Notre Dame kicked off the 2020 season over the weekend with an effort that looked every bit the part of an opening weekend game. There was rust – a lot of it actually. But that should have been expected given the weird off-season we just went through. In the end, though, Notre Dame won the game by two scores, and other than a brief period in the third quarter, it never really felt close so there was a lot to like.
Here are this week’s five things I liked without mentioning Notre Dame’s ballsy fake punt in the first half that swung the momentum. That play was obviously one of the biggest of the game, but I wrote about it specifically in the immediate overreactions to the game so I used this space to include some other plays and moments I really liked.
Isaiah Pryor’s hit on Notre Dame’s first punt of the year
It was just one play, early in the game that didn’t result in any points or turnovers or anything like that, but it did set the tone for the rest of the game. Isaiah Pryor flying down the field on punt coverage after Notre Dame went three and out to start the season was a thing of beauty.
Pryor timed the hit perfectly to avoid a penalty and let Duke know that it was going to be a long day and everything would be a struggle.
Let’s take the technical beauty out of the play for a minute though and focus on the fact that Pryor, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, didn’t win a starting job after transferring but still was out there giving effort like that on punt coverage. It would have been very easy for a grad-transfer like Pryor to sulk a bit by not being in the starting lineup, but he didn’t do that at all.
Pryor might not be starting now, but he has two years of eligibility left for Notre Dame. Hopefully, we see a lot more of this from him during that time.
Joe Wilkins coming off the bench and catching everything threw his way
Notre Dame entered the game without Kevin Austin who is recovering from surgery that will sideline him for several more weeks. Then they lost Braden Lenzy to an apparent hamstring injury, the severity of which we don’t fully know. That left Notre Dame with Javon McKinley, Bennett Skowronek, and Avery Davis in the starting lineup. A solid group, but not one that will strike fear into many secondaries.
By the end of the first half, Skowronek joined Austin and Lenzy on the injured list. Notre Dame needed someone to step up at wide receiver – anyone. Then Joe Wilkins did on Notre Dame’s last drive of the first half that ended with a field goal from the now apparently automatic Jonathan Doerer. Wilkins hauled in 3 passes for 32 yards on that drive to set up Doerer with the 48 yard attempt.
If Notre Dame has to play again next week without Lenzy or Skowronek, the Irish need some other receivers to step up and Wilkins has the look of a guy who can help this offense. He simply caught everything thrown his way – including a toe-tapping sideline grab. Those are good receivers to have on hand.
The emergence of Kyren Williams
This has been written about a lot in the 48 hours since the end of the game, but it’s impossible to write a column about the things I liked in this game without mentioning Notre Dame’s new starting running back. Williams had a slow start to the game – like the entire offense – because he wasn’t being very patient which is understandable for a back making his first career start. Once he settled down though, we saw a running back with speed, patience, vision, and a feel for the position. It’s been a while since we’ve had one with all of those traits.
Take this 4th and 1 run that turned into a 26-yard touchdown for instance.
How many times in the past does a Notre Dame running just take that hand-off and barrel into the line where the hole was designed to be and get stuffed? Too many times, right? Williams though sees the hole isn’t there and bounces it outside where he takes advantage of excellent blocking by Javon McKinley.
A lot of backs don’t convert there and instead give the opposition the ball and all of the momentum in a one-score game. Williams didn’t. Now, add in what we saw from Williams in the passing and what was left on the field because of poor execution outside his control and it’s time to be excited about what Williams brings to the running back position at Notre Dame.
Jeremiah Owusu living up to the hype in week 1
I have been a fan of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for a long time. I never quite reached Greg’s level of
obsession affinity for Kyle Hamilton, but as early as fall camp 2018 I was penciling in JOK as the ROVER over Asmar Bilal before he got hurt and missed the season. Then we got glimpses of JOK last year before he exploded onto the scene in the Camping World Bowl.
With all of the hype surrounding him, I feared a bit of a let down similar to how Julian Okwara got off to a slow start in 2019. Welp, JOK said don’t about that and delivered the defensive performance of the day for Notre Dame. He led the Irish with 9 tackles including 2 TFL and a sack along with forcing Notre Dame’s only turnover of the day – a forced fumble in the third.
Just another day at the office for Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Get used to performances like this for the 2020 season from JOK because they will be the norm. Notre Dame has a legit start linebacker again and unlike the last time the Irish had one – Jaylon Smith – they have a functioning defensive coordinator who knows exactly how to use him.
Avery Davis’s contested touchdown grab
When Ian Book fired the ball to Avery Davis in the third with a defender in lock-step with him, I’ll admit I didn’t have a good feeling. Book had already thrown one red-zone interception and I might have had a “Tommy No!” flashback. Instead, Davis fought for position and won a 50/50 ball in the endzone to extend the Notre Dame lead.
Davis has done everything Notre Dame has asked of him the last few years – bouncing back and forth between receiver, running back, and cornerback after being recruited as a quarterback. His touchdown Saturday was the first of his career against a Power 5 opponent – his two scores in 2019 came against New Mexico and Bowling Green.
I really like the idea of Davis in the starting lineup for the Irish and am excited to see more of him this fall. I didn’t, however, ever expect us to be watching highlights of him winning 50/50 balls in the endzone. McKinely, Skowronek, Mayer, and eventually Austin? Sure. Davis though? I figured most of his damage would come within a few yards of the line of scrimmage in open space.
If and when Notre Dame is able to line up Lenzy’s speed on the outside opposite Kevin Austin, Avery Davis will have a lot of room to operate. Expect to see more of Davis this year.