LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It was sloppy. It was ugly. It was a Notre Dame win.
The No. 9 Irish got knocked back on their heels in the season-opener against Louisville on Monday, but Tony Jones Jr. had 112 rushing yards and a touchdown and the Irish offensive line helped them score four times on the ground to escape with a 35-17 win in front of an announced crowd of 58,187, the largest crowd in Cardinal Stadium history.
"Just happy that we're able to step away 1-0," quarterback Ian Book said. "But really just the main thing is being able to put some negative plays behind us, being able to forget about it. There's no point in (dwelling) on it, just trusting our coach, came in here at halftime and big players stepped up in the second half."
Notre Dame has won 13 straight regular-season games since the start of the 2018 season.
The Irish gave up 14 points in the first 11 minutes of the game and just three in the other 49. The defense made some adjustments against dual-threat Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass and the Cardinals' read-option plays, shutting down what had been an explosive Louisville attack early in the game.
"Jawon Pass is going to run the ball and we (told them), 'Let's be sure we're fundamentally (sound) on the speed option,'" coach Brian Kelly said of the difference between the first quarter and the rest of the game. "Just technically, being better. We were a little bit out of sorts, overrunning plays, not in good cutback lanes. We just settled down."
Despite Notre Dame's defensive adjustments, which paid dividends almost immediately, the game was still tied at 14 late in the second quarter. At that point, the Irish were finally able to grab control, thanks to a wild series of events that ended with Notre Dame in possession of the ball deep in Louisville territory.
Fumbles on three straight plays, first by Pass, forced and recovered by safety Alohi Gilman, then by Book, and finally by Pass again combined to create one of the fastest and steepest emotional roller-coasters the Irish are likely to ride this season. When the dust settled, Notre Dame had the ball in the red zone with 1:03 left in the half.
Book took over from there, holding on to the ball this time and breaking off a 12-yard run and then an 11-yard touchdown scamper to put the Irish 21-14. It turned out to be a game-turning series of events and it went Notre Dame's way, but it was emblematic of a first half that left the Irish frustrated.
"Sloppy football," Book said of the three-play stretch. "But happy to move on from that, we had some guys step up, be able to score the touchdown when we needed to. But yeah, sloppy ball that we have to work on."
The Notre Dame passing game was quiet in the first half as Book struggled against Louisville pressure. He put much of the blame for the first-half sloppiness on himself, but he still finished with 274 total yards and a touchdown each on the ground and in the air. He seemed to be a little bit out of rhythm on his passes in the first half, but Kelly's confidence in his quarterback remains unshaken.
"He knows that he can be better, but we're not going to beat him with a shoe," Kelly said, smiling a little. "It's one game. He needs to be better, he knows that and he will be better. ... (Quarterbacks coach) Tommy (Rees) will do a great job of getting him to see the bigger picture and run through his progressions and I'm extremely confident that will happen."
Book got it got going in the third quarter with a 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tommy Tremble, the redshirt freshman's first career catch in his first career game to make it a two-touchdown Irish lead. The pass finished a two-play drive, in which Book had also hit wide receiver Chase Claypool on a crossing route for 31 yards. Claypool finished with five catches for 94 yards.
Notre Dame's defense was gashed early by Pass who ran all over the Irish, scoring two rushing touchdowns and leading Louisville, which was 2-10 in 2018, to an early 14-7 lead.
In that tense moment for the heavily favored Irish, Jones stepped up. The senior running back broke a 35-yard run on a crucial third-and-13 and followed it with an 11-yard touchdown sprint up the middle to tie the game at 14.
The run on third down – with the Irish trailing and facing the prospect of giving the ball back to a Louisville offense that the defense hadn't come close to stopping yet – might have been the biggest single play of the game. Jones got into the secondary easily and then outraced the linebackers to the sideline, where he was able to turn the corner.
"I saw that (Louisville) was in a three-down front and the (line)backers were far back and I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is money,'" Jones said. "We run (that play) a lot in practice and they never expect it really. So I just pressed it and kept going with it."
Jones had 79 yards on that drive alone and finished with his second career 100-yard performance, all the more important because fellow first-string running back Jafar Armstrong left the game in the first quarter with a leg injury and did not return. Kelly said Armstrong was getting treatment after the game and the Irish hope the injury does not keep him out too long. In the meantime, Jones will have to step up and he believes he has the ability to do so.
"To be honest, that's all on me," Jones said of how much he can improve. "The sky's the limit. I have a lot of room to improve and grow."
Redshirt freshman running back Jahmir Smith scored Notre Dame's first touchdown from 3 yards out after a 75-yard opening drive.
Gilman had a big game, racking up 10 tackles, including 1/2 for loss, in addition to his strip-recovery near the end of the first half. He knows the Irish have work to do, but he and his teammates will take the win.
"We're an unfinished product," Gilman said. "Every week, we're going to continue to get better. It was a sloppy win for us, in my opinion, but as time goes on, we'll be better and continue to work on things we can do to get better so we can get to our goals."