Brian Kelly was late to his postgame press conference after Notre Dame's 35-17 win over Louisville on Monday. He said he took a long, hot shower after the game.
Kelly might have needed a shower after watching the Irish's uneven play in the first half, but there was plenty to be excited about in the second half. The takeaway from this game will likely be that Notre Dame didn't dominate and that it was sloppy, which is true. Still, outside of a 10-minute stretch to start the game, the defense was stout against the pass and wreaked havoc against the run, forcing five fumbles. Meanwhile, the run game was effective on offense all night and Ian Book found some rhythm throwing the ball in the second half.
No, this game was not pretty and it certainly wasn't perfect. The Irish have plenty to work on and they have 12 days to do so before they play against New Mexico on Sept. 14. But overall, Notre Dame showed the ability to take a punch tonight and keep swinging. That will come in handy later in the season when it faces better teams. The Cardinals came out fired up in their first game under a new coach, with the biggest crowd in school history at their back, and they put Notre Dame on the ropes early. After that, the Irish asserted themselves and took command of the game. I'm far less pessimistic about this performance than the average fan probably is, judging by social media; no road win is easy, especially in Week 1, when problems are generally most glaring. The Irish won and that's what matters.
In winning, they got contributions from some young players who had to step up in big moments. Tight end Tommy Tremble filled in for the injured Cole Kmet and made a huge touchdown catch; freshman safety Kyle Hamilton continued to impress at every step, breaking up two passes in his first career game and showing he can spell Alohi Gilman when necessary; redshirt freshman wideout Lawrence Keys III reached back on a poor throw and made a nice catch for a first down. Keys seemed capable of filling the shoes of the injured Michael Young. Kelly said he was excited by the youth on his team and actually wants to see more from the established players.
"I would argue to you tonight that our veterans have to play better," Kelly said. "(I would argue) that our young players emerged tonight and really showed that they can fill in in areas that, for me, are ones that we needed them to come through in. ... We actually need our veterans to step up another level of their play, which I'm certain they will.
"Good news for me tonight as the head coach is that the younger players showed themselves and that with all of them together, moving forward, this can be a pretty good football team."
One of those veterans who has to be better is Book, who looked skittish against pressure much of the game. He made some nice throws and when he scrambles it's usually for a positive gain, but he seems to be giving up on plays far too easily as the pressure closes in around him. He improved as the game wore on and some of those issues can be attributed to rust, but the book on Book (sorry) seems to be that he is a little uneasy when facing the blitz. Teams will look to bring extra rushers, as Louisville did tonight, and the senior quarterback has to prove he can handle it. He had 274 total yards of offense, but this wasn't his best game. He knows it and Kelly knows it.
"There was some uncharacteristic flushing from the pocket that we hadn't seen from him," Kelly said, while acknowledging that he'd like to watch the tape first to be sure. "A lot of it had to do with seeing a defense for the first time. ... I'm not trying to sit here and make excuses for him, but it wasn't a first game where it was cookie-cutter for him. There was a little rust there, he'll be better for it in Game 2."
On defense, improvement was much more evident as the game went on. The Irish gave up 14 points in the first 11 minutes and just three in the final 49, bottling up quarterback Jawon Pass after he ran wild in the early going. Notre Dame forced five fumbles and recovered three of them, which helped turn the game in the Irish's favor, but by the second half, they were just stopping Louisville cold at the line of scrimmage. They didn't get beaten downfield for any long passes and the Cardinal running game dried up. It was a clinic down the stretch and it's that ability to adjust that makes me more optimistic than others might be after a performance like this.
"Most first games, that's how it goes," said safety Alohi Gilman, who had 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. "A lot of adjustments, we knew that coming in. ... Picking up on those things (that we needed to adjust) took some time for us. Getting the rust off and playing actual football against a different team, getting the play speed. After that, we were able to settle in a little more."
This was a good first test for the Irish. They have go out on the road and face Georgia, Michigan and Stanford before the season is out and it was good for the young players to learn what it's like playing away from Notre Dame Stadium.
"We have them going through the routine of going on the road, playing on the road, in a hostile environment," Kelly said. "Those things help a football team when they do it again. There's a lot of distractions to an 18-21-year-old when he comes into a stadium and there's noise and the lights and the fireworks going off. The ability to go through that and eliminate the distractions the next time they go on the road is extremely beneficial."
A win is a win. I had similar feelings after the Irish squeaked past Ball State and Vanderbilt in 2018. Not every victory is pretty and this game exposed some areas that desperately need fixing. Notre Dame has proven capable of making those adjustments in recent years and should be much crisper the next time out against New Mexico.