SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Louisville saw a chance to put No. 4 Notre Dame firmly on its heels and seize all momentum in a groan of a game, only for a Cardinals blocker to follow his instincts and become, apparently, by the letter of the law, a bit too over-eager with the chance. A successful Louisville onside kick instead became strong Irish field position and soon a lead Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) would not give up in a 12-7 victory on Saturday.
The Cardinals recovered the third-quarter gamble, not touching the ball within 10 yards of kicking it. The play looked clean, Louisville suddenly in excellent field position and already holding a 7-6 lead. But upon a review to confirm recovery outside of 10 yards, the officials deemed a Cardinals blocker engaged the Irish hands team inside those 10 yards, a no-no partly out of deference to player safety and partly to give the receiving team a chance at recovery.
The exact, plain-as-day rule: No Team A player may block an opponent until Team A is eligible to touch a free-kicked ball.
To put that in more literal terms: Louisville could not block Notre Dame until Louisville was eligible to touch the kick, after 10 yards.
The subsequent re-kick gave the Irish possession at the 34-yard line.
After struggling when relying on the passing attack through the first half, Notre Dame turned to the run following the successful-yet-botched onside kick, six rushes by four different players gaining 61 yards, topped by fifth-year quarterback Ian Book scrambling 13 yards, diving the last two, for the winning touchdown.
“It’s not going to go down as an instant classic,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said to NBC afterward, a claim absolutely no one would dispute.
Sophomore running back Kyren Williams gained 16 of those yards, along with five receiving, as part of his 127 for the day on 25 carries, the most reliable part of an inconsistent offensive showing. Notre Dame gained a middling 338 yards against what had previously been a suspect Cardinals defense.
“I’m just proud of this team for not giving up,” Book said. “That’s what I saw tonight. A win is a win.”
Three times in the first half, the Irish marched downfield with inefficient drives kept alive by Louisville penalties, and all three times Notre Dame resorted to its field goal unit. The first two occasions, drives that reached the 14- and 12-yard lines, Irish senior kicker Jonathan Doerer knocked through his attempts. The third such drive, reaching the 13-yard line, Notre Dame opted for a fake with punter/holder Jay Bramblett as the ball carrier needing to gain nine yards. Despite his best and admirable efforts, Bramblett was stopped two yards short, part of the Cardinals gaining momentum.
“We felt like we controlled the whole game but were never able to separate because we couldn’t finish,” Kelly said. “We moved the football down, we were scoring goals, not touchdowns. You have to put the ball in the end zone. We didn’t do that today.”
For the crux of the day, though, Louisville’s offense performed worse than its Irish counterpart, totaling 219 yards. In a flip of the script from a week ago, Notre Dame’s defense bought the offense time, just enough time for the Cardinals’ best chance at stealing the game to be undone by a clean block half a yard too early.
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) October 17, 2020
9:26 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 32 yards. Notre Dame 3, Louisville 0. (12 plays, 61 yards, 5:34)
0:30 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 30 yards. Notre Dame 6, Louisville 0. (15 plays, 76 yards, 7:09)
7:37 — Louisville touchdown. Marshon Ford 1-yard pass from Malik Cunningham. James Turner PAT good. Louisville 7, Notre Dame 6. (13 plays, 83 yards, 7:23)
3:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 13-yard rush. 2-point conversion failed. Notre Dame 12, Louisville 7. (8 plays, 66 yards, 3:54)