LOUISVILLE — Brian Kelly was curious. His players were curious.
The sport’s most demanding fanbase was curious as well heading into Monday night’s road test against a downtrodden Louisville program breaking in a new coaching staff. Vegas oddsmakers installed Notre Dame as a 20-point favorite over a team that went 2-10 a season ago and featured the third-worst scoring defense in the country (44.1 points per game).
Coming off the program’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff, what would emerge as the collective identity of Notre Dame’s 2019 edition?
“I’m interested to see who we are as a team,” safety and team captain Alohi Gilman said. “Every team is different. Last year’s team was completely different than this year’s team. Once we step out there, we’re going to see how we react to adversity, how we play in a big atmosphere.”
The ninth-ranked Irish had to work harder than expected, but they managed to shake off some early cobwebs and escape with a 35-17 win over the Cardinals before a national ESPN audience and a Cardinal Stadium-record crowd of 58,187.
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Three reasons Notre Dame won:
A defense forced to replace six starters, including a trio of NFL draftees in Jerry Tillery, Julian Love and Drue Tranquill, showed some early cracks in a wild opening quarter.
Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass engineered scoring drives of 88 and 75 yards on the Cardinals’ first two possessions. A pair of offside penalties, both on third down, helped to extend both drives.
From there, however, Clark Lea’s defense found its rhythm. Massive left tackle Mekhi Becton (6-7 and 369 pounds) proved immovable, but Louisville ended the first half with three straight punts, a pair of lost fumbles deep in its own territory and a brief drive into the break.
The second of those fumbles, recovered by linebacker Jack Lamb, set up Ian Book’s 11-yard scoring run just before halftime to put Notre Dame back in front.
Fighting Irish running back Jahmir Smith (34) runs the ball against Louisville Cardinals defensive lineman Jared Goldwire (90) during the second quarter at Cardinal Stadium. (Photo: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)
This wasn’t Book’s best game, not even close.
His passes sailed at times. He uncharacteristically threw behind his receivers at others. It took him 24 snaps to find Chase Claypool, the most dangerous weapon at his disposal, especially with Cole Kmet and Michael Young recovering from broken clavicles.
Book finished the first half with just 63 passing yards, three sacks and a pair of fumbles, but he also used his legs to pile up 64 yards on 10 carries. When throws needed to be made down the stretch, Book made them.
On consecutive plays midway through the third quarter, he found Claypool for 31 yards on a shallow cross and redshirt freshman tight end Tommy Tremble for 26 yards and a touchdown. That burst pushed a tenuous lead to two touchdowns.
After a Louisville field goal made it a two-score game early in the fourth, Book engineered a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that included three straight third-down conversions. The first two came on passes to Tremble and redshirt freshman Lawrence Keys III, and Book later scrambled for exactly 4 yards on third and 4.
Book finished with 193 passing yards and 81 on the ground.
Jafar Armstrong ripped off 26 yards on three straight touches on the opening drive, but he wouldn’t be heard from again. No injury announcement was made, but the versatile running back spent the rest of the night watching from the sideline as redshirt freshman Jahmir Smith filled in with a pair of touchdown plunges.
That put more of a burden on Tony Jones Jr. who finished with 112 yards on 15 carries. Jones just missed out on matching his career high of 118 yards on 17 carries early last season against Vanderbilt.
Follow the Indianapolis Star’s Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.