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.
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.”
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)
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)