Notre Dame managed to overcome a dysfunctional offense and multiple coaching blunders to slide past the Louisville Cardinals by 12-7 on Saturday. Kyren Williams ran for 127 yards, including a 24-yard burst on a key third down play to seal the victory.
The Irish defense played well in containing quarterback Malik Cunningham and the Cardinal skill players. There was little margin for error as the offense squandered scoring opportunities and Louisville was always within one score of the lead.
Ian Book led Notre Dame to field goals on its first two possessions. Both kicks by Jonathan Doerer capped long marches that stalled in the red zone. In each case, Notre Dame got away from the running game that carried them down the field only to suffer sacks that kept them out of the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Cards were struggling to establish momentum. Head-scratching penalties were also a factor in forcing them to punt and also extending drives by the Irish.
Notre Dame put together another scoring threat late in the second quarter. Tight end Michael Mayer caught a pass and hurdled a defender before crashing down to the Cardinal ten yard line. Once again, the Irish stalled when Kevin Austin ran out of room in the end zone to haul in a Book pass. Doerer came out to try another three pointer with under a minute left in the half.
Eschewing a 9-0 advantage, Coach Brian Kelly called for a fake field goal on the fourth and nine play. Holder-turned-runner Jay Bramblett was stacked up and Louisville took over the ball in the shadow of its goal trailing by only six. There were just 43 seconds left on the clock.
Kelly had insufficient time outs left to get the ball back, but he blundered again by using them. The Cardinals capitalized by moving the ball for the first time all day. As time ran down, a 52-yard field goal attempt barely grazed the crossbar and fell short.
This sequence gave the visitors a dose of adrenaline. They emerged from the locker room and drove 83 yards for a touchdown and a 7-6 advantage. Cunningham finished the drive by hitting Marshon Ford on a short scoring toss.
The next play was instrumental in determining the outcome of the game. Louisvill tried and recovered an onside kick, but a video review confirmed that a Cardinal player was guilty of an illegal block. The ball had not yet traveled ten yards when the player made contact with the member of the Irish receiving team, so Louisville had to kick it again. The element of surprise and untold momentum were lost, and Notre Dame escaped disaster.
The Irish responded wisely by returning to the ground game. They moved downfield until it appeared they would stall again in the red zone. This time, Book scrambled on third and long and dove into the corner of the end zone from 13 yards out at the 3:43 mark of the third period.
Leading 12-7, Kelly defied convention again by ordering a two-point conversion attempt. Book’s throw to Javon McKinley fell incomplete.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, Louisville’s next drive unraveled when Cunningham suffered leg cramps and had to leave the field. They punted the ball back to the Irish as the contest moved to the fourth quarter.
The hosts played conservatively while nursing their slim five point lead. The Cards clogged the rushing lanes, secured a defensive stop, and took over at their 20 yard-line. In what was to become the final Cardinal possession of the day, two penalties and a crushing tackle for loss by Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes stopped them cold.
Led by Williams, the Irish were able to grind out the last eight minutes of the game with hard runs and short passes in key moments. Louisville used its timeouts in an effort to get the ball back, but Williams iced the game with his clutch run on a third down play. Book ended the day with two kneel downs.
Notre Dame was ranked fourth in the nation heading into the game, but that appears to be wildly exaggerated at this point. The schedule has been kind to say the least, and teams now have enough film of the Irish offense to know that Book cannot beat them with his arm. Even worse, a team with seven sacks in four games recorded six against the Irish today.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions.
Can Book take advantage of the depleted Cardinal secondary? Not at all. His 11 for 19, 107 yard passing performance was essentially a combination of poor throws and a failure of the Irish receivers to get open.
Will Notre Dame’s linebackers tackle Hawkins and Cunningham in space? Except for one 28-yard escape by Hawkins, the Irish were superb in limiting the Cards to 95 rushing yards.
Can Lenzy and Austin record receptions in the intermediate and deep zones? Austin caught one pass early and was done, while Lenzy disappeared entirely.
Will the Irish front be able to create havoc and derail Louisville’s advances? Notre Dame failed to sack Cunningham and even its blitzes didn’t get home.
Can Doerer emerge from his mini-slump in the field goal department? Doerer hit both attempts he was allowed to try, but should have received a third opportunity.
Will the Irish return teams contribute meaningful yardage? No, but the kickoff team almost paid dearly for falling asleep in the third quarter.
Should Notre Dame hold a pregame moment of prayer for Nick Saban? It didn’t come to that as Saint Nick pulled off yet another miracle – and Alabama immediately claimed another national title.
The Irish go on the road next week to play Pitt, which is usually a more challenging task than the oddsmakers would predict. One can’t help looking a few weeks ahead to the date with Clemson, which annihilated Georgia Tech today by 73-7. By the way, Georgia Tech beat Louisville by 46-27. I’m just sayin’.
Anyway, the Tigers are headed to South Bend in what I would compare to a giant asteroid headed toward planet Earth. Instead of having Bruce Willis to conjure up some heroics and avoid Armageddon, though, Notre Dame fans are forced to rely on Brian Kelly. And you thought COVID was scary.
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