The Irish cracked the 200-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive week and third time in the last four games dating back to the ’15 regular-season finale when Notre Dame ripped off 299 yards on the ground against Stanford.
Sophomore Josh Adams became Notre Dame’s first 100-yard rusher of the season with 106 on just 10 carries. The highlight of Adams’ day was an elusive, zig-zagging maneuver through all three levels of the Nevada defense for a 43-yard gain. He also converted a pair of 3rd-and-shorts in the opening quarter to get the offensive juices flowing.
It was much tougher sledding for quarterback DeShone Kizer and starting running back Tarean Folston, both of whom carried 10 times for a combined for 62 yards, or just a smidge over three yards per carry. Of those 20 carries, Folston had the longest run of seven yards.
Sophomore Dexter Williams came on in the second half to rush for 59 yards on eight carries, including a 23-yard run and a one-yard touchdown plunge for his second career score.
All told, the Irish rushed for 239 yards on 46 carries for a 5.2-yard average. Nevada entered the game vulnerable to the run after allowing 191.6 yards rushing per game last year and 383 yards to option-based FCS Cal Poly last week. Outside of Adams’ 43-yard run and Williams’ 23-yarder, the Irish were just 44-for-173 yards (3.9). Malik Zaire finished with just five net yards on five carries.
Notre Dame put the finishing touches on a relatively easy victory by rushing for 138 yards on 23 carries in the second half, an average of exactly six yards per attempt.
Is there such a thing as a so-so 15-of-18 for 156 yards by DeShone Kizer? Yes, in this instance, although his two red-zone touchdown tosses represented progress in an area where the Irish have had difficulty scoring through the air.
Kizer was productive, especially from the 10:35 mark of the second quarter to the 8:30 mark of the third – a 17:05 span of time. During that span, he threw two touchdown passes, led an 88-yard touchdown drive, and capped an 85-yard drive with a two-yard run.
He connected on six of his first seven and 13 of his first 15. He tossed a patient seven-yard score to C.J. Sanders early in the second quarter and a four-yarder to Kevin Stepherson for a touchdown just 2:12 later. His longest pass was a 49-yarder to Equanimeous St. Brown on the final play of the first quarter to set up a field goal.
Two of Kizer’s three misfires were memorable. The first was an interception by Nevada cornerback Kendall Johnson on a poorly thrown ball to Stepherson. The last was an incomplete pass to St. Brown, also with Johnson covering, that missed the mark badly. Kizer was 13-of-16 for 144 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the first half, and 2-of-2 for 14 yards in the second half as the Irish worked the clock and gave the keys to Malik Zaire.
Zaire came in with 3:54 left in the third quarter and completed 4-of-9 for 22 yards.
Notre Dame’s young receiving corps benefitted from the experience with three sophomores, two freshmen and a red-shirt sophomore (junior) making all the wide receiver grabs in the absence of injured senior Torii Hunter, Jr.
As he did against Texas, St. Brown led the way with a career-high six catches for 85 yards. Sanders snagged a career-high five passes for 46 yards and a score. Stepherson made three grabs for 35 yards and a score.
Then came the second wave of receivers with Chris Finke catching two for 10 yards, Corey Holmes making his first career catch for 15 yards, and Chase Claypool adding his name to the stat sheet with a six-yard grab. (Claypool also dropped a crossing route in fourth quarter.)
Still no production from the tight end corps.
This looked to be a nice challenge for the Irish in the aftermath of the Texas game and with Michigan State on the horizon. Nevada was a 200-yard per game rushing offense last year, and one of two 1,000-yard rushers – 5-foot-9, 210-pound James Butler – was back.
Butler averaged 103.2 yards rushing per game last year and opened the 2016 campaign with a 21-carry, 123-yard, two-touchdown effort against Cal Poly. He touched the ball four times in the passing game (for 48 yards), but managed just 50 yards rushing on 17 carries. He averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
Notre Dame’s stop of Butler on 4th-and-less-than-1 at the Irish 17 midway through the first quarter marked the last time the Wolf Pack would reach the red zone until inside of the five-minute mark in the third quarter.
All told, the Wolf Pack would net just 99 yards on 30 carries (3.3). Six other Nevada ball carriers gained one less yard collectively (49 on 13 carries) than Butler’s 50.
Notre Dame registered four tackles for loss – two by James Onwualu, one by Te’von Coney and a half each for Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. That’s four tackles for loss in two games for Rochell and three for Onwualu. Coney was an upgrade over Greer Martini in his first career start.
Nose tackle Jarron Jones provided the unexpected impact on the Nevada passing game with his interception that was part of a 25-point second-quarter outburst. It quickly was converted into a score and sent the Irish on a scoring spree.
Tyler Stewart had a poor game accuracy-wise, missing three straight times in one series while rolling to his right. All three passes sailed over the head of Stewart’s intended receiver. He finished just 10-of-23 for 113 yards (just 4.9 per attempt) with a pick and no touchdowns, numbers for which the Irish defense deserves credit as well.
Even Nevada head coach Brian Polian conceded that Stewart’s accuracy was out of whack against the Irish. Yet the Irish had an impressive six quarterback hurries, led by Isaac Rochell with a pair. For the second straight game, the Irish failed to record a sack. That’s now zero sacks on a combined 53 pass attempts.
Irish cornerback Cole Luke was flagged for an interference in the first quarter. He also blanketed 6-foot-4 Wyatt Demps and limited him to two catches (one a 44-yarder when Nick Coleman slipped). Luke was robbed of an interception when an exuberant Khalid Kareem was whistled for roughing the quarterback.
Coleman seemed to be a bit skittish when he slipped on Demps’ 44-yarder. It came after he had established perfect position to shield Demps with his back and high point a pick. He bounced back with a pass broken up on the first play of the fourth quarter. He competed better, but it will go up to a whole different level of heat next week against Michigan State.
Freshman Julian Love has played meaningful minutes in the first two games of his career. Kelly tabbed Love as the new No. 1 nickel. He may get an opportunity to challenge Coleman for reps at cornerback.
Notre Dame pieced things together on the back end with freshman Devin Studstill making his first career start. Drue Tranquill was examined along the sideline by Notre Dame’s medical staff in the second half, but returned to action. When Tranquill was out, Avery Sebastian -- who was kicked in the head by friendly fire against Texas -- filled the slot.
The loss of cornerback/nickel back Shaun Crawford is a gut-wrenching blow to a unit in desperate need of bright, ultra-athletic, play-making pass defenders. Two years in a row is a cruel blow to a player with five-star abilities.
The Irish coughed up a couple more big plays through the air – a 44-yarder to Demps and a 68-yarder from backup Ty Gangi to Andrew Celis, who had a 26-yarder last week.
Notre Dame was credited with three pass breaks to go with those six quarterback hurries.
Tyler Newsome was more himself this week, although he was unable to avoid the wrath of Kelly when his first punt went out of bounds at the Nevada 21 (just a 34-yard net). His five punts averaged 44.8 yards per boot with a long of 53, which netted 50.
Justin Yoon was called upon to hit a 21-yard chip shot in the second quarter. Four of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks with the other three returned for 25 and 16 yards. The third non-touchback kickoff was the blunder by Ahki Muhammad, who stopped, started and stopped his way into a safety. Unforced error or not, it factors heavily in Notre Dame’s special teams rating.
C.J. Sanders is a joy to watch in the return game. His 24-yard punt return from the Nevada 49 to the Nevada 25 set up a Kizer-to-Sanders touchdown pass to give the Irish a 9-0 lead. His lone kickoff return was a 37-yarder following Nevada’s first score of the day late in the third quarter. Sanders is helping Notre Dame as a receiver, punt returner and kick returner. That’s an impact player.
Chris Finke added a 15-yard punt return.
Rarely do the Irish avoid mistakes on special teams. Montgomery VanGorder mishandled a placement following Notre Dame’s first touchdown. He made an incredibly quick recovery of a low-and-inside snap, and Yoon probably should have been able to convert. In defense of VanGorder, snapper Scott Daly was throwing a variety of speeds at the back-up quarterback, including a changeup that had Yoon guessing a bit.
Notre Dame had too many men on the field for one Nevada punt. Nevada returned the favor with a holding penalty on a Wolf Pack kick return. Strong-legged Alex Boy – one of the top punters on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule – had the boot of the day. Boy blasted a 68-yarder at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Irish offense didn’t dominate up front as anticipated and needed a couple of sluggish possessions to get rolling. Once they did, Notre Dame scored five touchdowns and a field goal in a seven-possession span.
Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford came up with a balanced game plan that had success on the ground (46 attempts, 239 yards) while averaging a modest 10.4 yards per completion and 8.6 per attempt.
It worked. It kept the chains moving (21 first downs, 7-of-15 on third down), and it came in explosive fashion from a short distance (25- and four-yard touchdown drives) and methodically (13 plays, 88 yards; nine plays, 85 yards).
The Irish capped a 39-point outburst with a seven-play, 57-yard touchdown drive. Notre Dame scored all of its points in a 28:57 time span. The offense did its part.
Notre Dame ran base defense for most of the game, and lo and behold, the Irish held Nevada to 300 yards on 56 snaps (5.3 yards per). Even more impressive was the fact that the Wolf Pack had just 214 yards with 5:33 remaining. The running game, led by James Butler, never got untracked against VanGorder’s defense.
The Irish game plan worked on both sides of the football.
It was a tricky week for Kelly and his staff with the team returning to Notre Dame at 5 a.m. Monday. Tuesday was a key day when a very sore football team was given the day off. It wasn’t the one-sided game it could have been, but there was never any doubt who was the better team and which team would win. Just five of Nevada’s 13 possessions reached Notre Dame territory.
The concern heading into the game was the Irish defense. It’s still a concern against Michigan State’s physical brand of football. But it was very stingy against a Nevada offense whose assets were nullified.