SOUTH BEND – Most college football teams in 2020 like to establish the run early so they can turn to the passing game later. Notre Dame flipped that on its head against Louisville, using its first drive to establish the pass in the hopes that the Cardinals would back off the line of scrimmage and let the Irish turn toward its dominant rushing attack later.
The gambit worked, to a point. The Irish moved down the field on their first two possessions, through the air on their first drive and on the ground with running back Kyren Williams on the second, but were unable to come away with touchdowns on either, settling for a pair of Jonathan Doerer field goals and 6-0 lead after a quarter. In the second quarter, the Irish started at their own 4-yard line, went 90 yards and ended up with no points when a fake field goal attempt came up a yard short of a first down.
Much of the first half was like that: plenty to like and plenty to be worried about. The talent gap in this game is obvious and Notre Dame should win it, but the fact the Irish haven't buried Louisville early does not bode well for more important games later on. Just glancing at the out-of-town scoreboard, Clemson is up 73-7 against Georgia Tech as the Irish were struggling to punch the ball into the end zone.
There was plenty of good news in the first half, of course. The Irish made a point to get multiple receivers involved early as Kevin Austin Jr. and Homestead graduate Ben Skowronek made their first catches of the season, both of which went for first downs. In addition, Avery Davis has been a focal point of the offense, filling Braden Lenzy's usual role catching medium-depth passes and taking handoffs on end-arounds. It's unclear why Lenzy isn't getting touches today – he was listed as the starter on the depth chart and that's a situation to monitor – but Davis has filled in admirably. The running game has once again been impressive, with Kyren Williams continuing to show patience behind a rock-solid offensive line.
On defense, the Irish have been even better. After a week spent wondering whether Louisville's playmakers would cause them problems, Notre Dame bottled up the Cardinals to the tune of 12 total yards in the first quarter and didn't let Louisville's misdirection and a few attempted trick plays fool them. To be fair, Notre Dame controlled the ball for the vast majority of the first half (the 90-yard drive that resulted in no points took nearly eight minutes off the clock), so it's something of a small sample size for the defense, but it's flying around and seems to have more than enough speed to match Tutu Atwell and Javian Hawkins.
Now for the bad news: Ian Book has not been good. In fact, he's playing his worst game since Michigan last year. He hasn't been quite as bad as he was against the Wolverines, but he's really struggling, missing open throws, holding the ball too long, staring down receivers and getting skittish even in clean pockets. He missed what should have been an easy touchdown to Michael Mayer and threw two passes in the red zone that he was lucky not to have intercepted. He hasn't had quite as much time to throw as he did against Florida State – he's already been sacked three times – but he also seems flustered by Louisville's pressures and he's letting it affect his accuracy. The 20 mph winds on the field don't help, but that can't be an excuse. This is a fifth-year senior and he needs to be better. Period. Notre Dame has been good at second-half adjustments in recent years and it will be interesting to see what Tommy Rees and Brian Kelly dream up during the break. What's happening now isn't working against a defense that isn't particularly good.