Louisville refused to play the role of the Washington Generals on Monday night, but Notre Dame managed to pull away in the second half to secure a 35-17 victory in the season opener. The teams traded long touchdown drives in the first quarter, which ended in an uneasy 14-14 tie that had Irish fans reaching for the Maalox. The defenses dominated the second period until a pair of fumbles by the Cardinals in their own end set up an Ian Book touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 21-14 halftime lead.
The Irish dominated play in the second half, but did not pull away on the scoreboard until Book hit tight end Tommy Tremble with his best pass of the night, a 26-yard scoring strike midway through the final period. Louisville fought gamely and kept the contest competitive throughout, but the Cards did not have the passing game to overcome a two-digit deficit against the deep Irish defense. They ran the ball quite well, however, raising significant questions about Notre Dame’s interior defensive line and linebackers.
Coach Brian Kelly has plenty to work on during the bye week until his team hosts New Mexico in the home opener on September 14. Offensively, Book was not comfortable in the pocket. He failed to pick up open receivers and repeatedly pulled the ball down in the face of pressure. The running game showed flashes of competence but the offensive line was pushed back on all of its attempts on third and short yardage by the undersized Cards.
Defensively, the pass rush was not in evidence throughout the first half, and the interior of the defensive line was unable to penetrate or disrupt Louisville. The Cardinals ran for a staggering 249 yards. A greater concern was the play of the Irish linebackers, who collectively missed numerous tackles and were caught out of position with alarming frequency. The secondary played reasonably well, but was fortunate that two certain touchdown passes went off the fingertips of open receivers.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
Which team can generate the most productive running game? Louisville outrushed Notre Dame by 249-232, which was wholly unexpected.
Can Book connect downfield with his new stable of fast receivers? Only once, but that was to a tight end. The other passes were mainly short dump-offs. Chase Claypool turned some of those into good gains, but the young receivers did not get much of a chance downfield.
Will Notre Dame’s pass rushers live up to their advance billing? Not really. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem were invisible most of the night, although Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji were factors in forcing turnovers.
Can Louisville keep the ball away from the Irish offense? Yes, until they started to fumble late in the first half and continued that trend in the second.
Will the Irish front seven be able to contain quarterback scrambles and designed runs? No, in fact they were terrible in this regard. They were either out of position or just missed the tackle.
Can Notre Dame avoid mental mistakes and unnecessary penalties in its debut? The Irish defense jumped offsides on third down on three separate occasions.
Will the new Irish kicking specialists perform to a high standard? Jonathan Doerer was not tested with a field goal attempt, but he was solid on extra points and kickoffs. Jay Bramblett’s punts were neither bad nor spectacular.
Overall, the performance did not meet the high expectations of the fans, and I’m sure the players and coaches would agree. The second half was better, but Notre Dame failed to develop a rhythm that allowed viewers to rest easy until the final minutes.