SOUTH BEND – When defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara announced shortly after the loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl that they were returning for their senior seasons, Irish fans immediately began to dream about a destructive defensive line that collapsed pockets on unsuspecting quarterbacks with regularity.
That hadn't really happened much in the first three of the weeks of the season, as Notre Dame managed only four sacks. This week, the dam broke. Okwara had three sacks, including two in which he stripped the ball from Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, and Kareem had 2 1/2. The Irish finished with eight quarterback takedowns, turning Perkins, one of the most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, into a one-dimensional passer that must have been constantly hearing footsteps. That pressure propelled Notre Dame to a 35-20 win that keeps the Irish in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"We wanted to make sure that the pocket collapsed on (Perkins)," coach Brian Kelly said. "Made it difficult for him to get outside (the pocket) and improvise and we stuck with our game plan. I challenged our staff to be stubborn and persistent and determined and we did that. It broke for us in a manner that we saw a lot of those sacks really come together in the second half."
It was an especially noteworthy performance from Okwara, who was one of the nation's leaders in quarterback hurries last season but struggled in actually finishing the job with sacks. That wasn't the case today as he drilled Perkins three times. None of his sacks was cheap and his two forced fumbles were game-changing plays.
"I love what Julian did," Kelly said. "He got back to playing really physical football. The whole sack thing (the lack of sacks last season) was too much of a personal thing and he got back to playing physical football within the realm of the defense. It really showed itself today and he's going to take off from here."
Kelly spent all week talking about how this could be a defining game for the Irish this season, showing what kind of mettle they have after losing to Georgia last week. Early in the third quarter, it looked like they might fail that test. Virginia had the lead at 17-14, the ball in Irish territory and all the momentum after recovering an onside kick to open the second half. As Kelly said, it was a season-defining moment for the Irish. At that moment, the defense took over, making two massive plays, strip-sacks by Okwara and Jamir Jones, that led to touchdowns. Even when the offense was struggling to find itself, this defense, which is quickly transforming into an elite unit behind Okwara and Kareem, stood tall and made the plays needed to win. After Perkins went 18 of 22 for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, he was virtually neutralized after halftime. Credit coaching adjustments (Notre Dame has excelled at halftime adjustments in recent years) and the pride the defensive line demonstrated.
It helped that the offense found a running game in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame tried to keep Tony Jones Jr. fresh by giving carries to Jahmir Smith and C'Bo Flemister in the first half and the gambit worked as Jones exploded in the fourth quarter. He ran for 58 yards on one drive, including a 30-yard touchdown, and finished with a career-high 131 yards. It was the first time Notre Dame has really been able to run the ball with any consistency and that bodes extremely well going forward. The Irish weren't going to win many games by throwing the ball 47 times, as they did against Georgia last week.
"I'm not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively," Kelly said. "We have not, we're far from where we want to be. ... But what we did is we gave Tony Jones a break. So he ran hard in the second half. ... It gave him a chance to run the way he can run and he's a hard runner.
"What we want to do is have that (physical running game) as part of our offense and it had been missing. That has to be part of what we do."
Some of the only bad news from this game came on the injury front. Defensive end Daelin Hayes, a senior who has been one of Notre Dame's more destructive players this season, left the game early in the first quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. It was reportedly the same shoulder he injured in high school and Kelly said it will be looked at tomorrow. Hayes' injury put Jamir Jones in the lineup and he came up big with the strip-sack that led to Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa's big return. Notre Dame's plan was to play Jones four games this season and redshirt him to replace Hayes next year, but that plan might be out the window if Hayes misses any significant time.
Also on the injured list in this game was cornerback Shaun Crawford, who hurt his elbow making a tackle in the first half and missed the rest of the game. He'll get an MRI tomorrow. Crawford has already suffered three season-ending injuries in his career, so any time he misses this year would be a profound disappointment after he'd worked so hard to get back in the lineup. He's played well this season.
Outside of those issues, however, the biggest problem for the Irish continues to be Ian Book and his pocket presence. He got sacked four times, but there was also times where he ran out of the pocket too quickly before the pressure even got there. He hit his first eight passes and was red-hot in the first quarter and the early part of the second. After that, however, he had a subpar performance and ended up going 17 for 25 for 165 yards and no touchdowns. The defense and running attack won this game for the Irish and Book remains maybe the team's biggest question mark, especially with Notre Dame seeming to find a winning formula in the run game. This team can be really special if Book raises his level of play, but as we see more and more of him, it's possible this is just who he is.
Still, a win is a win, especially against a top-20 opponent. The Irish were fast, they were physical and they outlasted the Cavaliers, who looked tired in the fourth quarter. Consider the loss to Georgia erased.