’ best chance at stealing the game to be undone by a clean block half a yard too early.


TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Instead of possession at the 45-yard line with the lead, Louisville handed the ball to the Irish at its own 34. Notre Dame was still trailing, but crisis had been averted.

All because Cloyd dropped his shoulder into Irish junior linebacker Jack Lamb before the dribbling onside kick had reached the 45-yard line. In Cloyd’s defense, the ball presumably moved with a bit more speed in practice, meaning he did not get to his blocking assignment until the ball was legally to be recovered.

Frankly, if the Cardinals had retained possession, this moment still would have been the turning point of the game.

PLAY OF THE GAME
If Notre Dame had opted for a third field goal late in the second quarter rather than the fake, the dynamics of the rest of the afternoon would have obviously changed, but in the simplest terms, putting nine points on the scoreboard may have been enough for a win against Louisville. The Irish knew points were going to be limited, so why bypass a near-certain chance at three?

“In film study, we felt like there was a vulnerability there,” Kelly said. “We felt like it was going to go for a touchdown or I wouldn’t have called it.”

In a game with few points, a touchdown is even more preferable to a field goal than in a usual affair, and Bramblett has shown exceptional athleticism from the punter position before, and his spinning forward on the 4th-and-9 spoke to it again. He did gain six yards.

“The only thing you can question is the distance, how far it was,” Kelly acknowledged.

The risk was the ineffectual Cardinals offense would cover 90-some yards in 43 seconds. The reward could have pushed any genuine hope beyond Louisville’s reach. Some of that risk was nearly realized, when the Cardinals lined up for a 52-yard field goal, into the wind, as the half expired, but the try was a foot short.

Notre Dame’s attempt at conjuring up points made sense in a frugal game, particularly given how deep it was within Louisville territory, setting up too much distance for the Cardinals to cover in limited time, a thinking that proved to nearly the inch.

Credit to Bramblett’s spinning for an extra yard or two.

Daelin Hayes
Irish fifth-year defensive end and captain Daelin Hayes (No. 9) celebrates a tackle for loss Saturday. (ACC Media)

QUOTE OF THE GAME
“We tell the offense, all they need to do is give us three points and we’ll go do the rest. That’s the mindset our defense embodies and coach Lea has instilled in us.”

Fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes may not have been speaking literally — Louisville did score a touchdown after all thanks to Cardinals running back Javian Hawkins slipping through the coverage to pull in a 28-yard wheel route to the 1-yard line — but his point holds up. Notre Dame’s defense allowed the offense to falter.

Hayes & Co. held Louisville to 3-of-9 on third downs. They forced five punts on seven possessions while keeping the Cardinals to 4.9 yards per play. An offense with speedy playmakers that was averaging 29 points per game was limited to just two chunk plays.

STAT OF THE GAME
Seven, as in the number of drives Notre Dame enjoyed, making each trip to the red zone that did not reach the end zone all the more costly. That concern usually arises each year only against Navy, but even by those standards, this premium of possessions stood out. Each of the last two years, the Irish have had a dozen drives against the Midshipmen and 2017’s rendition included nine.

As the game established its rhythm, Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees could recognize they were not going to have many chances to score. They needed to protect the possessions they would have.

“You’re just making sure that you’re not putting yourself in a position where you leave yourself vulnerable to a turnover or a sack or sack fumble or something that can change the momentum in the game,” Kelly said. “You’re making sure you’re protected, your edges. Saw a lot of two tight ends. It’s a 3-4 defense, you want to protect your edges. We went with a lot more six-man protections.

“You’re very cognizant of those types of things in a low-scoring football game in which we were a part of today.”

As a result, three of Notre Dame’s first-half drives were the aforementioned field goal situations, while a fourth was an ugly three-and-out that netted a loss of seven yards. In the second half, the Irish scored, punted and finally ground out 7:55 to bring the game clock to three zeroes.

“We had been running the ball with pretty good effectiveness,” Kelly said of the final 14-play, 57-yard drive to the equivalent of nowhere. “We clearly had an idea of what we needed to do in that drive. We slowed our tempo down quite a bit. We let that clock tick down.

“There was a lot of confidence amongst all the guys that were out there, including the coaches, that we were going to be able to get that thing in our favor.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:26 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 32 yards. Notre Dame 3, Louisville 0. (12 plays, 61 yards, 5:34)
0:30 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 30 yards. Notre Dame 6, Louisville 0. (15 plays, 76 yards, 7:09)

Third Quarter
7:37 — Louisville touchdown. Marshon Ford 1-yard pass from Malik Cunningham. James Turner PAT good. Louisville 7, Notre Dame 6. (13 plays, 83 yards, 7:23)
3:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 13-yard rush. 2-point conversion failed. Notre Dame 12, Louisville 7. (8 plays, 66 yards, 3:54)

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.