Five things we learned: No. 9 Notre Dame 41, Miami 3

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After five impressive Saturdays, it’s getting pretty difficult to ignore. Notre Dame might just have a really good football team. On a Saturday where three of the top five teams in the country lost, the No. 9 Fighting Irish just kept rolling, dominating a young but talented Miami team 41-3.

It’s Notre Dame’s most commanding victory over the Hurricanes in 35 years, when they beat Lou Saban’s 3-8 1977 squad 48-10 en route to a national championship. Powered by a dominant ground attack that featured 100-yard rushers in both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame blew the game open with 28 points in the second half, coasting to victory in front of 62,871 fans in Chicago’s Soldier Field.

In another Shamrock Series game designed to help spread the Notre Dame brand, the product Brian Kelly‘s squad put on the field did the job better than any alternate uniform or barnstorming tour.

Here’s what else we learned during Notre Dame’s impressive 41-3 win.

1. Against a Hurricane defense prone to give up yardage on the ground, Notre Dame’s run game got healthy Saturday night.

Heading into Saturday night’s contest, the Irish ranked a mediocre 86th in the country in rushing offense. With a depth chart stacked at the running back position and an offensive line that has plenty of veteran talent, Notre Dame spent the bye week getting their running backs more comfortable running behind offensive line coach Harry Hiestand‘s blocking schemes, and the results were pretty impressive.

“We really took a hard look at where we were offensively,” Kelly said after the game. “We felt like we found a way to run the football today and out game plan was situated on running the football.”

The Irish didn’t burst out of the gate running the ball, with Notre Dame running for a modest 106 yards on 20 carries in the first half. But starting with the ball in the third quarter and a 13-3 lead, the Irish ground game took over, thanks to the long-waiting good play of senior Cierre Wood.

Wood had a dazzling 37-yard run off the right side of the Irish line, bursting around the corner and diving into the end zone for what looked like a touchdown. While replay put the ball on the two-yard line and forced Wood to carry it once more to score, it started the Irish offense rolling, and Notre Dame never threw the ball again.

After spending the past few weeks trying to work his way out of Kelly’s doghouse, Wood earned his coach’s praise with his performance on Saturday night, keyed by his big run.

“He did a great job on his run, showed great patience, stepped on the heals of the guard and bent it back. He hadn’t done that all year,” Kelly said. “He had a great week of practice, preparing himself to do what we’ve asked him to do.”

Wood ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries, powering the Irish offense in the second half. And if Wood put the Hurricanes defense on its heels, sophomore Atkinson put Miami on their collective backs. Atkinson exploded in the second half, running for 127 yards on just ten carries, including a 55-yarder that left multiple Hurricanes in his vapor trail.

With Theo Riddick nursing an elbow bruise, it was Wood, Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel powering the Irish offense for 270 second half rushing yards, killing the will of Miami’s young defense and bleeding most of the second half away.

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2. Notre Dame’s defense continues to put up scary numbers.

Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown over its last 12 quarters, holding Michigan State, Michigan and now Miami out of the end zone. The Irish defense is allowing just 7.8 points a game now, and has surrendered only three touchdowns on the season, the least amount in college football.

After scoring 86 points and gaining 1,260 yards over the last two Saturdays, Miami scored just three points and gained 285 yards of total offense. Missing on two deep chances on their first drive, the Hurricanes struggled to do anything against Notre Dame’s defense after the Irish got settled in.

“After we settled down to the speed of the game, we limited a very good offense,” Kelly said. “We didn’t give up the big plays and we certainly got a couple breaks early on. I thought we adjusted well to the speed of the game after the first quarter. Again, we have now held University of Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State to not scoring a touchdown. That’s an incredible feat for our defense.”

The Irish didn’t rush the passer particularly well, failing to get a sack against Stephen Morris. But Notre Dame did get pressure on Morris in the second half, and the ability to do so with just four men helped the Irish drop men into coverage and hold the ‘Canes at bay. From there, it was just a matter of the defense tackling, and Bob Diaco‘s unit continues to play fundamentally solid defense.

The Irish kept up their incredible play in the red zone, keeping Miami out of the end zone both times they entered. It’s a perfect formula for limiting points and the Irish surrendered only 13 first downs on the evening.

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3. In need of a solid performance, Everett Golson delivered when he needed to, stabilizing a quarterback position that had a roller-coaster week.

After reaffirming Everett Golson as the starting quarterback Thursday evening after practice, I learned late Friday night that Golson wouldn’t be starting against Miami. The Thursday announcement that was meant to quell any controversy at the quarterback position was once again thrown up in the air when Notre Dame confirmed Golson wouldn’t be starting less than an hour before the game, because of an unspecified violation of team rules.

“Our team rules are pretty simple as it relates to being on time,” Kelly said after the game, explaining Golson’s temporary demotion. “We have high standards and we hold all of our players to that standard.”

Those standards lasted just three plays, as Golson took over the reins of the offense after Tommy Rees went three and out, but Ben Turk was roughed in his first punting attempt. From there, Kelly built Golson’s confidence back, mixing in some quarterback runs while also helping Golson establish his rhythm passing.

After playing his worst game of the season against Michigan, Golson completed 17 of 22 throws for 186 yards. He looked solid on a two-minute drive at the end of the first half that ended with a missed Kyle Brindza field goal, and he also found Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels for two big plays down the field.

More importantly, Golson showed command of the offense and helped solidify Kelly’s belief that sticking with his talented but still learning sophomore won’t hinder the Irish from going to where they believe they can.

“I thought Everett grew up today,” Kelly said after the game. “It was important for me after disciplining him to get him back in the game right away, to let him know that I had trust in him and that I believed in him.”

Golson paid back that faith by playing relatively risk-free football, essentially replicating his performance against Navy by managing the game, buying time with his legs, and handing the ball off as the running game got on track.

Golson will face a true test next weekend when Stanford’s defense comes to town. But until then, the sophomore quarterback quieted his detractors with a solid day at the office.

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4. After a week off, the Irish offense opened up the playbook and finally put up some points.

It wasn’t a radical departure from what worked over the season’s first four games. But by unlocking Golson’s ability to contribute in the running game, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin gave defenses one more problem to worry about.

Notre Dame gave the ball to five different players at least five times, averaging an impressive 7.4 yards on the ground. They also threw it to nine different players, distributing 19 balls for 211 yards. While Eifert continues to be a marked man by defenses, the Irish utilized multiple sets and formations and got the Miami defense into some situations that were advantageous for the offense.

“We used some formations to get some good match-ups,” Kelly said. “They were rotating their coverage to Eifert quite a bit and it opened up a lot of things for us in the running game.”

With Eifert still relegated to being more of a traditional tight end than many imagined, Notre Dame mixed in three tight end sets, using Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack with Eifert at the same time, presenting some match-up problems for Miami’s youthful defense.

With multiple tight ends on the field, the Irish were able to control the pace of the game and the football, dominating the time of possession battle with an astounding 39:08 with the football. Notre Dame gained 18 first downs on the ground, moving the sticks for much of the second half, and keeping the ball out of Miami’s hands.

“We felt like if we could keep them from getting the big plays, and we could run the football, that was going to be our recipe for success,” Kelly said.

Incorporating Golson into the run game helped open up lanes for Wood and Atkinson, and will keep Stanford’s defense from crashing down at the line of scrimmage next Saturday.

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5. With ESPN’s College GameDay coming to South Bend, the Irish are deserving of every early accolade they get.

Expect the talk about Notre Dame to amplify as the week goes on. With ESPN set to come to town with College GameDay for Notre Dame’s showdown against Stanford, it’ll be up to Kelly and his rapidly maturing football team to avoid the distractions and get ready for another difficult opponent.

But make no mistake, Notre Dame deserves all the accolades coming their way. With a defense that’s as good as any in the post-Holtz era, this football team is very worthy of a ranking in the middle of the top ten. Sure, there’s work to be done by the offense, but just about every team in the top ten has had some flaws exposed this far into the season, and the fact that the Irish are still standing and undefeated says plenty about this football team.

It’s still far too early to be looking towards the postseason, but getting by next Saturday will be huge for Notre Dame. If the Irish can beat Stanford, a team that looked shaky when Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona team took the Cardinal to overtime, Notre Dame would get past one of their three largest remaining hurdles. From there, they’ll face opponents their defense can shut down and will get to take their shot in two daunting road games, in Norman, Oklahoma and Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend.

A ten-win team with losses to Oklahoma and USC still seems a lock for a BCS game, especially with the Irish’s drawing power. But after watching the Sooners and Trojans struggle this season, there’s every reason to believe Notre Dame is going to be in every game they play this year, if only because Manti Te’o and the defense won’t let them do anything else.

After all, Notre Dame still hasn’t trailed this season, the last team in the country to be able to say that. The last time they went through five games without trailing was during the 1947 national championship run.

Gazing ahead in early October is the kind of thing that usually trips up a football team. You can bet Kelly and his coaching staff, not to mention the team’s veteran leadership, will keep everybody’s eyes on the prize. But for Irish fans unaccustomed to having anything to look forward to by Autumn, the ability to even dream has to be a welcome surprise.

After watching the Irish absolutely outclass Miami in Soldier Field and extend their record to 5-0, that dream is well on its way to becoming reality.