Highlights: No. 12 Notre Dame 27, Purdue 13 — Featuring Kyren Williams & an explosive offense

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This is not last year’s Notre Dame offense. This is not the Irish offense of any point during the program’s four-years-and-counting resurgence, not even the 2017 attack that relied on Josh Adams’ explosive runs.

Notre Dame (3-0) is more reliant on big-play scores than it has been at any point during this 48-6 stretch, by a significant amount. The Irish are not struggling to score, averaging 33.3 points per game, but they are not doing it via sustained drives, not that there is anything wrong with that.

“We have a lot of talent out there,” fifth-year receiver Avery Davis said after leading Notre Dame with a career-high 120 receiving yards in Saturday’s 27-13 win against Purdue. “We have a lot of speed, we’re physical, we catch the ball, we make plays.

“Don’t knock us yet. Those guys are special in the locker room.”

When it comes to individual and impactful plays, Davis is correct. The Irish have shown special plays. This weekend marked a five-year high in that regard, but the trend has shown itself all season.

Of Notre Dame’s 343 total yards against the Boilermakers, 152 came on what will be categorized as explosive scores, touchdowns of at least 20 yards: junior running back Kyren Williams’ 39-yard touchdown catch, Davis’ 62-yard scoring snag and Williams’ 51-yard dash to the end zone.

No other game since the start of these years of success has had an explosive scores yardage percentage as high as that 44.3 percent, and the only two other games to crack 40 percent were against New Mexico in 2019 and Miami of Ohio in 2017. Purdue may not be a Playoff contender this season, but it is far ahead of those two teams.

The highest percentage (the math here is simple: explosive scores yardage divided by total yardage) against a Power Five team was the 2018 win at Virginia Tech, 38.1 percent, a day best remembered for Dexter Williams’ 97-yard run to silence Lane Stadium’s upset hopes.

The Irish have not relied this much on explosive scores to drive their offense, not even when broadening the sample size from one game.

To date, Notre Dame’s offensive production has been 28.7 percent explosive scores in 2021. The previous season-high came from that 2017 Adams Heisman campaign, topping out at 18.5 percent.

This is a new version of an Irish offense, a boom-or-bust look that may fit the modern game more appropriately than plodding drives did.

PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
Williams’ 51-yard, starting-and-stopping endeavor to the end zone in the fourth quarter sealed the win for Notre Dame, and his ability to shed multiple tacklers before they could get a real grip on him was a masterclass that distracted even his teammates.

“He’s insane,” Davis said. “His ability to just maneuver through tight spaces to make people miss, the strength to stay up — I was right next to him so I probably didn’t have the best view of it, it was just incredible. Just watching him for a second, I forgot I had to block for him at the same time.”

But the bolder play may have been the fourth-and-three that became a 39-yard touchdown. Quarterback Jack Coan threaded a needle to get the ball between two defenders and to Williams, and then there was little left to do but head to the goal line.

The call set a tone for the Irish: They were not going to be conservative. Just as offensive coordinator Tommy Rees dialed up a downfield pass to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer on the season’s first drive in a similar fourth-and-short moment, Notre Dame is not afraid to push the ball no matter the circumstances.

Hence the unexpected explosive score yardage percentages.

Some of that ties to analytics, some of that ties to gut.

“I still think you have to get a feel and a flow for the game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We use the analytics, but I think there were a couple of times today that I decided it would be best to do something different.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
“I’d pay to watch him play.”

Even with the implementation of name, image and likeness rights, Kelly probably cannot pay junior safety Kyle Hamilton, and finagling the deal through the Kelly Cares Foundation would likely draw more scrutiny than it would be worth.

But Hamilton’s fourth-and-one stop with Purdue driving in the first quarter, already holding a 3-0 lead, was worth the price of admission all on its own.

Fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa insisted he was trying to make the play, but the ball carrier was just too fast.

“Then I just saw Kyle come out of nowhere.”

STAT OF THE GAME
74,341 fans filled Notre Dame Stadium, an improvement of more than 14,000 compared to last week but still more than 3,000 from capacity, even with the in-state influx brought by the Boilermakers fans.

Again, the University’s refusal to implement a vaccine mandate for ticketed fans has done it no favors in filling the Stadium.