HOW IT HAPPENED
It’s next to impossible to start the season any better than the Irish did. They received the opening kickoff and on the very first play from scrimmage, Louisville brought pressure. Quarterback Ian Book sensed it and slipped through a hole in the line, where he saw nothing but green. Book untouched sprinted for 37 yards before finally being brought down. From there, the Irish offensive line did much of the work, protecting Book on pass plays and getting great push on runs. Notre Dame punched its way down the field with ease and running back Jahmir Smith scored on a run up the gut from three yards out to make it 7-0. It was a machine-like drive for the Irish to start the year, ending in a score in 2:21.
If Notre Dame’s opening drive was a first-round haymaker, the Cardinals counter-punched effectively. Quarterback Jawon Pass threw for 24 yards on Louisville’s opening drive and ran for 32 more, keeping Notre Dame’s defense guessing off-balance. He converted a third-and-seven in Irish territory with a 13-yard-run to the right and then scored an 8-yard touchdown on a nearly identical play. The Cardinals charged 88 yards in 12 plays to knot the score at 7 midway through the first quarter.
Notre Dame went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, with Ian Book missing a couple of short throws, and Louisville immediately began driving again. The Irish forced a third-and-10, but Khalid Kareem committed a costly offsides penalty and the Cardinals decided to run an option on the ensuing play. Pass pitched it at the last second to Javian Hawkins and he found his way into free space, shedding one tackle and breaking up the middle. Shaun Crawford saved a touchdown with a tackle, but Hawkins gained 44 yards. Three plays later, Pass took off on a designed QB run and saw nothing but open space in front of him, racing 17 yards right up the middle for a touchdown and a 14-7 Louisville lead. At this point in the game, Notre Dame had shown no ability to stop the Cardinal offense.
The Irish desperately needed their offense to step up and it did on the following drive behind Tony Jones Jr. The senior running back had the best drive of his career, rushing for 79 yards on a 75-yard drive. The Irish faced a huge third-and-13 in Louisville territory after a sack had backed them up and Jones took the ball through the left side and broke into the secondary, getting to the sideline and breaking off 35 yards to get the first down. On the very next play, he toted the ball for an 11-yard touchdown, deadlocking the score at 14 with just seconds left in the first quarter.
The second quarter saw the defenses regain their footing a little bit and begin to slow down the offenses that had dominated the first 15 minutes. Notre Dame’s passing game was out of sync and quarterback Ian Book was inaccurate and skittish in the pocket. There were more than a few times when he pulled the ball down to run before the pressure got to him and he struggled to keep his eyes upfield. It looked like the Irish would be content to go into halftime with the game tied at 14, but with 1:20 remaining a wild series of events gave the Irish a chance to go into the half with the lead.
With the Cardinals facing a third down deep in their own territory, Pass tried to scramble for the first down. He was hit by Alohi Gilman, who ripped the ball loose and then pounced on it all in one motion to give the Irish a massive turnover deep in Cardinal territory. On the very first play of the Notre Dame drive, however, from the Louisville 26, Book got spooked by the rush and lost the ball as he tried to scramble, giving it right back to Louisville with 1:09 to go. That alone would have been crazy enough, but on the first play of the Cardinals’ ensuing drive Pass was sacked and stripped AGAIN. This time it was linebacker Jack Lamb on the spot for Notre Dame, recovering at the 20.
After getting a second gift, Notre Dame finally took advantage. Book did it with his legs this time, scrambling 12 yards for a first-and-goal and then sprinting 11 for the touchdown after a false start. He dove across the goal line to make it 21-14 at halftime. The Irish led despite playing a seriously sloppy half of football.
In the third quarter, the Cardinals immediately drove into Notre Dame territory, threatening to tie the score again. On third-and-2, Pass broke a big run and looked like he would end up in the red zone, but as he juked past Ade Ogundeji, the defender reached his hand in and ripped the ball away from the quarterback, sending it bouncing free. It ended up bounding directly into the stomach of Daelin Hayes, who caught it and fell down to give the Irish possession.
The teams then traded punts before Notre Dame moved the ball midway through the quarter. To start the series, Book hung in the pocket and made one of his better throws, completing a crossing route to Chase Claypool, who took it in open space and found the edge, pushing his way 31 yards before he was wrestled down. On the very next play, redshirt freshman tight end Tommy Tremble, playing his first career game, broke wide open down the seam and Book hit him with a perfect throw for a 26-yard touchdown, Tremble’s first career catch. The two-play drive gave the Irish some breathing room for the first time, up 28-14.
After a Louisville field goal, the Irish put the game away midway through the fourth quarter. On the clinching drive, Book finally looked like the efficient quarterback that won the starting job in 2018, converting three third downs, including one with his feet, where he dove for the marker and made it. The big play on the drive was another pass to Claypool, who caught it along the left sideline and made a couple tacklers miss before being right out of bounds inside the 5 on the opposite sideline for a 34-yard gain. Two plays later, Smith punched it in from a yard out to make it 35-17 and essentially seal the hard-fought win.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Tony Jones Jr.
Jones picked up his second career 100-yard game, finishing with 15 carries for 112 yards (a 7.5 average) and a touchdown. His 35-yard run in the second quarter was one of the biggest plays of the game, helping flip the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor at a potentially perilous moment.
FACTS AND FIGURES
This is only the second time Notre Dame has opened the season on the road under Brian Kelly. This is the Irish’s first win in such a situation under Kelly after losing to Texas in 2016. ... Notre Dame opens the season No. 9, its highest preseason ranking since 2006, when it was No. 2. ... This is only the second time these teams have met and the first Notre Dame win. The Cardinals won a matchup in 2014, 31-28 in South Bend. ... Irish running back/wide receiver Jafar Armstrong left the game in the first with a reported groin injury and did not return. ... Gilman had a big game, recording 10 tackles, including 1/2 for loss, in addition to his forced fumble. ... Book went 14 for 23 for 193 yards. His 60% completion percentage was well below his 2018 average of 68.2%. ... The Irish have won 13 straight regular-season games. ... Pass fumbled three times and lost them all. ... Claypool finished with five catches for 94 yards. ... The announced attendance was 58,187, the largest in Cardinal Stadium history.
The Irish have a bye in Week 2 and will get their season started again in Week 3 on Sept. 14, when they take on New Mexico (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium. Kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on NBC. The Lobos are led by former Irish coach Bob Davie, who was hospitalized following New Mexico’s season-opening 39-31 win over Sam Houston State with chest pains. He said he plans to make a full recovery, but it’s unclear when he’ll return to the sidelines.