Notre Dame's win over Duke was one of the Irish's best performances of the season, a dominant all-around showing in a 38-7 road victory.
It wasn't all good news for the Irish in Durham, North Carolina, however. In the second half, defensive end Julian Okwara, Notre Dame's leader in sacks, went down with what coach Brian Kelly announced Sunday is a broken leg. The injury will end Okwara's senior season and his Notre Dame career.
“We feel terrible for him,” Kelly said. “He'll have a procedure done here once we figure out all the specifics, but it is a fibula fracture that he suffered when he was pass rushing.”
Okwara announced he would return to Notre Dame for his senior season shortly after the team's loss in the Cotton Bowl, even though he likely would have been an early-round pick in the NFL draft. Along with fellow senior Khalid Kareem he has formed a fearsome pass-rushing duo off the edge over the last two seasons.
The Charlotte native was playing in his home state in front of a large group of friends and family when he suffered the season-ending injury.
Over his two seasons as a starter, Okwara racked up 191/2 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. This season, he made his presence felt most heavily in Notre Dame's win over Virginia, when he wreaked havoc to the tune of three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Despite his injury, Okwara will remain one of the seven Irish captains, a role that he takes seriously. Kelly said that there was a time that if anyone had mentioned Okwara as a future captain the coach would have “publicly snickered.” The defensive end matured significantly over the last two years, however, and developed into an important leader on defense.
“I just knew I had to be a better person for my teammates,” Okwara said of that maturation process. “Those guys like Drue Tranquill and Jerry (Tillery), guys who left the program, the younger guys needed somebody they can look up to, and I just knew I needed to take things a little bit more serious and become that vocal guy.”
Okwara going down is particularly difficult for the Irish as it comes after senior defensive end Daelin Hayes had already suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Hayes will redshirt and come back next season, but the Irish losing two of their top three pass rushers turns what has been a team strength into a question mark.
With Okwara out, senior Jamir Jones is the player likeliest to get more snaps at defensive end. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Jones has six tackles for loss and four sacks this season and had a game-turning strip-sack against Virginia.
Redshirt junior Ade Ogundeji will also get work at the edge rusher spot and true freshman Isaiah Foskey is another option. Foskey has already played three games, and the Irish are trying to preserve his redshirt if possible, so they have a choice to make.
“We want to be judicious with him,” Kelly said of Foskey. “We'll make a decision as a staff as to whether we'll need him this weekend (against Navy) and maybe decide to save that (fourth game) for either (Boston College) or Stanford.”
Note: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Braden Lenzy did not travel with the team to Duke and Kelly said the issue was related to fatigue. Lenzy suffered a concussion this season following one this spring. He'll be re-evaluated early this week.