SOUTH BEND, Ind. — To watch Dexter Williams exuberantly high-step his way into the end zone all the way back on Notre Dame’s second drive of the game was to be hit with the sense, just after sunset Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium, that perhaps the Fighting Irish heard those murmuring critics call their 4-0 record the worst thing a 4-0 record can be called: unconvincing.
The senior running back’s 45-yard touchdown run to open the scoring came on his first snap of the season following a four-game suspension, and as much as his burst was an unbridled profession of joy at being back on the field, it was also something more than that. It was Notre Dame’s opening statement.
The No. 8 Irish flexed their offense under junior quarterback Ian Book and with the help of seniors Williams and Miles Boykin notched a 38-17 win over No. 7 Stanford under the lights Saturday night, their first victory in their past four meetings with the Cardinal.
It was their most convincing argument yet to be taken seriously as a College Football Playoff contender.
“I like the fact that we finished the game,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. “We started fast, but we finished. And that's where, as a football coach when you're looking at a team, you see a resolve and a mental toughness that you're really trying to build with your group, and we saw that today.”
If Notre Dame (5-0) heard the grumbles about its wins over Michigan, Ball State, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, then it’s possible it also heard pundits fretting over future matchups with Northwestern, Navy, Pittsburgh and Florida State — opponents who made up a formidable-looking schedule at the start of the season that looks less formidable with each passing week.
Stanford has serious designs on the College Football Playoff as well, but it has Arizona State and Washington waiting later this year. The Irish played like it was their last chance to make an impression.
Book, who earned his second career start just last week, made the difference for a rejuvenated offense. The junior completed 24 of 33 attempts for 278 yards and four touchdowns, and he was nimble when he needed to be, rushing for 47 yards on 15 carries. Williams helped the offense make a statement, too, rushing for 161 yards and that tone-setting touchdown on 21 attempts. Boykin, another offensive highlight, had 144 receiving yards and a touchdown on 11 catches.
The Irish’s offense looked more dynamic than it has all season, in no small part because of Williams.
“His nickname is Juice for a reason,” Boykin said. “He just lets the energy go, and it’s contagious.”
“We have no chance to win football games against great competition,” Kelly said, “especially top-10, unless you can find a running game. And we felt like this was a team that, if you're going to have a chance to beat them, you have to run the football.”
The Irish won the first half in an offensive shootout, but it was their defense that closed the door on another late-game Stanford comeback. The Cardinal ran 51 plays to Notre Dame’s 88 and was outgained 550 to 229.
In a fourth quarter Notre Dame absolutely controlled, Stanford held the ball for less than five minutes. The Irish effectively sealed the win when senior linebacker Te’von Coney intercepted Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello with 8:10 to play to set up the Irish’s final score.
“You have to put together four quarters when you play Stanford,” Kelly said. “We have a history with this football team in that the fourth quarter has not been strong for us, and we knew especially last week in the way they came back that we would have to play four quarters if we were going to win this football game.”
As effective as their lasting determination was Notre Dame’s nullification of 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love. The running back had just 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries Saturday night, a year after the running back unleashed 125 yards on the Irish at home.
The Irish’s strategy on the elusive Love, the target of every defense he has met this year, was simple: The play wasn’t over until two Notre Dame bodies had attached to Love’s.
“It was just sticking to the game plan,” Coney said. “We had talked about it, prepared for it all week, and it was just about executing.”
The defense sacked Costello, so instrumental in the Cardinal’s comeback against Oregon last week, five times. The junior completed 15 of 27 attempts for 174 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, Notre Dame players felt as confident as Williams looked on his way to the end zone. A résumé win is that much sweeter when it comes against a rival that most of the team’s biggest contributors had never beaten.
“I couldn’t tell you where our ceiling is, honestly,” Boykin said. “If we play like this for the rest of the season . . . obviously we played well tonight, but we can get a lot better. It’s almost scary to think about what we can do.”