Okwara Ignites Irish Defense

Julian Okwara’s image was not quite ready for a milk carton, but Notre Dame fans were beginning to wonder when he would emerge from relative obscurity this season. Today was the day for his breakout performance, as the senior had three sacks and two forced fumbles to lead a second half explosion by the Irish. Relentless defensive pressure led directly to three second half touchdowns as Notre Dame turned a 17-14 deficit into a 35-20 victory.

The Irish moved to 3-1 on the season on the strength of eight sacks and five turnovers. Ian Book had a quiet game for Notre Dame, but the most encouraging news is that Tony Jones thundered for 131 yards to lead a rejuvenated ground game. Most of those yards came in the second half, when the Irish offensive and defensive lines dominated the visitors.

Each team scored on its first possession of the game. The combination of Bryce Perkins to Joe Reed was clicking for Virginia, while an Ian Book pass to Chris Finke set up the tying touchdown for the Irish. Okwara made his presence felt on the next series by forcing a Perkins fumble, and C’Bo Flemister took advantage by crashing into the end zone six plays later as the first period came to an end.

Dubois snares a TD pass

Trailing 14-7, Virginia dominated the second quarter. Perkins hit Reed, tight end Tanner Cowley, and wideout Hasise Dubois with pinpoint passes. A beautifully executed corner route to Dubois with 43 seconds remaining in the half gave the Cavaliers a 17-14 lead as the Irish offense struggled to mount a drive.

Notre Dame was determined to retake the lead after intermission, but the Cavaliers had other ideas. A perfectly executed onside kick caught the Irish napping, and Virginia’s offense took over at midfield. A sack by Okwara stopped the threat, but a Cav punt was downed at the Irish two yard line.

Notre Dame’s defense responded to the next Virginia possession in its territory with another sack. Jamir Jones knocked the ball loose from Perkins, and it landed in the hands of Irish tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa near midfield. Myron saw nothing but fake green turf between him and the Cavalier goal, and he made it to the seven yard line before being dragged down. Tony Jones punched it in two plays later for a 21-17 Irish advantage.

The momentum shift continued to fuel Notre Dame’s defense, even though they were challenged when Chris Finke fumbled away a punt on the next series. The Irish held on a fourth down play, as Perkins was feeling tremendous pressure every time he dropped back.

Okwara wreaks havoc against Virginia

Meanwhile, the hosts still could not move the ball on offense. They failed to record a first down in the third quarter, but it didn’t matter because the defense took the field again with mayhem on their minds. This time, Okwara stripped the ball from Perkins while Ade Ogundeji scooped it up and scored from 24 yards out. The Irish now held a more comfortable 28-17 lead as the period came to a close.

The second half mauling continued for Notre Dame as Alohi Gilman picked off a pass early in the final quarter. Jones took over as the Irish finally decided to pound the ball against the tiring Cav defense. He ripped off a 25-yard run before finishing the drive on the next play with a 30-yard touchdown romp. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton added an interception to snuff out Virginia’s last scoring chance.

This was a statement win for the Irish defense. They had struggled to get to the quarterback before today, but simplified their approach and started to win a majority of the individual battles in the trenches. Lots of good things happened after that. The offense and special teams are still struggling, however, but will have a soft game next week to figure out a few things.

Let’s look at the answers to our pregame questions:

Will the Irish lack energy and enthusiasm after the Georgia loss? The energy level was obviously higher in the second half, and even the normally comatose non-students in the stands made a bit of noise.

Which defense will be able to stifle the opponent’s running game? Notre Dame held Virginia to four net yards rushing, while Jones had his best career day for the Irish.

Can either team limit successful scrambles by the quarterback? Neither quarterback had much breathing room on attempted scrambles.

Will Notre Dame stretch the field with downfield passes? Only a couple of times. Book made a few poor throws and mostly elected to keep things short.

Which special teams will win the battle of field position? Virginia, in a landslide. The Irish defense bailed them out time and time again.

Will Notre Dame be able to protect Book from the aggressive Cav blitzes? Book was under pressure on many occasions and had two intentional grounding penalties, but Perkins had it much worse.

Can Finke, McKinley and other Irish receivers contribute more substantially to the cause? Not much in this game. Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet carried most of the load, but the Irish had only 16 completions for 165 yards and no touchdowns.

Which quarterback will commit the most crucial mistake? Perkins had a brutal day in the turnover category, but he threw the ball very well when he had time.

The victory did not come without a heavy cost. Cornerback Shaun Crawford, who has a history of bad luck in the injury department, suffered a broken arm and could be lost for the rest of the regular season. Claypool also hurt his ankle and was obviously hobbled even though he remained in the game. Finally, defensive end Daelin Hayes did not play due to a shoulder injury.

Tell John what you think in the comments below

30 thoughts on “Okwara Ignites Irish Defense

  1. Great game by the defense. It was nervy in the first half but second half was what we expected. Offense looks a little lost IMO. Book doesn’t look comfortable. We need a deep threat with speed. Maybe Young can do that.?. Happy with the win in the end.

      • Has anyone in your shop done an analysis on the trended performance of QBs under BK? It seems like everyone gets progressively worse under his tutelage. Golson, Zaire, Wimbush, and now Book…he now looks lost when last year he was crisp with his passes, had good pocket presence, etc

  2. Camarillo Brillo says:

    Enjoy this win for 24 hours. Then catalog all the things wrong with this team:

    Offense (especially the play of Ian Book)
    Special teams (when haven’t they sucked under Kelly?)

    Kelly gives this team essentially a 10 point deficit every game just by being on the sidelines.

  3. The defense won the game….period! I don’t know what Book’s problem is but I think it was the first play on offense where he ran out of bounds on a pass play for a 5 yard loss. He was out of the pocket with plenty of time to throw it away. I was thinking what is his problem. No excuse for that and he didn’t get much better as the game wore on. Maybe he needs hypnosis!

  4. Kelly needs to totally reconfigure his offense. Hire a real offensive guru to assist him. Otherwise the futility on offense will continue and Irish will waste a great defense w/ a couple more losses this season, ie perhaps USC,
    Michigan or even Duke.

    Otherwise, fantastic defense, especially 2nd half adjustments!! Kudos to Clark Lea

    • I like Chip Long. I just hope he watches the tape this week.
      Rushing Jones 18 for 131 7.3 yards per carry.
      Flemster 6 for 27 4.5 yards per carry.
      Ian Book: not a great performance, 17/25 oh zero interceptions.
      Trevor Lawrence against North Carolina 18/30.
      Really sad about Crawford and hoping the best for Claypool.
      Bring on Bowling Green! Finally an opponent as formidable
      as those Alabama schedules.
      Our Defense is magnificent. Virginia netted 4 rushing yards.
      Go Irish.

  5. I wrote several weeks ago that BOOK is not ready for primetime.. Boy, did he look awful

    I’ve complained about our not so special teams for years and most recently last week..

    Lucky to get the win today..

    BK is not the answer as his offensive system is totally predictable.. Tough to watch..

  6. I thought the comment about the “the normally comatose non-students” was a low blow to ND football fans. I have attended many ND football games over the years with family, friends and alumni, and everyone in the stands has cheered loudly for the team.

    • I take it you didn’t attend the Georgia game last week. That is the definition of loud.

      Notre Dame Stadium hasn’t approached that level of passion (or decibels) since the 2005 USC game.

      • No, I did not attend, but you didn’t have to attend the Georgia game to know the level of noise was insane. It was obvious watching the game on TV. Indeed, that is what you would expect in a battle of top-10 teams. But that hardly defines the expected level of noise at a typical college football game. More importantly, it has nothing to do with my post.

        My post had to do with disagreement with your general characterization of the non-student ND football fans as “normally comatose.” I continue to maintain that was a very unfair and inaccurate statement.

        • Oh, I’ve been to enough games to know it was accurate, although I acknowledge it may be painful to hear by fans who still care about winning. Those who want to be loud at ND home games now have to endure condescending eye rolls from surrounding stuffed shirts and deep frowns from the ushers. Keep fighting the good fight, though.

          • Agree with your statement, Vannie, as I have witnessed the eye rolling seat robbers and frowns from the ushers. We actually had an usher tell us to remain seated (which I refused to do).

          • Not to mention, these are the same eye rolling stuffed shirt “Notre Dame fans” that sold their tickets to Georgia fans for a few bucks, making it look like a home game for Georgia a couple years ago.

        • I agree that it was an unfair comment.

          Especially coming from the hyper critical, Kelly sucks, bring back Holtz, regulars on this site who roundly shout down anyone who dares root for this regime.

          Cheer for the team or be comatose? Boycott or boisterous?

          Don’t you remember the good ol days, like Miami ’88 (drool)? I am sure the crowd was all frothy during the Rice and Air Force games that year too.

          I bet there are 10 posts on Rock’s House this week about skipping the Bowling Green game to prove a point.

      • Agree John. Have attended at least one home game for many years including this game. My thought during the 3rd quarter & 4th quarter crowd noise was that I had not heard that in many many years.

        • Marty… I could even tell it from my couch at home. It definitely reached a level that has been lacking for the better part of a decade.

  7. Unfortunately, Book cant see the field, if his #1 isnt open, he’s lost. Not sure you can coach that skill.

    D is awesome, how do we not go 11-1 with the remaining schedule ??

    O line, running backs and the tight ends have to carry the day on offense, not the QB.

    Chet Z

  8. This was a real awakening of the defense. I don’t think there’s any areas of genuine weakness now, only strengths and greater strengths.

    Does anyone else wonder why our quarterbacks all seem to take a step back in their second year? Brandon Wimbush seemed to get a case of the yips in his second year that only got worse his third year, when he got pulled for Ian Book. Deshone Kizer’s completion rate dropped 4% from 2015 to 2016 (although he threw more TDs and fewer INTs). Everett Golson got better from 2012 to 2014, but he wasn’t in the program in 2013 and got a lot of extracurricular help (no pun intended). Aside from the stats, though, it just seems like our backups play a lot looser and have better poise, while a year in the system seems to have them second-guessing themselves way too much.

  9. Another QB has regressed under Kelly. We all know Book’s ceiling was lower due to obvious arm limitations but it’s ridiculous that no one improves in year 2. With that said, this week is the perfect time to give Phil the start and see how he handles the offense. There’s a very real possibility Book will struggle against USC or Michigan. Kelly’s sole objective this week should be to get the back up comfortable operating the full play book and evaluate his ability to run the team in regular game speed. This isn’t all on Book but I still believe he was the biggest detriment in the Clemson game and isn’t a difference maker. Game managers don’t cut it in this era of college football.

  10. Book and his happy feet and his habit of wandering out of the pocket right into beautifully blocked defenders has got to stop. He’s the guy that’s okay for beating the teams you’re supposed to beat (facts not in evidence in the Virginia game since that was a straight defense win), but he’s not the guy to get you over the top. At least not right now, and what program has the time to wait.

    Mad kudos to the defense. I thought Virginia’s receivers were awesome; they made some beautiful catches where I didn’t think the defense could have played them any better (took fantastic throws as well).

  11. ND beat a pretty good football team so I don’t want to complain too much. It wasn’t a textbook win but there were bright spots like the defensive pressure causing eight sacks and a semblance of a running game in the fourth quarter.

    But for some reason ND’s offense disappears in the third quarter. I hope Chip Long can get that fixed otherwise it will come back to haunt ND at some point on their schedule.

    Next up is Bowling Green and Van Gorder’s fearsome defense that gave up 49 points in the first half to OSU.

  12. Vannie, There’s no real way to ask Kelly without it being contentious but has anyone asked him to comment on why it seems no one improves under his system in their second year as starter? His best success story at QB was probably Rees who was also his most limited in talent. His most talented QB, D. Kizer regressed and then seemed to leave a year early to get away from the program (Kelly). Another thing that really stands out is the lack of top recruits he has attracted. Part of that has to be the lack of success he’s had with them.

    • None of the local beat writers will dare to ask that question. They live in fear of being frozen out of the inner circle of access. It’s happened before. Kelly is very dismissive of such inquiries, and he doesn’t forget who asked them.

      Who knows what other coaches tell QB recruits about Kelly, but look at his record over ten years. Only one guy is on an NFL roster (Kizer), and just barely. Is Kelly’s problem an inability to sign top guys, is he a poor judge of talent, or does he suck at QB development? Hard to say for sure, but there are elements of all three in the answer. We haven’t landed anyone as good as Jimmy Clausen since he arrived on campus in his limo during the Weis era. Some QBs were identified as our top target (Zaire, Wimbush), but they turned out to be average at best. Development has been uniformly and consistently bad. Some say it’s the complex system that places too much burden on the QB, but I watch other teams and their QBs know how to find a secondary receiver and look off a safety.

      • JV, excellent assessment. It’s a little of everything but ND will not win another NC until they find and development a top notch QB. Every two, three years I think we have one but he fails to develop. The trend, I fear, continues.

    • Good question and I meant to mention that in my post. Quarterbacks especially seem to regress the longer they play for Kelly. Book appears not to have made any improvement since last season.

      Then there’s the question of recruits being overrated and/or not being coached up to reach their potential. Brandon Wimbush was supposed to be Heisman material and lead ND to great things but he lost his job to Ian Book, an unheralded recruit, then transfers to Central Florida where he lost his job to a freshman. Zaire didn’t last that long as a starter at Florida.

      Contrast them with Georgia to Ohio St. transfer Justin Fields who’s now in the Heisman discussion and Jalen Hurts who lost his job to Tua at Alabama but is now setting records at Oklahoma and also in the Heisman discussion.

  13. As the Georgia game showed this D is for real. It may end up winning many games for the Irish but I won’t be surprised if one game gets away from us due to the lack of offense. On the other hand, I smell an 11-1 year only to be embarrassed, once again, in the playoffs or NY6 game.

    • Only to be embarrassed in the playoff or NY6?? I guess the UGa game was an embarrassment, right? This would be the caliber of game they would be playing in either bowl. So, I’m not sure how they were embarrassed in the UGa game.