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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame receivers shine in rout of New Mexico in home opener

Despite players and coaches repeatedly saying their focus is one week at a time, Saturday keeps looming large on Notre Dame‘s schedule. However, in their home opener against New Mexico, the Irish managed to take care of business, quieting some of the concerns raised just a week before.

After a slow start to the season opener against Louisville, the Irish (2-0) looked to come out strong for their home crowd but struggled to find their groove, earning only one first down on the first drive. An incomplete pass and sack against senior quarterback Ian Book forced head coach Brian Kelly to bring on freshman punter Jay Bramblett, who managed to place the ball on the 2-yard line. The Lobos (1-1), considered a major underdog in this matchup, showed some bite in their response, gaining 13 yards on the ground in addition to the 15 yards they picked up on a pass interference call made against senior cornerback Troy Pride Jr.

Just when it looked like they might be mounting a threatening drive, freshman safety Kyle Hamilton intercepted New Mexico senior quarterback Sheriron Jones’ pass that was deflected by senior defensive end Daelin Hayes and returned it to the end zone.

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Irish freshman safety Kyle Hamilton intercepts a pass from New Mexico quarterback Sheriron Jones during Notre Dame’s 66-14 win over the Lobos on Saturday.

“I just knew the ball was coming out quick, whether it be a screen or quick gain, so I just tried to get my hand up and the young bull got it, brought it down and then scored,” Hayes said.

Hamilton, originally from Atlanta, has proved a key contributor for the Irish from the start. His touchdown was the first pick-six by a freshman since 2008 and the first made by the defense to open the home season since 2002.

While Hamilton’s touchdown and junior kicker Jonathan Doerer’s extra point gave the Irish some life, the Lobos stuck to their game plan, rushing the ball against the Irish defensive unit and picking up three first downs on the ensuing drive. The Irish managed to stop them around the midfield logo before the offense returned deep in their own red zone, and marched the ball nearly half the field. The Irish never managed to pass the 50-yard line for the remainder of the quarter, but Book revealed who one of his key targets will likely be going forward — sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, who recorded 20 yards in the air and 52 rushing yards, including a 45-yard kickoff return.

Kelly attributed much of Hamilton’s ability to instincts and a good feel for the game.

“He just has a natural sense and feel for route recognition,” Kelly said. “Some guys have it. Some guys struggle with it. He’s got that unnatural ability, and then length obviously helps quite a bit.

Hayes echoed that evaluation, showing confidence in the young defender.

“He’s so big and lengthy that even if he’s not in the exact spot that some players would have to be, he can still make up for it with just his instincts and his length,” Hayes said.

Returning to the field for the second quarter, the Irish quickly gained momentum, driving 35 yards to earn their second touchdown of the night. This time the Irish offense showed a variety of skillsets, using senior wide receiver Chase Claypool to pick up 20 yards before Book went to work and added in 13 yards on the ground, capped off with a 1-yard rush into the end zone to give the Irish a 14-point lead.

Irish senior wide receiver Chase Claypool runs through a pack of defenders during Notre Dame's 66-14 win over New Mexico on Saturday.

That initial momentum was followed by a back-and-forth series with both teams going three-and-out. The Irish secondary once again put the Irish back in scoring position when senior safety and captain Jalen Elliott picked off Jones’ pass and brought on the Notre Dame offense. On the opening snap of that drive, Book hit a slashing Avery Davis across the right side of the field who then looped back toward the middle and ran 59 yards for the Irish touchdown. Initially recruited as a quarterback out of Cedar Hill, Texas, the junior has played multiple positions for the Irish, even trying out the secondary last season before moving back to the offense when junior running back Jafar Armstrong went down with an injury against Louisville.

Unfortunately for New Mexico, the Irish weren’t done adding points to the board. This time it was senior wide receiver Javon McKinley’s turn to wow the fans. McKinley completed a 65-yard play, breaking multiple tackles and adding in a spin move before ending in the end zone, the first score of his career.

Book was very pleased with McKinley’s breakout night and was complementary of his skillset.

“He’s really athletic and super strong,” Book said. “When you see him running, you saw four or five guys bounce off of him. I was super happy for him, and he’s faster than people think. … He’s able to go there and be strong with his hands and bring down a fade ball. He’s someone you want on the perimeter, and he’s someone we need this year, and he’s doing great.”

The New Mexico defense didn’t stay off the field for long, though, because Irish graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford made a diving catch to record the third interception of the game for Notre Dame. Book repaid the favor by finding Claypool on back-to-back passes, the second of which was a 37-yard catch as he walked into the end zone.

“Ian Book needed to make a play,” Kelly said of his team finding its rhythm. “I think he needed to make that throw to Chase Claypool, and all those things needed to come together. We thought they would, and we saw them come together this afternoon.”

The Lobos managed to get on the board near the end of the half as they marched 75 yards down the field on three rushing attempts, capped off by a 47-yard run by redshirt sophomore running back Bryson Carroll. With 29 seconds on the half, Book drove the offense 20 yards down the field before Doerer knocked in a 36-yard field goal, putting the Irish up 38-7 at the end of the half.

While the Irish certainly dominated throughout the first half, the Lobos did expose some weaknesses in their defense, rushing for 99 yards in the second quarter compared to Notre Dame’s 37.

The third quarter brought on more of the same for Saturday’s matchup, as the Irish went on to score 14 unanswered points. A 54-yard touchdown for graduate student wide receiver Chris Finke was followed by a 20-yard touchdown by McKinley.

Kelly said he was pleased with McKinley’s performances and thinks he’s finally finding his role in the program.

“We like what he’s done. Look, he would have been playing a long time ago if we had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that,” Kelly said. “He is practicing well. He is doing the right things both on and off the field. You guys don’t want to hear this, but all those traits are starting to show themselves, and he’s preparing himself for a big year for us.”

With a comfortable 45-point lead, quarterback Phil Jurkovec subbed in for Book with just over three minutes remaining in the quarter. The sophomore wasted no time getting to work, hitting sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy for 52 yards on his first snap of the game to bring the Irish within the 10-yard line.

Jurkovec opened the final frame of the game with a 23-yard run before being brought down on the 1-yard line and handing things over to sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister, who knocked in another touchdown for the Irish. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, freshman quarterback Brendon Clark checked in and earned his first career touchdown, a 22-yard pass to Lenzy.

Kelly said a big part of the growth of these young players is investing in their confidence from his perspective.

“That’s all these kids want to do well, so bad, that they ask us more about it than anybody else,” he said. “So all we told them after the game was, look, you’re doing great. It doesn’t mean you have to do it for 40 or 50 plays, just make the play when we call, and I think we’ll have them moving forward for those plays.”

While the Lobos would go on to get on the board one more time, the Irish handled this matchup, recording 591 total yards to their 363. While the Irish remain undefeated, there are still several questions left to be answered as they prepare to make their way to Athens, Georgia, to take on the Bulldogs.

“Being able to come here and get the win like we wanted, we’ll enjoy it tonight and once tomorrow hits, it’s Georgia week, and everyone knows that,“ Book said.