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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. runs in a touchdown against Ball State last season in South Bend.

Monday, September 02, 2019 1:00 am

Irish like spotlight shining on them

All eyes on opener against Louisville

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame

vs. Louisville

Where: Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Ky.

When: 8 p.m. today

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM

3 Storylines Notre Dame running backs vs. Louisville rush defense: The Cardinals gave up 277 yards per game on the ground in ACC matchups last season, the most at Louisville since 1975. They're likely to improve under new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown, who came with Scott Satterfield from Appalachian State. The improved defensive front will be tested by Irish running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. Rare road opener: This is only the second season-opening true road game the Irish have played in the Brian Kelly era, after the loss to Texas in Austin in 2016. Kelly is 7-2 overall in season openers with the Irish. New blood: The Irish have a handful of players making their first career starts, including wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, center Jarrett Patterson, linebackers Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and punter Jay Bramblett. Shaun Crawford will be starting at corner, replacing All-American Julian Love, after missing all of 2018 with a knee injury. Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Louisville 10 - Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – In 2018, Notre Dame had the attention of the college football world in Week 1, when it took on Michigan in the most highly anticipated matchup of the season's opening-week schedule.

The Irish don't have a nationally ranked opponent like the Wolverines on the docket to open th is season, but for the second straight year all eyes will be on their first game. Notre Dame vs. Louisville at Cardinal Stadium in Kentucky is the only FBS game left in Week 1. The Irish once again get a national stage to start the season.

“That's why you come to Notre Dame,” quarterback Ian Book said. “You want to play in those big games, whatever it may be. To get the opportunity to play on a Monday, we haven't done that. Obviously, to be the only game on at that time, it's huge. We have a lot to prove this year. We're excited.”

The Irish won that prime-time matchup with Michigan in 2018, but will have to go on the road to make it three season-opening wins in a row since a double-overtime loss to Texas in the 2016 opener. 

The Cardinals are coming off an uncharacteristically bad season in which they went 2-10 and head coach Bobby Petrino was fired with two games remaining. New coach Scott Satterfield, formerly the head coach at Appalachian State, is trying to revive a program that had been to eight straight bowl games before last year's debacle.

Predictably, Irish coach Brian Kelly said his team will not be overlooking its rebuilding opponent.

“This is a program that expects to win in all phases,” Kelly said of the Cardinals. “All of their programs are quite successful. This is a winning environment at Louisville, and they have high expectations. We're going to be prepared for that. The stadium is one where there will be an exciting crowd there. It is a football town. It is a great stadium to play in. Our guys will be ready to play in an electric atmosphere.”

Despite their record last season, the Cardinals do return some talented players, including massive left tackle Mekhi Becton and tiny wide receiver Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell.

Becton is 6-foot-9 and 369 pounds, a junior who has started 23 games in his first two seasons. He'll provide an early challenge for Irish defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, who project to form one of the best edge-rushing tandems in the country.

Kareem played coy about his game plan against one of the biggest linemen he'll face all season. 

“I've seen some key things here and there that I can exploit,” he said. “I don't want to say too much, but I definitely have a game plan for (Becton).”

Atwell, a slightly-built 5-foot-9 and 153 pounds, is the fastest Cardinals player and made a significant impact on the outside as a true freshman in 2018. He was a big-play threat, catching 24 passes for 406 yards, a team-best average of 16.9 yards per reception. Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass will likely look for Atwell with regularity tonight.

The Irish are coming off an undefeated regular season, which got jump-started with the season-opening win over Michigan. They won't be able to make the same kind of statement against Louisville; this time a win is expected. Still, Book believes a victory tonight would matter.

“Every game at Notre Dame is a statement game,” Book said. “We have a big target on our back. There's a lot of haters, lot of doubters out there, a lot of talk about not being in a conference, how you have to win every game, whatever. We know all that.

“We try to treat every game like a playoff game. We definitely want to go 1-0. That's what we're thinking about, that's what we're focused on.”

dsinn@jg.net