SOUTH BEND – That's more like it. After struggling to put Louisville away in Week 1 and working through another somewhat slow start today, the Irish put together a dominant second quarter and are comfortably in front at halftime against New Mexico.
The Irish haven't trailed against New Mexico today, as they did against Louisville in Week 1 and from the second quarter performance you could see the first glimpses of how good this team can be. The defense has generally been very good and the offense has hit some big plays, though it has missed some, as well. Once again, there is plenty to fix, although there have certainly been some improvements from the season-opener 12 days ago.
The biggest play of the early part of the game was a 32-yard interception returned for touchdown by true freshman Kyle Hamilton. Those covering Notre Dame – including me – have been raving about Hamilton since the first day of fall camp, when he wowed everyone with three interceptions. His instincts are tremendous and he showed them on this play, jumping the route, adjusting to a tipped ball and sprinting untouched the other way for a touchdown. He already has two pass breakups and a pick on barely 15 snaps this season and he seems like he could as special as everyone thought that first day in Culver.
The rest of the half has been fairly solid for the Irish defense. There have been some very nice plays, a couple of tackles in the backfield, including one by Asmar Bilal for a 4-yard loss, as well as some nice coverage on some deep shots by the Lobos. The only way New Mexico will be able to stay into this game is if they break some big plays and so far the Irish have completely shut down opportunities for those types of plays. I was a little concerned that the Irish weren't getting as much push up front as they should early in the game defensively, but that changed in the second quarter. Bilal and Daelin Hayes in particular have been very physical with the undersized Lobos and have harassed quarterback Sheriron Jones on a consistent basis. There were some holes for New Mexico in the run game early on, but those have mostly closed. Running back Ahmari Davis, who was likely the top priority in Notre Dame's defensive gameplan, has just five carries for 13 yards. The only black mark on the first half has been three pass-interference penalties that have helped extend Lobos drives and a 47-yard touchdown run late in the half when the Irish seemed to let their guard down a little bit after going up 35-0.
The offense has not been nearly as crisp, although it did have one nice touchdown drive spanning the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. Quarterback Ian Book has done a better job of keeping his eyes downfield in the face of pressure, but he has still missed some throws that he should make, including some short ones. He's done a good job, as usual, of making plays with his legs when the play breaks down. Maybe his best play of the half was in the first quarter, when he dropped back, felt pressure and scrambled, but kept his eyes downfield and found Lawrence Keys III with an accurate throw for a first down. The Irish need more of that going forward.
Keys has been an important (key?) part of the offense in the first half as the Irish have tried to get the redshirt freshman touches in space. They ran a jet sweep for him that went for a first down and he also returned the opening kickoff 45 yards to midfield. It seems we're just seeing the start of how much his speed can affect games. The same goes for Avery Davis, who is maybe one of the best stories on the team. He has changed positions three times in his career after coming in as a quarterback and today took a jet sweep 59 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish are in control, but they won't be satisfied with this performance. They can come out and put this game away early in the second half and then move on to preparing for Georgia.