PALO ALTO, Calif. — Brian Kelly spent last week downplaying the concept of “style points.” Notre Dame stuck to the talking points all week about not paying any attention to the Playoff rankings, junior running back Kyren Williams pointing out his lack of cable means he does not see the new rankings until checking social media later in the night each Tuesday.
But watching the No. 6 Irish (11-1) finish their 45-14 win at Stanford (3-9) on Saturday, a different reality was clear. Williams was openly showing frustration as Notre Dame struggled to close its final drive, needing a Cardinal offsides penalty to convert a fourth down and then still not getting plays off quickly as the clock ticked below a minute remaining.
Some on the sideline wondered if the Irish would kneel out the clock, after getting a first down that guaranteed they would not need to give the ball back to Stanford, but if that was the case, Jack Coan would not have come on for that one snap, only to return to the sideline for freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner to continue his extended second-half work.
It may have been a concerted effort to get Williams past 1,000 rushing yards for the season, making him the fifth player in Notre Dame history to crack four digits in back-to-back seasons, and four of the last five Irish plays did indeed feature handoffs to the offensive bellcow. He either needed to fall down at the two-yard line or score in order to reach that threshold, but a bowl game could (possibly) get Williams across that mark, as well.
His frustration seemed more palpable than a rushing mark, anyway. Williams’ gestures to the sideline were animated and clear, both a verbal and a nonverbal urge to get moving already.
Notre Dame wanted to score to end Saturday night, it wanted to score 100 points within two weeks, it wanted to display one final moment of “game control” for those who decide what comes next to ponder.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly had those thoughts front of mind as soon as he sat down to talk to the media after the season-ending win.
“We feel like we controlled the game from start to finish,” was his opening line.
“That’s 100 points now, if you guys weren’t counting, over the last two weeks, to 14,” was his next.
Suggesting Williams’ eventual 12-yard touchdown rush should be considered the play of Saturday’s game may take away from sophomore tight end Michael Mayer’s penalty-begging block or senior defensive end Justin Ademilola’s strip-sack and fumble recovery or Buchner’s 33-yard touchdown rush. But Williams adamantly wanted that score, and getting it may have meant more to Notre Dame’s season than any of the previous 416 points, game-winning scores against Florida State, Toledo and Virginia Tech perhaps aside.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 28, 2021
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Kelly gave the game ball to Mayer, more a recognition of Mayer’s season than anything else, though the star did have nine catches for 105 yards at Stanford, his last grab being his 64th of the season, a record for a tight end at Notre Dame.
Since fifth-year receiver Avery Davis tore his ACL against Navy, Mayer stepped up more than any other Irish passing option. The immediate expectation was that freshman Lorenzo Styles would step into Davis’ role, but that may have been steeping too much onto the young talent.
“When we lost Avery, we had to rely on more balance throughout that entire receiving corps,” Kelly said. “It couldn’t just be ‘Lorenzo, hey, go be Avery Davis.’
“It had to kind of spread out, and that’s where it picked up a lot for us.”
Kelly was crediting senior receiver Braden Lenzy, who had four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, but the truth of the matter is, Notre Dame turned to Mayer after losing the ever-reliable Davis.
In the three games since then, Mayer pulled in 19 catches for 275 yards and a touchdown. (Lenzy: 8 for 81 and one score. Styles: 7 for 48.) He kept the Irish offense moving.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, tight ends that I ever coached,” Kelly said. “At Notre Dame, we’ve had some great tight ends. He’s complete in every facet. He’s a beast in line blocking, he’s a guy that (if) you double, he finds himself open. He’s a leader both on and off the field. He’s a difference-maker down the field, vertically, option routes. I don’t know what else to say.”
What Kelly could have said would be something to the extent of, “Mayer did this as a sophomore. He has one more year left. I’ll be pushing him to the NFL next year. But first, look out, because another offseason of development could make for a truly special junior season from him.”
Consider, Mayer was flagged for blocking too aggressively, a flag then picked up because the officiating crew recognized no penalty had occurred. That kind of sentence used to apply only to Quenton Nelson, and that comparison may not be hyperbolic in this instance.
“I take tons of pride in my blocking,” Mayer said. “I’ve definitely upped my blocking since last year, 100 percent. It’s something I take pride in, something I’ve been working with [tight ends coach John McNulty] on, and (senior tight end) George Takacs, too.
michael mayer please that man has a family pic.twitter.com/lGMdNYvvNk
— mike taddow (@MikeTaddow) November 28, 2021
QUOTE OF THE GAME
“After each game I chug a fifth of Jameson.”
Kelly was joking. It was Gatorade. And the cheering from the Irish locker room was quite audible throughout the Stanford football facilities.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 28, 2021
STAT OF THE GAME
Kelly’s point about Notre Dame outscoring its last two opponents 100 to 14 is notable. For that matter, the Irish have now beaten nine Power Five opponents by an average of 20.4 points per game, which should be the second-best mark in the country, though that claim is admittedly made without updating every single team’s numbers after this weekend. Beating nine Power Five opponents will also be among the country’s best, if not No. 2 behind only Georgia’s 10.
To reach 20, #NotreDame would need to win tonight by just 27 points.
To crack that three-touchdown mark, 36 points.
Methinks the Irish might end the year with the third greatest points margin/game in P5 vs P5 matchups … https://t.co/oLwe78K1jE
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 27, 2021