SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Kyren Williams was ready to go in his starting debut at running back for Notre Dame.
The No. 10 Irish rode the sophomore’s big day to a 27-13 victory over Duke on Saturday at rainy Notre Dame Stadium in the season and Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams.
“I’ve been getting a lot of reps,” Williams, who ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns in his first start on 19 carries and also was Notre Dame’s leading receiver with two receptions totaling 93 yards, one a 75-yarder in the first half on a screen play. “It took a couple of drives for me to finally relax and breathe.”
Coach Brian Kelly was impressed with Williams’ performance, aided by 263 passing yards by grad quarterback Ian Book.
“That was a pretty good opener for (Williams); there’s a lot he can build off of this,” Kelly said about the speedy Williams, who saw limited action last season as a freshman.
It took the Irish time to get going but once they did there was no looking back
“We knew it was going to be a grind, but they hung in there,” added Kelly on a day when the school announced a four-year contract extension through the 2024 season and he improved to 9-2 in openers. “We played much better football in the second half.”
The victory was Notre Dame’s 19th straight at home and the first for the Fighting Irish in a conference after 132 years as an independent. Because of COVID-19, the Irish are playing this season as a member of the ACC. The school announced a crowd of 10,097, 90% of them students, attended the game in the 77,622-seat stadium where fans were wearing masks and socially distanced because of the pandemic.
“Hats off to Duke, they had a good scheme,” Book said. “I thought our offensive line did a great job. I had a little bit of a slow start but the team carried me until I got back to where I needed to be.”
A successful 14-yard run on a fake punt by Jay Bramblett in the second quarter was later followed by Williams’ 1-yard scoring run that allowed the Irish to overcome a 3-0 deficit after the first quarter.
Williams’ second TD came on a fourth-and-inches play from the Duke 26 when he took a handoff from Book, cut left outside of the blocks of tackle Liam Eichenberg and guard Aaron Banks and burst into the end zone for a 17-6 Irish lead in the third quarter.
Book, who rushed for 139 yards and passed for 181 yards and four touchdowns last season in Notre Dame’s 38-7 victory at Duke, completed 19 of 31 passes, one a 17-yard TD pass to Avery Davis early in the fourth quarter that increased the Irish lead to 24-13. He rushed for just 12 yards on nine carries.
Book outdueled Duke grad quarterback Chase Brice, who threw for 259 yards on 20-of-37 passing and rushed for a touchdown in his debut for coach David Cutcliffe after transferring in from Clemson.
“The story of the day was they made more plays than we made,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re a good team. I think we have a really good football. We have to play better in the second half that we did on offense.”
The Irish, who were outgained 151-13 in the first quarter as the Blue Devils took a 3-0 lead on the first of Charlie Ham’s two field goals, took a 10-6 halftime lead when Jonathan Doerer nailed a 48-yard field goal, his first of two successful field goals, as time expired.
The Blue Devils, who had 246 yards at halftime, had just 82 after halftime. Notre Dame finished with a 439-334 edge in total offense, including a 176-75 advantage on the ground.
Duke: Despite two field goals in the first half by Charlie Ham, the Blue Devils looked impressive moving the ball behind Brice, who was a backup to Trevor Lawrence on Clemson’s last championship team two seasons ago. Brice completed 13 of 25 for 195 yards as Duke’s no-huddle offense outgained Notre Dame 246-228 in the first 30 minutes.
“There were times that we were outstanding,” Cutcliffe said. “I think we have a really good football team. I think we need to get comfortable with who we are and what we’re doing.”
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish, who returned all five offensive linemen who started last season, struggled to move the football in the first half. They were outgained 151-13 by Duke in the first quarter and had just 44 rushing yards on 17 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per carry, in the first half. But after adjustments at halftime, Williams exploded for 79 of his yards in the second half.
“We hadn’t played spring ball and we didn’t play since December,” Kelly said. “It’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that for such a long time. We had to be patient and then make some adjustments.”
Notre Dame: No. 10 Fighting Irish should move up with victory starting with Sunday’s poll as No. 2 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 9 Oregon and other teams from Big Ten, Pacific-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences will not be included because those leagues are not playing in 2020.
Duke: Saturday vs. ACC foe Boston College.
Notre Dame: Saturday vs. South Florida in a nonconference game.