SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A couple days later, Kyren Williams’ run still stands out. His stiff arm to spring himself 91 yards is clearly an image and a moment that will go down in Notre Dame history. Neither hyperbole nor recency bias elevate his touchdown, the key to the Irish 44-34 win against North Carolina on Saturday night.
For the second time this season, Williams ruined Notre Dame’s intentions of draining clock, a five- or seven-minute scoring drive chewing up enough of the fourth quarter to cut the Tar Heels’ playbook in half. Instead, Williams fought through tackles to get to the end zone, just as he did against Purdue.
“Heck of a play. It’s about players over plays,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We were running duo, double-team on the play side. [North Carolina] ran a swarm to the front side, and he bounced it back and just made something out of nothing. That’s going to be a zero, net-zero gain. He turns it into a 91-yard run. An incredible individual effort.”
Incredible individual effort might be downplaying William’s touchdown, part of a 199-yard day. He has 337 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks, averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
Williams was always going to score on that play, at least once he stiff-armed his way around the edge — “I knew I was going to score as soon as I stiff-armed No. 12.” — but the downfield blocking of sophomore tight end Michael Mayer broke Williams loose and the length-of-the-field sprint from fifth-year receiver Avery Davis sealed it.
Williams knew Davis was coming from behind him because he was running south, toward the Notre Dame Stadium video board.
“Every time I break a long run like that, I’m always looking at the video board to see who’s behind me, who’s around me, everything,” Williams said. “I knew we were just running down the sideline, and I see Avery literally running at me, so I know somebody is behind me.”
Watch closely, and you’ll see the two acknowledge each other, within a turn of the helmet, when Williams was about 30 yards from the goal line and Davis was veering very sharply toward the running back’s path.
“Me and Avery finally made eye contact, and I really thought he was going to tackle me, but he was just getting back to block somebody and I really appreciate that.”
But an argument can be made that was only THE PLAY OF THE GAME, and not …
THE TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Because Williams so boldly scored, most of the fourth quarter remained at North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell’s disposal. He has overcome an 11-point deficit late in a game before. At some point in his career, he will need to do it again.
Just a note for all those upset about the yardage #NotreDame gave up last night … aggregate stats are largely useless.
SP+ ranks ND's defense as No. 18 in the country.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 31, 2021
The Irish defense still needed to stop Howell, and do it without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton (who will miss at least one more week of action, per Kelly on Monday). Senior safety DJ Brown intercepting Howell on the next play from scrimmage after Williams’ dash effectively ended the Tar Heels’ hopes.
“[That interception] meant a lot,” junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said. “That was the first interception we had in the game, first turnover. It hypes up the whole entire defense.”
Though Notre Dame added only a field goal, despite Brown’s interception setting it up at the 32-yard line, that drive also took off another 2:28 from the clock. Now Howell needed two touchdowns in only 12 minutes, conceivable but much more of an ask.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish have reached 7-1 and made it through what was expected to be the toughest part of their schedule while outgaining only two opponents, Toledo and Virginia Tech.
North Carolina had 564 yards on Saturday, compared to Notre Dame’s 523.
Obviously, the Irish are winning, so the yardage differential is not an outright concern, but it is notable, nonetheless.
Notre Dame is plus-six in turnover differential and has turned 59 percent of its red-zone possessions into touchdowns, giving up six points on only 41 percent of such drives. That is how these Irish have overcome the yardage deficit, with complementary and thorough football.
“Offensively, did some really good things tonight, good balance on offense, running the football and throwing it,” Kelly said. “It’s an improving football team. …
“I just like the position that we’re in, we’re getting better each and every week. That’s a tough team to defend. I wouldn’t call it our best night defensively.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“We were dumb.”
After Notre Dame beat USC last week, Kelly discussed the new up-tempo look and why it behooved quarterback Jack Coan’s success. After it worked again against North Carolina — Coan went 16-of-24 for 213 passing yards and a touchdown to senior receiver Kevin Austin — Kelly was asked about the difference between these quick Irish and the downfield version that opened the season at Florida State. His immediate response was that blunt self-criticism, before elaborating on the ground previously trodden.
“We were trying to figure out what he could do,” Kelly said. “We were using a lot of the skills that he had, but we have found, obviously, a niche where he feels really comfortable.”
It would be fair to wonder if Notre Dame would have been better off this year if Coan had struggled in Tallahassee rather than throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns.