SOUTH BEND – "Winning is hard."
That's the message coach Brian Kelly wanted to emphasize to his team after the No. 4 Irish barely squeaked past Louisville with a 12-7 victory. Though it wasn't a convincing victory by any means, Kelly insisted that he was pleased with the way his team played overall, despite some red-zone hiccups on offense. It was an odd game, not anything like the quasi-shootout that many – including me – thought this game would turn into. If Notre Dame was going to struggle anywhere, surely it would be on defense against a Louisville team that was averaging 425 yards per game.
Instead, the Irish defense showed up, holding Louisville to just 95 yards rushing, 30 of which came on the Cardinals' lone scoring drive to open the second half. Game-breaking wide receiver Tutu Atwell and star running back Javian Hawkins were largely bottled up, save for a 29-yard completion to Hawkins on the touchdown drive because of a blown coverage. Outside of that one drive, the Irish defense was all over the field and kept an inefficient offense in the game. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah shined again, racking up two tackles for loss for the third time in four games this season, while defensive end Daelin Hayes laid out one of the biggest hits of the season on swing pass to Hawkins for a TFL of his own.
"At about 2:37 (p.m.), when the game started," Hayes said when asked at what point the defense knew it would have to impact the game. "That's the mindset we go out with every time we're on the field. We tell the offense all it needs to do is give us three points and we'll go do the rest. That's the mindset our defense embodies and (defensive coordinator Clark) Lea instills in us."
The defense wasn't perfect and gave up too many yards on read-option quarterback runs, but to give up only seven points to a team like Louisville – which hung 34 on Miami just a few weeks ago – despite forcing zero turnovers is still impressive.
Of course, the Irish 'D' had some help from an offense that controlled the ball most of the afternoon, even as it struggled to actually score points. Notre Dame held the ball for more than 36 minutes, including the final 7:55 as it bled the clock to seal the win. The victory would've been much easier and less stressful had the Irish been able to cash in on some red zone trips. They twice settled for field goals in the first quarter after solid drives – assisted though they were by some sloppy Louisville penalties – and then came away with no points after a 90-yard drive because a fake field goal attempt went awry. The Irish would've scored a touchdown on that drive that started at their own 4-yard line had Kevin Austin Jr. been able to keep his foot inbounds on a pass to the end zone. Instead, he caught the ball with a toe on the line and Notre Dame got nothing.
In all, the Irish punted just twice, ran for 232 yards (4.7 per carry) and reached the red zone on five of their seven possessions. That's a decent day offensively, even if the scoreboard doesn't show it. Red-zone offense will be a theme of practice this week before Notre Dame takes on Pittsburgh next Saturday.
In short, this wasn't a good win, but it wasn't nearly the head-scratcher the final score indicated. Notre Dame was the better team and it showed, but the Irish have plenty of work to do before they go on the road for the first time this season.
- Austin, the team's presumptive No. 1 receiver before fall camp began, made his first catch of the season in the first quarter, an 18-yard reception on a simple out route. He said he's feeling healthy following a broken foot in July. He nearly came down with what would've been a huge touchdown catch near the end of the first half and he seems fully healthy. He could be a difference-maker as the season wears on.
- Redshirt sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy was limited today because of what Kelly called a "soft tissue" injury. Lenzy had a hamstring injury earlier in the season, but was healthy for the matchup against Florida State last week, so it's unclear if he aggravated the old injury or suffered a new one in practice. He did not have a target and Avery Davis started in his place, catching two passes for 17 yards and also taking one of Lenzy's patented end-arounds for 10 yards.
- Wide receiver Javon McKinley is clearly a player the Irish trust to make plays in big situations. He was targeted on a fade on a 2-point conversion that proved unsuccessful and made a big third-down reception for a first down on Notre Dame's time-killing final possession. He's big and strong and has the athletic ability to make contested catches, though he finished with just one grab for seven yards tonight, plus a 15-yard run. The fifth-year senior has more to give as the season goes on.
- Freshman tight end Michael Mayer showed why he was a five-star recruit, hauling in a highlight-reel 12-yard reception on which he stiff-armed one would-be tackler into the ground and then leaped clean over another defender in space for extra yardage. It was the perfect distillation of his athleticism/power combo and showed why he can be a special player for the Irish. He was also wide open up the seam for a touchdown on Notre Dame's first drive, but Ian Book overthrew him.