Notre Dame capped off a tumultuous 2020 season by reaching the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons
In a season unlike any other, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish put together a campaign that fans will remember for a long time. Though it ended with a loss in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, the season nonetheless featured plenty of memorable highlights. Though 2021 will be the year of looking forward, let's take one more look back at Notre Dame's 2020 season with some accolades.
Offensive MVP: Ian Book, QB
Book may not have ended his Notre Dame career with a win, but his time wearing No. 12 for Brian Kelly and the Irish was filled with plenty of them — 30, to be exact, the most by any quarterback in Notre Dame's storied history. His talent to make and extend plays spoke volumes, and his leadership of a team with two College Football Playoff appearances in three seasons will live on just as much as will his win total.
Defensive MVP: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB
Owusu-Koramoah's impact on the defense was felt both literally and figuratively, even to the point of a "College GameDay" segment diving into the physics behind his play. The senior amassed 11 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles, two recoveries, and a touchdown in the big win over then-No. 1 Clemson.
A unanimous All-American selection — Notre Dame's 36th in program history, and the program's first on defense since 2012 (Manti Te'o) — was far from the only honor the senior linebacker picked up. Owusu-Koramoah was also named a finalist for the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award (both of which went to Tulsa's Zaven Collins), is up for the Bowden Trophy (to be presented on Jan. 15), and was named first-team All-ACC to cap off his Irish career.
Best Freshman: Kyren Williams, RB
Although Michael Mayer deserves some recognition here, it was Williams who stole the show among Notre Dame freshmen in 2020. Williams ran wild throughout the season, racking up 1,125 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, placing him in the top 10 nationally in both categories. The redshirt freshman from St. Louis was named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award and garnered an ACC weekly honor five times en route to a second-team All-ACC selection.
Best Play of the Season: Kyren Williams' game-opening touchdown run vs. Clemson
With Notre Dame totaling at least 27 points in five of its first six games before hosting No. 1 Clemson, the offense was clicking as the calendar flipped to November and the Irish prepared to host the No. 1-rankedTigers. A fast start would be crucial to gaining some early momentum, and that's exactly what Williams delivered.
After a Clemson defensive holding penalty on Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage, the Irish had a first down at their own 35. Ian Book handed off to Williams who, after eluding an initial wave of defenders, raced 65 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, giving Notre Dame a 7-0 lead just 33 seconds into the game.
Best Performance (Team): No. 4 Notre Dame 47, No. 1 Clemson 40 (2OT) on Nov. 7
The win over Clemson was Notre Dame's first meeting with the nation's No. 1 team since 2005 — thus marking the program's first under Brian Kelly — and the Irish ensured that history would remember this one differently. After scoring on its first official offensive play of the game, Notre Dame held a 23-13 lead at halftime but needed a touchdown in the final minutes to claw back and force overtime, which the Irish offense delivered. In a complete team effort, the offense came through in clutch moments while the defense forced three fumbles and notched two sacks in the second overtime to seal the win.
Defining Moment: Ian Book finds Avery Davis late in the fourth quarter vs. Clemson
In one of the highest-profile games in Notre Dame Stadium's prolific history, and in the first time the nation's top-ranked team visited South Bend since 2005 (USC), No. 4 Notre Dame trailed No. 1 Clemson 33-26 with under two minutes remaining in regulation. When the Irish forced a punt and Matt Salerno called for a fair catch at Notre Dame's 9-yard-line, the offense faced a simple task: drive 91 yards for a touchdown or once again fall short against a top-ranked team.
Continuing his impressive performance, Kyren Williams ran for 15 yards on third-and-1 to give the Irish a first down near midfield. That's when Ian Book took his shot downfield, finding Avery Davis over the middle for a 53-yard connection that led to a game-tying touchdown which sent the game to overtime where Notre Dame ultimately came out on top.
That pass, coupled with Williams' 65-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame's first official offensive play, book-ended the Irish's big-play success en route to the offense's second-highest scoring total this season and Notre Dame's first win over a No. 1 team since 1993.
Biggest Surprise: Michael Mayer, TE
Though Kyren Williams garnered most of the accolades, Mayer also performed incredibly well in his first season on campus. The true freshman tied for the team lead with 42 receptions, the highest single-season mark by any true freshman tight end in Notre Dame history and tied for the seventh at the position, regardless of year.
Finishing second on the team with 450 receiving yards, Mayer was picked for the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week and the FWAA Freshman All-American Watch List after his five-catch, 72-yard effort with a touchdown in the win over Pittsburgh. With many new faces likely to see the field for the offense next season — especially after fellow tight end Tommy Tremble's decision to declare for the NFL Draft — Mayer will be key in helping to maintain some level of consistency and will be a valuable downfield target going forward.
Biggest Disappointment: Defensive coordinator Clark Lea's departure to Vanderbilt
This one is a toss-up, though losing Lea to Vanderbilt leaves a bigger hole than does Notre Dame's College Football Playoff loss to Alabama. After all, while many will point to the Irish's poor showing in recent top-tier bowl games, it's impossible to win a national championship without reaching the College Football Playoff, a feat Notre Dame has accomplished twice in the past three seasons.
Lea has been nothing short of spectacular ever since joining the Irish, being named a semifinalist for the 2020 Broyles Award — presented annually to the best assistant coach in college football — as his defense excelled throughout the season. Notre Dame finished among the top-15 in the FBS in fumbles recovered (10, 8th), third-down conversions allowed (31.4 percent, 12th) and scoring defense (19.7 points allowed, 14th). The unit even shined — relatively speaking — in the loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl, holding the Crimson Tide (31 points) more than two touchdowns below their 2020 season average of 49.7 points per game and their lowest scoring output since the 2018 national championship (26 points).
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Robert Hainsey, OT
Aside from Ian Book, Hainsey will be one departing senior whose absence will be especially felt next season. As part of a unit that won the Joe Moore Award in 2017 and finished as a finalist in 2020, Hainsey anchored the right tackle position with 34 career starts, starting every game in which he was healthy (missed the final five games of 2019 due to injury) from the 2018 Citrus Bowl through the 2021 Rose Bowl Game.
A rare two-time team captain — Hainsey and Book became just the 23rd and 24th Notre Dame players ever to serve more than one season as a captain — Hainsey came off a 2019 season in which he didn't permit a single sack, allowing just two QB hits and six hurries on 423 snaps (252 pass plays). His veteran presence and leadership along the offensive line was an incredibly valuable perk and one whose departure leaves a large void — literally and figuratively — as Notre Dame rebuilds its offensive line in advance of next season.
Player to Watch in 2021: Kyle Hamilton, S
Named a first-team All-ACC selection, Hamilton led the Irish in tackles this season with 63 (51 solo) and he also recorded 4.5 tackles for a loss. After being picked for The Athletic's Freshman All-American team for his play — in just six games — in 2019, Hamilton followed it up in 2020 with honors as a first-team All-ACC pick by both the conference and the Associated Press, as well as am AP third-team All-American. After making a big splash in his first two seasons, the experienced Hamilton will be expected to lead the unit in what some believe will be his final campaign before declaring for the NFL draft.
Offseason Storyline: Where does the offense go from here?
In 2021, Notre Dame will in all likelihood be without its all-time winningest quarterback, at least three offensive line starters and two of its top three receivers. That adds even more weight to the already heavily emphasized importance of rising sophomore Kyren Williams' and Michael Mayer's continued development as playmakers, as well as the retooling of the offensive line and the unit's overall growth under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. By no means is Notre Dame short on talent, but that talent will need to prove itself ready to play by the time the Irish open the 2021 season on Sept. 5 against Florida State in Tallahassee.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Kyren Williams photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)