SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If looking for historical precedent of the last time Notre Dame rushed 55 times, it was not even a year ago. The Irish took 57 carries for 341 yards only 51 weeks ago at North Carolina, an even more impressive showing than Saturday’s 55 attempts for 272 yards in a 38-17 victory against No. 7 Stanford.
Fittingly, that day had something else in common with this Saturday’s offensive breakout: the starting quarterback. Ian Book completed 17 of 31 passes for 146 yards against the Tar Heels, adding two interceptions and only one touchdown.
How things change with time.
Book leading the offense no longer means the Irish need multiple 100-yard rushers overpowering the defense. That was fortunate this weekend, because with sophomore Jafar Armstrong sidelined (see more below) and senior Dexter Williams only now beginning his season, it seemed only one running back might be capable of a triple-digit day, junior Tony Jones. Then Jones sprained an ankle (questionable moving forward), and only Williams remains as healthy.
Williams, a back who before this weekend had never had more than eight rush attempts in a game or 10 total touches.
Williams, a back who has now had two brushes with disciplinary issues.
Williams, a back who negated a 31-yard rush against LSU in the Citrus Bowl by blowing a blitz pickup on the very next snap, leaving his quarterback — Book — exposed and irretrievably vulnerable.
At least, those were the descriptors before Williams took the field Saturday some six-and-change minutes into the first quarter. They were all accurate. Even precise. They are now, outdated.
Dexter Williams, a back now both a big-play threat and a workhorse.
He broke his first carry for 45 yards and a score. It was a prototypical Williams’ dash, one-cut and gone. Aside from that, though, he also had eight carries gaining 4-to-9 yards, the type of medium-length rushes that turn an inconsistent approach into a grinding force wearing out defenses. His 18- and 17-yard rushes were promising, but they are much like the 45-yard burst, not reliably available. Rather, managing to gain six yards on a first-and-10 is how an offense stays ahead of the chains, facing 3rd-and-long only three times while reaching 3rd-and-short seven times.
Notre Dame did not convert any of those 3rd-and-longs, but went 4-of-7 on the 3rd-and-shorts and 9-of-17 on third down overall.
“We think success starts around controlling down-and-distance with the running game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to do that today.”
That traced to Williams, plain and simple.
Dexter Williams, a back now capable of both churning through tackles for a short gain and of picking up a block to allow his quarterback — Book — time to find a wide open Nic Weishar in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
No, Williams did not stop the blitzer, but a pass-rusher arriving that quickly on a play-action is rarely going to get picked up at all. The premise of a play-action is to delay some of those blitzes or at least misdirect them. That didn’t happen in this instance, yet Williams put up enough resistance to give Book the window needed to connect with Weishar.
The pass was high, but that was a symptom of the throwing lane, not of a mistake on anyone’s part.
By picking up that block, Williams put his fingerprints on both of Notre Dame’s first-quarter scores.
Dexter Williams, the back apparently responsible for the word “juice” pervading the Irish interviews after the game.
“Juice” is Williams’ nickname, one he said he picked up in high school.
“That’s why they call me the juice,” he said. “I have to be able to keep them going, keep them rallied up, keep them on their toes. We can’t ever settle for less. We have to always want more.”
Rather than an OJ Simpson reference — frankly, these players are largely too young to think in those terms, as hard as that may be to fathom — it is a loose thought of electricity, power, bloodflow.
“The juices were flowing for sure,” Book said of the 14-0 fourth-quarter scoring differential in Notre Dame’s favor. “Every guy on our team, we knew that it was a great point to keep going, keep attacking, keep scoring points and really make this game — shut this game out and don’t let up. We didn’t want to let up at all tonight.”
The exact closing mentality was as much a byproduct of circumstance as anything else. Do not misconstrue that just yet. Both fourth-quarter touchdowns came on short fields, one from a poor punt and one from senior linebacker Te’von Coney’s first-career interception. But both turned into touchdowns, and that has not always been the case.
That is where this offensive praise turns to Book. He remained patient against a genuine defense, one of which no detriments can be spoken a la Wake Forest last week. He took what was available, even if that meant throwing only nine times in the first half.
“What we did all week is really tell him if he didn’t like what he saw, just solve it with your feet today,” Kelly said. “… [Stanford’s defensive scheme] can be troublesome if you’re not exactly sure where that free-dropper is.
“When [Book] didn’t like it, he took off. When he was sure of what he saw and he was decisive, he put the ball where it needed to be. And I was proud of him because of it.”
Nine times Book ran in the first half, not counting one sack. On three of those, he picked up a first down. On another, nine yards. In the second half, he ran only five times while attempting 24 passes. He had figured some of the Cardinal approach out. His patience paid off.
Book may not yet have a genuine deep ball, but he has now faced two defenses on equal ends of the competence spectrum and completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 603 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Irish offensive explosion under Book is … real.
“We just want to be an elite offense,” he said. “I know that one thing we were talking about through the first couple of games was having such a great first half and then kind of letting go the second half. So week in, week out, in our preparation we just want to keep scoring points as an offense.”
Scoring 94 points in two weeks counts as such. Worry not, Ian.
Notre Dame’s defense was already known to be good. It has given up only 18.8 points per game. That is not a number to be argued against in any way. Yet, the Cardinal arrived averaging 29 per game. Even with one of the nation’s most-explosive running backs and a seemingly-uncoverable outside passing game, Stanford could not come within a possession of that mark Saturday.
The Irish contained Bryce Love by focusing on him, and the likes of JJ Arcega-Whiteside were kept in check by harassing junior quarterback K.J. Costello.
Notre Dame’s defensive front seven may be better than optimists had previously considered. It is certainly better than any of the offensive lines it has yet to face.
Five sacks among nine tackles for loss with another four official quarterback hurries and that is probably an underestimation. The Irish front outdid the Cardinal offensive line, plain and simple.
“That’s how you beat Stanford,” said senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery while cradling the game ball given to him in recognition of his four sacks, including two on the Cardinal’s final drive and three total in the fourth quarter. “They want to get in to [jumbo] personnel and run it at you. If you can’t stop that, you’re going to have a long night. We were able to stop them right on the ball and that’s how you open it up against Stanford.”
Winning the trenches early forced the Cardinal to drop back and throw, which made it open season for Tillery, junior end Khalid Kareem & Co.
Combining what Williams showed in his 2018 debut and Book’s proof of concept against a viable defense with the continued dominance from Notre Dame’s defense opens up a door to bigger conversations.
“We’ve got a long season ahead of us,” Kelly said. “If we’re going to walk out of here thinking that we just are the best team, we’re going to get beat and it’s going to diminish this victory.”
The point is not invalid. The Irish are not the best team. Alabama retains that honor until further notice or until the sun rises in the west, whichever comes first.
But Notre Dame staked a stellar claim to belonging in the rest of that conversation. The Irish have beaten two top-15 teams, no matter what metric is used to gauge them. With a quarterback change in the rearview mirror, they won the latter of those contests in dominating fashion, a manner which only Stanford managed in this series for the last dozen years, a span covering the entire tenures of David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh.
Saturday night, Brian Kelly finally bested Stanford, in every way, and that puts Notre Dame near the top of the nation’s pecking order.
— Kelly said surgery was needed to clean up the infection in Armstrong’s knee. He will be out for a few weeks, unlikely to return until after the bye week.
— Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars suffered a wrenching knee injury late Saturday, but Kelly could not offer much information the eye did not already glean. An MRI will give a clearer outlook.
— Notre Dame will be on ABC at Virginia Tech next week, kickoff at 8 p.m. ET.