Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense remains elite, a luxury the offense needs

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Reason to worry about the viability of No. 4 Notre Dame’s 2020 goals, in particular the ever-looming spectre just three weeks away, did not come in Saturday’s 12-7 scrape with Louisville. If anything, slipping by the Cardinals in ignominious fashion put the worry to bed. The reason to worry about the foundation of any Irish hopes of contending for an ACC title, how they could conceivably compete with No. 1 Clemson when it arrives on Nov. 7, came a week ago as Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) eased by Florida State, 42-26.

The Seminoles poked holes in the defense that sets the tone for the Irish. Those gaps were plugged against the Cardinals, an offense comparable to Florida State’s, if not arguably superior.

“Last week we didn’t really feel great about what we put on film, so this week we just wanted to get back to the basics, stick to our fundamentals and play our type of ball,” fifth-year defensive end and captain Daelin Hayes said Saturday evening. “We were confident in that. [Defensive coordinator Clark Lea] allowed us to go out and make plays, kept the game plan simple.”

If Notre Dame cannot rely on its defense, it cannot rely on anything. That has been the case throughout the revival begun in 2017, and it remains the case now. That is inherently a criticism of other facets of the Irish, most notably the passing game, but it also speaks to the importance of Lea’s defense. It is the perpetual safety net, and it knows as much.

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

Though two turnovers put the defense in difficult positions last week, Notre Dame still gave up 16 points — would have been 17 if not for a misguided two-point attempt — on three pertinent drives. Its turnover-fueled explosion against No. 5 North Carolina (3-1, 3-1) this weekend aside, Florida State has featured one of the most disappointing offenses in the country this season, averaging 22.5 points through four games and only 5.14 yards per play.

An elite defense should not have granted the Seminoles three long scoring drives.

There were reasons for those lapses as the Irish came off a coronavirus outbreak that weakened the linebackers and defensive line and held out much of the secondary, but confirming those reasons as the causes and not the excuses could not happen until Notre Dame played Louisville.

At which point, an elite defense did not grant the Cardinals scoring drives.

Even the one Louisville did muster, a 13-play, 83-yard march to start the second half, generously gifted Lea a chance to adjust, something he had hardly needed to do at halftime.

“They were running a bunch of squeeze in the first half, and we got used to defending what they were throwing at us,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “Really spaced us out a little bit in the second half, making sure we stayed on our toes.”

Owusu-Koramoah on his toes is not a sight any opposing offense wants to incur, not when his big hits inspire Hayes’, furthering the future first-round draft pick’s influence. Not everything should be viewed through an orange-and-white lens, but Owusu-Koramoah on his toes is how the Irish may have a chance against the Tigers in three weeks. The Irish defense following his lead may not be able to match a generational quarterback paired with a generational running back directed by a generational coach, but without Lea’s usual standard, Notre Dame would not have a semblance of a chance.

That standard was missing a week ago. It returned Saturday, partly by keeping it simple.

“Just cutting down the amount of calls that we have, just making it easy for everybody to understand, to be able to go out and play really fast,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “That was what we keyed in on this week, playing fast and playing physical. When you take out some of the calls, and you take out a lot of the checks and things like that, you start to get more comfortable in the defense.”

Keeping it simple is a luxury afforded teams with elite talent, and Owusu-Koramoah and sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton provide it, along with an underrated interior defensive line and veteran defensive ends more focused on making the right play than on making the big play.

Simply shutting down Louisville may not impress some; the Cardinals are, after all, 1-4. But they still averaged 29.0 points per game and 5.87 yards per play entering Saturday, decent if not stellar marks, and they boast some of the fastest skill players this side of Alabama. Reducing that offense to one damaging drive, only two chunk plays, 219 total yards and 4.87 yards per play marks the return of Lea’s standard, one that may be taken for granted.

That defense allows the Irish offense to stub its toe again and again without any harm done aside from a bit of anxious and broken-record commentary. Notre Dame knows its passing game needs work, to say the least. (Other sentences considered: “Notre Dame knows it lacks a passing game;” “Notre Dame knows its aerial attack is abysmal;” “Notre Dame knows it confirms the ancient worries about only three things happening when throwing the ball and two of them being bad.”)

“We’ve got to make some plays to be more efficient scoring touchdowns in the red zone,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s playmakers making plays.”

Kelly’s emphasis of red-zone failures highlights Saturday’s offensive struggles. With only seven possessions, Notre Dame reached the red zone five times. One resulted in fifth-year quarterback Ian Book’s 13-yard scrambling touchdown, one drained the final minute of the game, and three called for the field goal unit.

Five-of-seven is an effective offense, but two-of-five is not efficient scoring.

“Those guys got to make some more plays on the perimeter for us,” Kelly said. “We’re running the ball effectively enough. We’re getting some good play from the tight ends. [The receivers] got to continue to grow, and they are. … Ian has to get them the football. That will be something that we continue to focus on.”

Red-zone efficiency is a new problem for the Irish. Converting 21 possessions into 12 touchdowns this season falls miserably short of the last three years: 76.4 percent in 2019, 61.5 percent in 2018 and 76.1 percent in 2017.

As Kelly said, rectifying that shortcoming will come down to playmakers making plays, junior receiver Braden Lenzy finding sustained health (soft tissue injury), classmate Kevin Austin adjusting to his first action in 22 months, fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley finding the sure hands he showcases once a month more often than that.

Until then, Notre Dame can lean on Lea’s defense, now having confirmed the evening of Florida State failures was a rule-proving exception.

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)

No. 4 Notre Dame vs. Louisville: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Notre Dame
ACC Media
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WHO? No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) vs. Louisville (1-3, 0-3).
The opening quarter of the Irish schedule has left something to be desired in terms of competition, and the Cardinals fit that mold, at least on paper. Duke, South Florida and Florida State are lost causes; none of them will turn their seasons around from their combined 3-10 starts. Louisville yet may.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly echoed a common sentiment this week, that the Cardinals could just as easily be 3-1, falling by three at Pittsburgh and three lost fumbles undoing their chances at Georgia Tech.

“It’s a much better football team than that,” Kelly said Monday. “This past week (at Georgia Tech), they were the better football team, but they put the ball on the ground. … Really good scheme, really well-coached, dynamic playmakers, an offensive line that is really good technically at what they do.”

WHAT? A chance for the Irish to take sole ownership of the longest active winning streak in the country, currently tied with Air Force at nine games. It may seem a trivial feat, but it speaks to the unpredictability of this entire sport and the too-often underrated difficulty of winning the games on your schedule.

WHEN? A 2:41 ET kickoff will bring nearly 20 miles per hour winds, turning mid-50s and low-60s temperatures into brisker conditions, but that’s mid-October near a Great Lake.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., the final game of an unexpected four-game homestand for the Irish to open this chaotic season. They have had the luxury, albeit one somewhat botched, of not having to fly, of not having to bus to and from an airport, of not having to further tempt the inevitability of coronavirus.

“We’ve already been talking about what the road looks like for us in terms of procedures and protocols,” Kelly said, just about the same time news of the increasing trouble throughout the SEC broke bit by bit, much of which coaches have traced to travel problems.

NBC will have the broadcast, while the game will stream online and via the NBC Sports app.

WHY? Because this season has not imploded, yet. Though about 16 percent of games have been postponed or canceled, though the SEC’s latest troubles underscore the thin margin of error to squeeze in this slate, though Notre Dame itself is only just getting its entire roster back in the fold, it has not completely fallen apart.

Other worries do, of course, persist, such as the University reporting 31 new positive coronavirus tests on Wednesday, the most in a single day since Aug. 24, when Notre Dame was still in its first week of a two-week campus shutdown that included only remote classes and near total-quarantine of the student body.

BY HOW MUCH?
As of early Saturday morning, PointsBet made Notre Dame a 16.5-point favorite with a combined point total over/under of 62, suggesting a 39-23 result.

Kelly would wonder if such expected totals are giving too much credit to defenses in turmoil, though he obviously does not view that possibility through this specific lens. Losing spring practice, a calm summer and structured preseason practices hampers defensive development more than it does offensive.

“The ability to work on the fundamentals of defense, taking that away and not having that base, and then scrambling to get into camp and having to spend a lot of time on scheme over technique has not been the friend of defense,” Kelly said Thursday. “It has definitely helped offenses.

“Offenses are structured much more around the scheme than they are amongst the technique.”

Both the Irish and the Cardinals have demonstrated that, the former scoring 3.17 points per possession, the latter giving up 2.74 points per drive, No. 59 of 72 teams to have played at least two games. Notre Dame averages 12 possessions per game with one forced turnover per game. Louisville, meanwhile, has been giving up nearly three turnovers per game.

Following that logic, the Irish could reasonably expect 14 possessions this afternoon. Multiply that by their usual production, and they score 44 points; by the Cardinals’ usual allowance and 38 points. Whichever end of that spectrum proves more accurate, Notre Dame’s offense will have the advantage, as all offenses seem to in 2020. To a lesser extent, Louisville’s best playmakers — receiver Tutu Atwell and running back Javin Hawkins chief among them — should, as well, wind permitting.

Notre Dame 41, Louisville 17.
(3-0 straight up, 2-1 against the spread, 1-2 over/under)

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Unexpected veterans key Notre Dame’s adaptability
Defensive flux continues with LB Paul Moala out for the year
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson is ‘good,’ the rest of the ACC confusing
And In That Corner … No. 4 Notre Dame returns to ‘normalcy’ against Louisville
Crawford’s and Hamilton’s differences create an Irish strength at safety
Notre Dame with zero players in isolation or quarantine for the first time in five weeks
Things To Learn: Notre Dame seeks offensive, defensive consistency on conflicting timelines
30 Years of ND on NBC: Darius Walker’s 2004 debut powers upset of No. 8 Michigan

OUTSIDE READING:
Liam Eichenberg welcomes swelling expectations for Notre Dame’s offensive line
All eyes turn to Eichenberg
New kid on the block: Cole Kmet still on target for impact in 2020
Concern over travel grows after rise of COVID-19 cases in college football

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Darius Walker’s 2004 debut powers upset of No. 8 Michigan

Darius Walker Michigan
Getty Images
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It was a sign of things to come, just not for the coach who led the upset. In that respect, the Irish upset of No. 8 Michigan was Tyrone Willingham’s last gasp as Notre Dame’s head coach, a reality not quite recognized in only 2004’s second week. If it was, it was because the Irish were 10.5-point underdogs.

Rivalry aside, Notre Dame was not supposed to have a chance.

Enter freshman running back Darius Walker, who had not taken a snap in the Irish season opener, a 20-17 loss at BYU. 

“I didn’t even know who that was running the ball,” Wolverines cornerback Marlin Jackson said. “He’s a good player and he had a good game.”

Jackson’s assessment was correct; no one knew who Walker was. His first snap featured a play-action bootleg for sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn. The defense stuck with Quinn, not worried about whomever that was in the No. 3 jersey.

By the end of Notre Dame’s 28-20 toppling of Michigan, though, the sharp “Walker” announcement from the Notre Dame Stadium PA seemed to come on nearly every play. His debut finished with 31 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns, both scores and 61 yards coming on 14 rushes in the fourth quarter, when the Irish turned a 12-7 deficit into a 28-12 lead.

While Walker became the afternoon’s hero, Notre Dame’s defense held serve long enough to give him a chance to adjust to a few collegiate hits. Three first-half Wolverines drives reached the Irish red zone, and all three ended with field goals, part of a Michigan problem all game as it converted only six of 18 third downs. That trend would continue with a fourth field goal in the third quarter.

Then the Wolverines began making mistakes bigger than incomplete passes or stuffed runs. The first two scores of the 21-0 Irish tilt came on short fields, a Notre Dame interception inside the Wolverines’ 30-yard line and a blocked punt recovered at the 5, but even as that lead blossomed, Michigan still did not gain enough steam to muster a response until less than three minutes remained and Irish receiver Maurice Stovall snuffed that out by recovering the subsequent onside kick.

Ty Willingham
Ty Willingham and Lloyd Carr, before Willingham’s last game against Michigan as Notre Dame’s head coach. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

By all indications, it was a fourth-quarter performance forecasting good things to come. Notre Dame had lost 10 of its last 15 games, but reclaiming the No. 1 all-time winning percentage was cause for the students to storm the field.

The Irish had overcome Quinn’s mistake-filled day, completing only 10-of-20 passes for 178 yards with three interceptions overshadowing two touchdowns. His poor performance had not cost the Irish a win, certainly his coming better days would lead to more victories.

Perhaps Willingham knew better.

“Anytime you knock off a top-10 team, it is a big win,” he said. “Our guys did something significant, but it was still one win. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we have to start all over.”

Quinn’s season did improve, a logical build on his mediocre freshman year, finishing with 2,586 yards and 17 touchdowns on 191-of-353 passing. Walker set the tone for a three-year career in which he would provide the second-dimension to Quinn’s superstardom, rushing for 786 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 4.25 yards per carry as a freshman.

But the Irish continued to struggle under Willingham. A 6-5 regular season capped by losing three of four, including the final two home games in the final seconds, did in the third-year head coach.

The prodigious careers of Quinn (a two-time Heisman finalist) and Walker (2,463 yards in the next two seasons) would be enjoyed by someone else, Walker’s dramatic entrance giving Willingham only a temporary reprieve, if that.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
The Game of the Century: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24
Irish timeout gifts Michigan a last-second field goal in 1994
Irish wave goodbye to Michigan, 31-0, in 2014
Lightning strikes twice in South Florida’s first visit
Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions

Things To Learn: Notre Dame seeks offensive, defensive consistency on conflicting timelines

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Somehow, Notre Dame beating Florida State 42-26 and rising to No. 4 in the (inconsequential) polls left an incomplete feeling for the Irish. Perhaps it was due to allowing 405 yards to the woebegone Seminoles, maybe it was because they fell behind throughout the first quarter, most likely it was the running game’s inability to dress up that final score with a touchdown in the final two minutes, despite having first-and-goal at the 10-yard line.

“If you would look at what we felt were some concerns from last week, we were trying to get the perfect call in there, and at times maybe didn’t have our players with their cleats in the ground,” head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “We’re going to be simpler, we’re going to attack the line of scrimmage, we’re going to be a physical football team.”

On the flipside, there were pluses to the showing; scoring 42 points would not have happened without them, of course.

Focusing on only one game, the most recent data point if not also a flawed one thanks to the tiered effects of Notre Dame’s coronavirus outbreak, mandates a focus on those successes and failures. The Irish offense revealed a capability not yet seen in 2020 and not consistently seen in 2019, while the defense offered a vulnerability not before witnessed during defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s tenure.

Tunneling in on one game like that is not the proper way to approach analyzing a season, particularly not one as fraught as 2020. Notre Dame’s week of practice leading into facing the Seminoles at times barely resembled practice, some players taxed with increased reps while those they filled in for were beset with an emphasis on conditioning.

“It was a different experience because you would go out there and you wouldn’t have the full squad, so you get a little bit more reps,” sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford said, adding those reps were beneficial for him while prepping for a spot-start at cornerback. “… When the guys came back, we made sure their conditioning level was up, their strength was up. That’s important right now.

“We have to worry about everyone’s health before we can put them on the field and winning games.”

That meant Crawford was back at corner while the Irish were without graduate transfer Nick McCloud, sophomore Cam Hart and freshman Clarence Lewis, just as they had been all week in practice. The sole cornerback remaining, sophomore Tariq Bracy, was coming off two weeks away from football himself.

“You get away from football for a few days, weeks, you’re not going to play the same at first,” Bracy said.

More than ever, this season should not be viewed linearly, but with a long view of its eventual, hopeful, tentative conclusion — one game influencing the opinions of past weeks, offering more insight to those events, and thus suggesting what may come next, those suggestions always hesitant at best.

As such, facing Louisville (1-3, 0-3 ACC) can paradoxically counteract the narrow view afforded by topping Florida State.

That begins, as most things in football do, with Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, coming off a 16-of-25 showing for 201 yards and two touchdowns. They may seem modest stats, the yardage in particular, but when able to lean on the ground game to the tune of 353 yards, passing efficiency becomes paramount. Averaging eight yards per attempt fit that bill.

“Maybe a perspective that he had gained,” Kelly said after the game. “He was very calm in the pocket. I thought he saw the field well. He was aggressive in pushing the ball down the field. It was nice to see.

“If we continue to see that from Ian Book, he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

To reach the wanted heights this season, Notre Dame needs Book to be more than a game manager, but less than a world-beater. The Irish offensive line might handle those duties all on its own. Days of 200+ yards on 25 or fewer attempts will suffice, and they may leave enough room for growth to satiate Book’s apparent wants.

“Whatever level people look at Ian Book and say he’s a B quarterback or he’s a B+ quarterback, in his mind, he wants to be an A+ quarterback,” Kelly said Thursday. “That is great because it always allows us for coaching and teaching on a day-to-day basis as it relates to, again, a position that is scrutinized so much on a day-to-day basis.”

That scrutiny should, in part, extend to Book’s receivers. Junior Braden Lenzy took pride this offseason in developing into a full-blown receiver, rather than merely a speed threat. That played into his decision to change to No. 0 from No. 25.

“When I looked at 25, it reminded me of who I was in high school and early on in college, just a sprinter, a runner, a track guy playing football,” he said before facing Florida State. “I thought getting a single digit number would make me feel more like a true receiver, which is what I feel like I’ve developed into.”

Taking an underneath pass through traffic into the end zone against the Seminoles was something a “true receiver” would do, and should do more often moving forward.

Similarly, Kelly publicly praising fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley as a “beast” following his five-catch, 107-yard career peak was praise meant more for McKinley’s own ears, in the room at the time, than the media on the other end of the Zoom conference. If Book is to continue to push the ball down the field, he will need a reliable and physical receiver to push to, a role to be filled by either McKinley or junior Kevin Austin, still a question mark coming off his August broken foot.

Louisville gives up 34.3 points per game, No. 63 of 76 teams to play to date, along with 233.0 passing yards per game. The Cardinals will give Book, Lenzy and McKinley opportunities to prove their work against the Seminoles was not a one-off but rather a suggestion of what awaits throughout October and into November.

That confidence will be necessary if Lea’s defense does not return to form. Admittedly, defensive personnel bore the brunt of the Notre Dame outbreak, which saw about 30 players test positive for the coronavirus and upward of 40 total have to miss two weeks of on-field work. (That is not to say the offense was immune, simply the minority in this instance.) If Allen Iverson had offered his most-infamous rant in a college football setting, it would have held no credence whatsoever.

“It all starts in practice,” Irish sophomore Kyle Hamilton said. “Last week we had a couple days where we had iffy practices, and we can’t really afford that.”

Leaning on unproven commodities along the defensive line is never a recipe for success. Nor is moving a safety with three major leg injuries in his past closer to the line of scrimmage, despite Crawford’s never-ending game attitude.

Crawford will be back at safety against Louisville (2:30 ET; NBC), per Kelly, with Lewis and Hart back alongside Bracy, perhaps McCloud as well, pending his shoulder’s status this weekend.

“We feel like that’s where [Crawford] can best help our football team, although he did a really solid job for us at corner,” Kelly said.

Returning Crawford alongside Hamilton will give Notre Dame its best chance at containing the Cardinals’ playmakers, most notably junior receiver Tutu Atwell, who led Louisville with five catches for 47 yards against the Irish on Labor Day last season and has 281 yards and four scores on 25 receptions through four games this year.

“It’s hard to cover speed and you can’t teach it, so we have to game plan around it,” Hamilton said. “… When [Atwell] comes in, he’s just a gamebreaker who every time he gets the ball in his hands, he could go the distance.

“We have to play with our eyes, know where he’s at at all times, and try to figure out how to stop him.”

Stopping Atwell will put faith back into Lea’s defense, confirming the mistakes against Florida State were more the result of the outbreak than of a slippage, further proving what the eyes see one week may not be as true as immediate reaction insists.