Ian Book and the No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish took the first step in their quest to reach the College Football Playoff in back-to-back years with a 35-17 victory over the Louisville Cardinals on Monday at Cardinal Stadium.
Book went 14-of-23 passing for 193 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions while adding 81 yards and another score on the ground. He and Tony Jones Jr. (112 rushing yards and a touchdown) helped ensure there would be no upsets of Top 10 teams in the first full week of the 2019 college football season.
Louisville failed to make a profound national statement with an upset in head coach Scott Satterfield's first game after hiring him from Appalachian State this past offseason and will need to overcome an early loss to return to a bowl game after a 2-10 effort last year.
Ian Book's Clutch Play Provides Playoff Road Map for Irish
Notre Dame wasted no time sending a message on the ground against a Louisville defense that was an unseemly 128th in the country in points allowed per game (44.1) last season.
It marched 75 yards on six plays on the opening possession and mixed in runs from Jones, Jafar Armstrong and Book before Jahmir Smith found the end zone. That rushing attack then kept the Fighting Irish in the game early when Louisville was gashing the defense on the other side.
Jones demonstrated his ability as a powerful runner by breaking through arm tackles on a critical third-down conversion before he scored the visitors' second touchdown, and Book put Notre Dame ahead for good with a touchdown run with 17 seconds remaining in the first half.
However, Book struggled throwing the ball in the early portion of the game and looked the part of someone who isn't going to win many contests with his arm. That was largely the script last year when he completed 68.2 percent of his passes for a solid but unspectacular 2,628 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven picks.
Those numbers didn't exactly turn heads in a season that saw Dwayne Haskins throw for 50 touchdowns and Kyler Murray account for 54 total touchdowns on other CFP contenders, but Notre Dame could get away with it against a relatively weak schedule.
Michigan, Syracuse and Stanford were all home games for the Fighting Irish last year, and the defense led the way for much of the campaign. That was especially the case in the Michigan game when they jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and held on for dear life the rest of the way in a 24-17 win.
This year will be different seeing how head coach Brian Kelly's team has to travel to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford.
All three of those programs pride themselves on their defenses and will surely force Book to beat them through the air in daunting atmospheres. The last time he faced an elite team away from home was a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the CFP, which was a similar refrain for the Fighting Irish when it comes to the biggest moments:
Max Meyer @TheMaxMeyer
As Notre Dame's season kicks off tonight, just a reminder that the Irish are the worst big-game program in recent memory. Not only is ND the only team to go winless in BCS/NY6/CFP with at least 5 appearances since 1998 (0-6), Irish have been outscored 232-88 (38.7-14.7 average).
That's what makes Book's second-half performance so encouraging from Notre Dame's perspective.
The game was hanging in the balance in the third quarter with his side nursing a seven-point lead, and he found Chase Claypool for 31 yards and Tommy Tremble for a 26-yard score on back-to-back plays to create much-needed breathing room.
Even that wasn't as impressive as a methodical 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter that stretched the lead from 11 to 18. He used his arm for two third-down conversions and his legs for another before finding Claypool for a strike to set up another Smith touchdown run.
He passed his first test of the season on the road by making some of the individual plays he will need to against the more daunting opponents later in the season. That should instill confidence after an offseason of reliving the CFP loss and gives the Fighting Irish a roadmap to another season of contention.
Louisville Flashes Potential to Become ACC Contender Under Scott Satterfield
Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass was largely inconsistent last season and completed just 54 percent of his passes for 1,960 yards, eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also had just 93 rushing yards, as the coaching staff under Bobby Petrino failed to maximize his dual-threat skill set.
Things immediately looked different under Satterfield.
Pass used his elusiveness and acceleration as a runner to score two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. He finished with 67 rushing yards—coming close to last season's total—and looked explosive with a number of option plays, tempo and the ability to scramble when the pocket broke down.
It was no surprise Louisville's offense looked formidable considering Satterfield's Appalachian State team was 17th in the country in points per game (37.3) last season. It forced overtime at Penn State and put up 45 points in a bowl game win over Middle Tennessee using many of the same looks from Monday's contest.
Things fell apart for Louisville after the first quarter in large part because of drive-killing mistakes.
The two teams combined for three straight fumbles late in the second quarter, and Pass fumbled again while scrambling in the second half to end a promising drive that could have tied the game. Louisville had trouble with multiple poor snaps, and Tutu Atwell's pass on a beautifully designed trick play that could have made it a one-score game in the fourth quarter sailed just high.
Notre Dame's defense deserves credit for adjusting to the misdirection and options that worked so well in the first half, but the Cardinals could have challenged until the final whistle without the self-inflicted wounds.
Fortunately for Satterfield's bunch, those mistakes against a CFP contender in the first game in a new system are to be expected. They also figure to be cleaned up with additional experience as Pass and the rest of the offense grows more comfortable with the plays.
The Louisville on display out of the gates against Notre Dame was nowhere to be found last year. Expect more of that as Satterfield settles into the new job.
Louisville hosts the Eastern Kentucky Colonels on Saturday, while Notre Dame is off until it welcomes the New Mexico Lobos on Sept. 14.