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  • Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur (14) is sacked by Notre Dame defensive line Jerry Tilery during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur looks to pass against Notre Dame during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur (14) is sacked by Notre Dame defensive line Jerry Tilery during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame tight end Alize Mack, right, is tackled by Vanderbilt linebacker Jordan Griffin during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon watches after scoring a field goal during the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Vanderbilt, in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott, top, tackles as Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb misses the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame won 22-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb reacts after missing a catch during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame won 22-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott, left, tackles Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame won 22-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, left, drops off the ball to running back Tony Jones Jr., during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb (16) and wide receiver Chris Pierce react after Kalija Lipscomb missed a catch during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame won 22-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Notre Dame tight end Nic Weishar, left, celebrates with teammates after catching a touchdown pass against Vanderbilt during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Notre Dame won 22-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Saturday, September 15, 2018 9:10 pm

Notre Dame survives again, opens 3-0 for first time since 2015

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame is making a habit of starting fast and then holding on for victories. That pattern continued Saturday when the Irish scored the game's first 16 points, but then had to sweat out the final minutes as Vanderbilt drove in pursuit of a potential game-winning touchdown.

A couple of questionable pass interference penalties against the Irish in the fourth quarter extended Vanderbilt drives, giving the Commodores new life in their comeback attempt, but the Notre Dame defense was a little bit too passive as Vanderbilt climbed back into the game. Vanderbilt drove into Notre Dame territory on seven straight possessions to end the game.

"They're a tough offense to defend with all their trades and motions and jets," linebacker Drue Tranquill said. "We're a playing a lot of man against that, so it's just communication, it's mental errors and breakdowns that we have to fix."

Still, when it mattered most, the defense stepped up. Safety Jalen Elliott knocked away a fourth-down pass from Kyle Shurmur with less than two minutes left to give the Irish the ball back and Notre Dame was able to seal the win from there. It was one of several times in the game when the Irish defense bent without breaking.

In the second quarter, Shurmur completed a pass at the Notre Dame 1, but safety Alohi Gilman ripped the ball out and cornerback Julian love jumped on the ball in the end zone for a touchback, turning the Commodores away without any points. It was a 50/50 play, one that good teams turn to their advantage more often than not, and the Irish did that. Effort is a huge part of plays like that and coach Brian Kelly was very happy with his team's effort today compared to last week.

"The play is six seconds," Kelly said. "We want our players playing through that six seconds. We felt like we were pulling off plays a little early last week, so the emphasis was defining what 'compete' meant. It's kind of like the old adage of 'Don't run to the cone, run through the cone.' We felt like maybe we ran to the cone too much last week."

Former Carroll linebacker Drue Tranquill was one of the key players on defense, recording a career-high nine solo tackles and demonstrating his versatility as a linebacker with one tackle that prevented a running back from getting to the edge and one rush in which he knocked a would-be blocker back several yards with impressive power. The latter play will likely be on highlight reels much of the season.

"I went and shook (the blocker's) hand after the game and he said 'Great rush on that,'" Tranquill said of the play. "They've got great personnel as well, so just to make a play like that, get some pressure on the quarterback felt good."

The offense was a similar story for the Irish. There were flashes, especially early in the game, of the type of unit it can become, but it's clear it isn't a finished product yet. The running game woke up for the first time this season, gaining 245 yards on 48 carries, but Notre Dame still needs to do a better job of finishing drives. The Irish settled for too many field goals and let Vanderbilt hang around, much like they did against Michigan and Ball State. If the offense could maintain its early energy throughout the game, it wouldn't have to sweat out the final minutes.

The big takeaway from the game offensively is that Tony Jones Jr. is unquestionably the team's best running back right now. He had 176 total yards and broke five runs of 10-plus yards. He's simply more explosive than Jafar Armstrong at this point in their careers. He also showed he can make some plays in the passing game, including a beautiful catch over-the-shoulder on a wheel route for a 32-yard gain.

"Brandon's looking at me now," Jones Jr. said of his role as a pass-catcher. "I tell him, 'B look, B look at me.' It's that easy."

So, the Irish improved to 3-0. None of the wins have been easy, but the wins are what matter right now. Kelly emphasized that he doesn't feel his team is a finished product and wouldn't expect it to be after three games, but this team has plenty of talent. The key going forward will be maintaining early energy throughout the game and putting teams away.

dsinn@jg.net