SOUTH BEND — For the first time in a long time, things felt normal for Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly.
With no players in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 for the first time since Sept. 8, the No. 4 Fighting Irish have been able to practice at mostly full strength this week in anticipation of their game against Louisville (1-3, 0-3 ACC) Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
“In terms of routine, this felt as ‘back to normal’ as we’ve had, even more so than the Duke week [week one],” Kelly said on Thursday. “This felt like a normal work week that you would have during a non-COVID season.”
Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) returned to play last week with a 42-26 victory over Florida State. The Irish were still dealing with some of the lingering effects of coronavirus against the Seminoles, but now appear to be at full strength heading into this weekend’s game with the Cardinals.
“When you have all your guys back, you feel, from my perspective, you feel complete; you’ve got your team together,” Kelly said. “You have depth, you have competition, you have practices that are a lot different because they’re structured in a manner that brings that competitiveness out during your preparation. That’s extremely positive in so many areas.”
IRISH ‘O’ vs. LOUISVILLE ‘D’
The biggest strength for Notre Dame this season has been its offensive line, which in turn has led the Irish to have the fifth-best rushing attack in the country. Through its first three games, Notre Dame is averaging 270 rushing yards per contest.
They gashed Florida State on the ground last week, racking up 353 rush yards and four touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Kyren Williams had 185 yards and two touchdowns, while true freshman Chris Tyree added 103 yards and a score.
The offensive line of left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey has become one of the elite groups in the country. They were the No. 1 ranked unit in the country by Pro Football Focus two weeks ago.
“I would say it’s important, just having momentum going into the next week,” said Eichenberg of the running game being successful. “Florida State had good defensive linemen, good ends, good interior guys, good linebackers. So, it was definitely nice running the ball well. But at the same time, Louisville is completely different.”
Louisville’s defense may cause some issues in the run game, though. The Cardinals play a 3-4 defense that puts a lot of players near the line of scrimmage.
“They tend to overload the box; they’re going to commit extra players to the line of scrimmage, so you’ve got to be able to push the ball down the field,” Kelly said. “They’re very athletic. They’re not the biggest defense that we’ll see this year, but they are extremely athletic and they move around.”
For the Irish to win Saturday, they’ll need graduate senior quarterback Ian Book to be effective. Book isn’t putting up the numbers most expected him to so far this season, accumulating 608 passing yards and three touchdowns in the first three games. Injuries to wide receivers have hurt, as the Irish will be without another one this week in redshirt sophomore Lawrence Keys (concussion).
IRISH ‘D’ vs. LOUISVLLE ‘O’
Notre Dame’s defense was hit-and-miss against Florida State last week, allowing the Seminoles to tally 405 yards of total offense. This week, Kelly says the approach on defense will be simpler.
“If you look at what we felt like were some concerns from last week; we were trying to get the perfect call in there, and at times didn’t have our players with cleats in the ground,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be simpler and we’re going to attack the line of scrimmage; we’re going to be a physical football team.”
The Irish will have to deal with a dual-threat quarterback in the Cardinals’ Malik Cunningham. The junior has 986 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and 12 total touchdowns in four games this season. Cunningham has been more of a passer this year than a runner.
Louisville also has some speed at the wide receiver position, specifically with junior Tutu Atwell. Notre Dame sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton knows containing him will be a key to victory.
“He’s fast,” Hamilton said. “He’s fast, and it’s hard to cover speed; you can’t teach it. So, have to game plan around him and I feel like we will. … When it comes to him, he can be a game breaker anytime he gets the ball in his hands.”