SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — If No. 2 Notre Dame manages to secure its second College Football Playoff berth, coach Brian Kelly’s words before his Fighting Irish secured their first one in 2018 will have proven prophetic.
“Look, we need to get better from 65 to 85 — that 65th scholarship to the 85th scholarship,” Kelly said on national signing day in February 2018, more than 10 months before the 12-0 Irish faced Clemson in a CFP semifinal.
The Tigers manhandled the Irish 30-3 behind freshman Trevor Lawrence’s three touchdown passes against an Irish secondary weakened with All-America cornerback Julian Love in concussion protocol. It was evident then that Notre Dame needed to improve its talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage and create adequate depth if it wanted to challenge the top CFP contenders.
Fast-forward to this season in which the Fighting Irish (No. 2 CFP) find themselves a temporary member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC announced Tuesday that Notre Dame's Dec. 12 game against Wake Forest has been canceled, which means the Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) are locked into the conference title game even if they lose to Syracuse (1-9, 1-8) at home on Saturday.
Led by quarterback Ian Book, running back Kyren Williams, safety Kyle Hamilton and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Kelly’s Irish have some top-level talent. As they showed in Saturday’s 31-17 victory at North Carolina, the Irish also have quality depth, particularly on the offensive line.
“You feel confident that when they are called upon that they will be able to step in and significantly impact in a positive way,” Kelly said.
Facing a prolific Tar Heels offense that was averaging 563.4 yards and 43.1 points, the Irish went to the locker room tied at 17 with strong safety Shaun Crawford questionable with an injury and Hamilton ejected for targeting.
Crawford returned and the secondary got a huge lift from backups Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown replacing Hamilton.
The front seven of coordinator Clark Lea’s defense had 14 players contribute and showed its physical dominance, limiting the Tar Heels to 78 total yards and no points in the second half. Reserve ends Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola were credited with sacks while reserve tackle Rylie Mills and reserve linebacker Marist Liufau contributed a half-sack each as Notre Dame registered six against Sam Howell, who finished with 211 passing yards, far below his 328.9 average.
“I think we have the best linebacker depth in the country,” inside linebacker Drew White said, “and I think that showed with Marist stepping up and having an awesome game. Houston did a great job locking down the secondary. That’s just how this defensive unit is. It’s more than 11 guys.”
Meanwhile, the offense hardly skipped a beat playing with sophomore center Zeke Correll and senior right guard Josh Lugg stepping in, respectively, for starters Jarrett Patterson (broken foot) and Tommy Kraemer (appendectomy).
“I thought Zeke did a great job as a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “To get the kind of ball control we had, especially in the second half, your center has to be doing a great job with protections. They threw a lot of stuff at us and (Correll’s) recognition was really good. And Josh’s a big fellow — he can get people moved off the line of scrimmage.”
First-year coordinator Tommy Rees saw his offense total 478 yards as Book threw for 279 yards and rushed for 48 more, and Williams went over the century rushing mark for the fifth time with 124 yards while scoring three times.
Three tight ends — juniors Tommy Tremble and George Takacs and freshman Michael Mayer — all caught crucial passes. They were all on the field blocking along with starting tight end Brock Wright for Williams’ one-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter.
Four tight ends on the same play. Talk about depth and talent.
“I think the most important thing was the belief that we have the guys that can step in,” Kelly said. “We love these guys and trust them, and so they went out and they played at a high level.”
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