There have been a couple of these columns that have been fun to write this year, but none that has been more enjoyable than this one. In fact, I considered renaming this column “5 Things I Loved” for these week because last night’s performance was one of the best of the Brian Kelly era. Notre Dame won convincingly over a top 10 team for the first time under Kelly’s watch and propelled themselves firmly in the early season playoff conversation. There was so much to like, let’s just get into it.
Notre Dame flipping the script on Stanford
This game was almost a carbon copy of last year’s game in Palo Alto if you completely flip the teams. Last year the game was close to start the 4th quarter and the Irish even lead by three. Then Stanford unloaded a 21 point barrage in just over three minutes thanks in large part to two Irish turnovers – a Brandon Wimbush interception and then a CJ Sanders fumble on a kick return. Just like that, the Irish were down 18 and the game was over.
Fast forward to last night. Notre Dame entered the 4th quarter with another one possession lead – this time seven points at 24-17. After a missed 50 yard field goal by Justin Yoon kept the lead to seven, the Notre Dame defense delivered a huge three and out. Ian Book then engineered a 10 play, 58 yard touchdown drive capped off with an eight yard scoring toss to Miles Boykin to push the lead to 14.
On Stanford’s very next play, Tevon Coney stepped up and recorded the first interception of his career. The pick was a long time coming and something Coney has been looking forward to for a while. Chip Long dialed up the perfect play in the the sudden change situation and Ian Book found a WIDE open Alize Mack for a 35 yard touchdown on the next play. Just like that, the Irish lead was 21 points with just over eight minutes remaining.
A seven point lead ballooned to 21 in 14 second of game clock.
The game was essentially over. On Stanford’s next drive Jerry Tillery pinned his ears back and sacked KJ Costello on first and second down. On third down, David Shaw waved the white flag across the field to Brian Kelly with a running play and then a punt.
The return of Dexter Williams
Notre Dame had been missing the explosive running plays in their offense this year with Josh Adams in the NFL and Williams sidelined with a suspension. Williams did not make Notre Dame fans wait long to see some explosion in the run game. His very first carry of the season went for 45 yards as Williams took a handoff from Book, found a crease, and exploded through it leaving the Stanford defense in his dust on his way to the endzone.
With Jafar Armstrong sidelined already with an infection in his knee and then Tony Jones Jr going down with an ankle injury in the third quarter, Notre Dame leaned much more heavily on Williams than anyone could have anticipated in his first game back. He ended up carrying the ball 20 times for 161 yards and scoring the first touchdown of the game.
With Dexter Williams in the backfield, Notre Dame has the big play element that it had been missing all season long and it was clear from his first carry that the Irish have that element back. Depending on the health of Jones, Notre Dame could be leaning on Williams a lot the next few weeks since Kelly said that Armstrong probably won’t be back until after the bye week following last night’s victory.
Notre Dame’s half time adjustments
The first half of last night’s showdown between the Irish and Cardinal was pretty evenly matched. Notre Dame held the lead at 21-14 but Stanford had been moving the ball at times and it felt like this one could be a seesaw affair in the second half. Clark Lea decided it wouldn’t be with perhaps the best half time adjustments we’ve seen from a Notre Dame defense since… well since I can remember.
Lea got the Notre Dame defense going in the second half and the Irish held Stanford to just 31 yards in the entire damn second half. Stanford ran a grand total of seven plays the entire 4th quarter. Three of those seven plays ended with a sack and a fourth ended with the first career interception for Tevon Coney. The other three plays netted just eight yards. Seven plays, -13 yards, and 1 turnover.
The Notre Dame pass rush started to get home in the second half as well. Notre Dame ended up sacking KJ Costello five times. He had been sacked five times in the previous four games combined. Jerry Tillery led the way with four sacks tying a Notre Dame record. Last player to do so? Victor Abiamiri against, you guessed it, Stanford in 2005.
That friends, is some serious coaching from Clark Lea. And let’s not forget Mike Elston because his defensive line ATE Stanford alive in the second half.
Notre Dame winning the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball
For the last few years it has been frustrating to watch Notre Dame – Stanford games and see Stanford win the battle at the line of scrimmage most of the time. That simply did not happen last night. Notre Dame’s offensive line gave Ian Book a clean pocket most of the night and they paved the way for the Irish to out rush Stanford 272 to 55. By contrast, Dexter Williams picked up 45 yards by himself – on his first carry of the game (and season).
Even when Notre Dame lost its best offensive lineman – Alex Bars – the Irish offensive line kept Stanford out of the backfield and gave Book all the time he needed to slice and dice the Stanford defense as he tossed 4 touchdowns on 24 of 33 passing.
Defensively, Notre Dame wasn’t getting home in the first half. Stanford was giving KJ Costello time to pass and he was finding his massive receivers. That all changed in the second half when the Irish defense started generating a lot of pressure without having to send a lot of extra blitzers. Because they were getting pressure with just the front four, there wasn’t anywhere for Costello to go with the ball.
Tillery was the star of the night, but the entire defensive line stepped up and dominated Stanford in the second half.
Chip Long’s game plan and play calling
In some of my “5 Things I Didn’t Like” columns this year I’ve been critical of Chip Long’s play calling and game planning – specifically early in the season when it seemed he was calling games for who he hoped Brandon Wimbush could be instead of who he is. I will gladly heap praise Long’s way for what he pulled off last night though because he called a monster of a ball game and it’s abundantly clear that Long can open up his entire offense with Ian Book running the show.
Chip Long had Stanford off balance almost from the start the of the game with the only blemish on a whale of a game being an early 4th down call that got Notre Dame stuffed near midfield. After that, Long could almost do no wrong as Ian Book moved the Irish up and down the field at times.
Notre Dame outgained Stanford 550 to 229. The Irish ran for 272 and passed for 278 for near perfect balance. Notre Dame ran the ball 55 times. Stanford ran the ball for 55 yards. Total. Notre Dame converted on more than 50% of their 3rd downs last night (9 of 17) and converted the second 4th down they attempted.
As Book gets more and more comfortable and the Irish get more and more receivers worked into their weekly gameplans, this offense has the chance to be very good.
So many Notre Dame players stepping up and having huge games on a big stage
There was so much to like last night and some many players stepped up big time that I’m devoting the 5th thing I liked to call out a number of players individually.
- Asmar Bilal – Hands down this was the best game of Bilal’s career. He was an animal out there last night and helped keep Stanford’s dangerous tight ends in check most of the night. He also had a huge TFL of Bryce Love in the 3rd quarter to kill a Stanford drive.
- Drue Tranquill – Tranquill apparently played most of last night with a broken hand. That didn’t stop him from being all over the field and nearly coming down with a diving interception in the 3rd. Now we know why he didn’t haul it in. Huge game from the 5th year senior.
- Chase Claypool – We’ve mentioned a few times this year that Claypool’s route running and blocking have been inconsistent but that was NOT the case last night. Great blocking in the screen game and another monster special teams game.
- Miles Boykin – He was quiet last week, but was anything but last night. 11 catches for 144 after having 9 coming into the game.
- Khalid Kareem – He only got credited with one sack, but he was a huge reason the Notre Dame DL dominated the second half. He battled through a few bumps and bruises throughout the game too.
- Julian Love – Now the Notre Dame record holder for career pass breakups. Had another big time game for the Irish.
- Tyler Newsome – Punted 4 times and all 4 were 50 yards or more. Two of the four were downed inside the 20 and a 3rd had the chance to be. Had a rough start to the season, but has rebounded in a big way.
- Jonathan Doerer – Kicked off 7 times with 5 touchbacks. Kept Bryce Love from impacting the game in the return game. Had a brutal start to the year with a few kicks out of bounds, but is in a groove now.
I am going to have to get creative for the “5 Things I Didn’t Like” column this week, but don’t worry, I already have a few ideas.