ND Duke crowd

The socially-distanced, limited crowd at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday for the football game between Notre Dame and Duke was still able to make a lot of noise, making it feel as close to a normal game as possible.

SOUTH BEND — On the list of things I didn't expect to happen during Notre Dame's season opener Saturday, a contract extension announcement was near the top.

With Duke up 3-0 on Notre Dame after the first quarter, the Fighting Irish thought that was the most opportune time to announce that Brian Kelly had agreed to a contract extension back in December 2019 that would keep him as the head coach at Notre Dame through the 2024 season. If Kelly stays for the entire duration of the contract, he will become the longest-tenured coach in the historic program’s history.

It was a weird, ugly game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday. Here’s some of my observations from the Irish’s season opener.

WALKING IN

Usually when I arrive at ND Stadium, I have to walk more than a mile through tailgaters before entering the building. When I parked my car approximately 2 1/2 hours before kickoff Saturday, though, there was silence. No tailgating. No fans. No music. No energy.

I knew that was going to be coming, but it was still odd to see in person.

GAME OBSERVATIONS

—The first official game with Tommy Rees as offensive coordinator was OK. Kelly admitted during the week that the secondary of Duke was arguably the best they’d see all season, so that may have influenced the lack of deep ball passes from quarterback Ian Book. There was only one true deep shot downfield, which came at the start of the fourth quarter. The pass fell incomplete. Overall, the Irish offense started to get going eventually, but the play calling was hit-and-miss Saturday.

-The new kids showed up and showed out for Notre Dame. Running back Kyren Williams was the best player on the field, tight end Michael Mayer showed that he is a force to be reckoned with and defensive end Isaiah Foskey wreaked havoc on Duke quarterback Chase Brice throughout the game. With all three of those players still having four years of eligibility left at Notre Dame, the future looks bright for the program.

-For Notre Dame to have a chance to make it to the College Football Playoff this year, they’re going to need Book to be what he was for all of 2018 and the end of 2019. On Saturday, he didn’t show that. Granted, it was the first game following an offseason where players had limited contact. But just from the eye test Saturday, Brice looked like the better quarterback than Book. I expect Book to improve next week against South Florida, but if he continues to play like the way he did Saturday, the Irish could be in trouble this season.

GOOD FAN SHOWING

All things considered, it was a good atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium. It was an announced attendance of 10,097, with more than 90 percent of those people being students. Only students, faculty, staff and parents of players are allowed inside the stadium this year, and they made sure to make a lot of noise.

“The atmosphere in the stadium was just — I was blown away,” Kelly said afterward. “I was expecting it to be like an inner-squad scrimmage. That was a great environment. Our students created this, for our guys, and they said this to me that they were overjoyed in the sense that it felt like a football game. There were students in the stands and they created an atmosphere that felt like a real football game in there.”

After the game, all of the Notre Dame players lined up in a socially-distanced manner to sing the alma mater. Usually, the players all gather together, arm-in-arm, to sing the song following a home game. This is 2020, though, and you can’t do that right now.

“Very awkward,” said senior wide receiver Avery Davis of singing the alma mater that way. “We still got it done. I’m glad we still got to do it.”

All in all, it was fun to be back covering college football in person again. Now let’s hope we can make it through the rest of this season.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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