Irish Snapshot: The Ceiling's Sky-HighBy Joanne Norell
No one expected the seventh-ranked Notre Dame football team to struggle in Saturday’s home opener against New Mexico. Sandwiched between a Labor Day road contest at Louisville and a trip to No. 3 Georgia next week, the matchup with the Lobos was seen by many as merely a way station en route to bigger challenges. The 66-14 final score would tend to support that view.
The Fighting Irish learned plenty about their ceiling anyway.
With nine touchdowns scored by eight different players the Irish racked up the most points in a home opener since 1932, when they shut out Haskell (now Haskell Indian Nations University) 73-0. They saw an offense thinned out by injury begin to reform, and showed a couple of new looks out of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook. They saw just how lethal the defensive backfield can be, and learned which areas need attention ahead of primetime at Sanford Stadium.
Critically, they exhibited the preparation that can often be missing against those perceived weaker opponents. The Irish didn’t overlook the Lobos, but having convincingly dispatched them, they can now turn their attention to Athens, where the eyes of the college football world will certainly be trained as ESPN’s College GameDay heads to town.
But first, let’s take one last look at Saturday’s 2019 home premiere, through the photos that tell the tale.
The Real Deal
Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton had already shown he was ready for the big stage in his collegiate debut at Louisville, recording a pair of pass break-ups to lead the Irish that night. Turns out, that was only a tease. In his first snap at Notre Dame Stadium, Hamilton broke into the passing lane and — with the help of a tip by defensive end Daelin Hayes — picked off Sheriron Williams’ pass and returned it 34 yards for his first Irish touchdown. It was the first pick-six by an Irish freshman since Robert Blanton’s against Purdue in 2008.
“It starts with really good vision, and he recognizes things for the first really well,” Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly said. “Route recognition is outstanding. Some have a good pattern read recognition. Some don’t. He knows that when two is going to the flat, one it probably breaking back towards him, and he just has a natural sense and feel for route recognition. Two go vertical; I’m going to stay on top of two. Some guys have it. Some guys struggle with it. He’s got that natural ability and then length obviously helps quite a bit.”
Avery Davis’ body language says it all. There’s no feeling like finding the endzone for the first time — and there was plenty of that to go around Saturday.
For guys like Davis — a junior who had gone through his third position change between the Louisville and New Mexico games — and senior Javon McKinley, who scored not once but twice Saturday, that feeling is amplified by the work — and years — it took to get there.
Turns out it was well worth the wait.
“Javon McKinley needed to make a big play, and he made a couple of really big plays,” Kelly said. “He’s been a guy that has been kind of lost in cyberspace, if you will, and he’s now going to have to play a significant role.”
The temporary loss of wide receiver Michael Young, running back Jafar Armstrong and tight end Cole Kmet to injury has necessitated that role change. But the performances by McKinley and Davis on Saturday only confirmed what Kelly and the Irish already knew.
McKinley’s first score — a 65-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter that saw him slip six defenders — underscored just what a threat he could be.
“He’s really athletic and super strong,” quarterback Ian Book said. “When you get him the ball in a drag like that and he can go all the way down the field and make four or five people miss, that’s huge and again, he has another touchdown on a back shoulder fade. He’s able to go there and be strong with his hands and bring down a fade ball. He’s someone you want on the perimeter and he’s someone we need this year and he’s doing great.”
Then there were guys like sophomores Braden Lenzy and C’Bo Flemister, who also recorded their first career touchdowns Saturday. Both highly recruited, Lenzy redshirted in 2018 and made the flip from cornerback to wide receiver while Flemister appeared in just two games on special teams last season. Their ability to make the plays asked of them has, in Kelly’s estimation, set them up to step in on an offense that’s seen its share of early injuries.
“Braden Lenzy needed to make a play. He needed to make that big catch. I think C’Bo needed to go in there and pick up a couple of blitzes and make a couple plays and a couple of good runs,” Kelly said. “They earned what we asked them to do today and that was: You have to be part of our offense moving forward. When we call your number today, you need to make a play, and they did. We didn’t ask them to catch 10 balls today. We asked them to make a play for us so we can now get you involved in our offense and each one of them did that.”
Gone But Not Forgotten
It’s been nearly 40 years since the Irish began a season without Mike Bennett on the sidelines, but the Notre Dame community made sure he was included in Saturday’s home opener just the same. Bennett passed away in August, but his legacy was honored in myriad ways — from fellow photographers dressing in his signature shirt and tie combo, to the Fighting Irish Media team reserving his regular press box seat and photo vest. Prior to kickoff, Bennett’s wife, Sue, and daughters Buffy, Michelle and Jamie, presented the national colors as public address announcer John Thompson paid tribute to Bennett’s memory.
We miss you dearly, Mike.