SOUTH BEND – Brian Kelly insisted last week that if Louisville didn't turn the ball over, it would give Notre Dame a good game.
On a windy Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, the Cardinals made the Irish coach look prophetic.
Louisville pushed No. 4 Notre Dame all day, taking a brief lead in the third quarter, but quarterback Ian Book barreled his way to a 13-yard touchdown shortly thereafter as the Irish escaped with a 12-7 victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,182.
“Louisville played extremely well,” Kelly said. “Their coach (Scott Satterfield) had them ready to play, they took care of the football. ... I thought they very easily could've been 4-0 and they played like a 4-0 team today. We withstood that.”
“When you're a top 5 team in the country, you're going to get the opposition's best game. Period,” Kelly added. “That was a team that played their absolute best.”
Irish running back Kyren Williams rushed for 127 yards on 25 carries, his third 100-yard performance of the season. His biggest run came late in the fourth quarter, a 24-yard burst for a first down that included a vicious stiff-arm and essentially sealed the victory.
Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) spent the final 7:55 playing keep-away, milking the clock with runs from Williams and short passes on third downs. The Irish converted three third downs on the 14-play, 57-yard drive that ended in a victory formation, with wide receivers Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek each making tough catches in traffic for first downs when Louisville (1-4, 0-4) had a chance to get the ball back.
Skowronek, a Homestead graduate, made his first two catches of the season Saturday, gaining 28 yards and picking up first downs on both plays. After being slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season, the fifth-year senior graduate transfer was finally healthy against the Cardinals and felt like a “kid before Christmas” on Friday night before his first game at full strength since Sept. 12. His 12-yard reception on third-and-6 near midfield on the final drive was crucial.
“I just came through on a shallow route and got my eyes back to (quarterback) Ian (Book),” Skowronek said. “Ian put the ball on me. It was a pretty easy play, just running across the field. With all the other routes, the work was done for me, so it was just catching the ball, getting upfield and getting a first down.”
Book didn't have a great game, finishing with only 107 yards passing in what he called the windiest conditions he'd ever played in, but he accounted for Notre Dame's only touchdown. With the Irish trailing 7-6 in the third quarter, Book rolled left on third-and-8 and then decided to tuck and run to open space. He made a would-be tackler miss and dived across the goal line to give the Irish the lead for good, capping an 8-play, 66-yard drive.
The go-ahead score came after Louisville had stunned the Irish with a long touchdown drive to open the second half following Notre Dame led 6-0 at halftime.
“I was able to pick myself up and the guys around me and get the energy going,” Book said. “One thing about this team is there was never any doubt. I can say that from the time we started to halftime to the end of the game. This team fights. You saw that (Saturday) and we don't give up.”
The Louisville scoring drive went 83 yards in 13 plays and the Cardinals nearly got the ball back after recovering a surprise onside kick. Instead, the referees ruled Louisville had blocked before the ball went 10 yards, leading to a penalty and a re-kick.
Notre Dame led by only 6-0 at halftime despite moving the ball into the red zone three times in four first-half drives. The first two drives ended in field goals thanks to some inaccuracy from Book. The Irish came up empty the third time when a fake field goal attempt was unsuccessful after driving 90 yards.
Notre Dame outgained Louisville 339-234 and held the ball for more than 36 minutes. The Irish also limited Cardinals running back Javian Hawkins, who came in averaging 5.5 yards per carry, to 51 yards on 15 touches.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage, we controlled the time of possession ... we didn't turn the ball over,” Kelly said. “I've been in a 12-7 game when it was a stinker and you're like, 'Ew,' but this game was a little different. It was hard-fought.”