Ladies and gentlemen, start your Notre Dame playoff scenarios.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) September 30, 2018
This is not a conversation I thought we would be having a couple of weeks ago, but Notre Dame is officially in the race after creaming Stanford Saturday 38-17.
Before the game, at least one 18S writer asked the group why he was getting 2017 USC vibes from this game. I confess I was getting them a little bit as well. But I still didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect Ian Book to play basically the same lights-out game he did a week ago, I didn’t expect Dexter Williams to go straight to Pissed-Off Wildebeest Mode in his first game, and I didn’t expect the Irish’s front four to largely dominate the game, especially the fourth quarter. (That Jerry Tillery sequence on Stanford’s final drive was…it was awesome.)
Here are some awesome things:
First and foremost, holy crap, Ian Book. I know this isn’t the same sort of ‘punch you in the mouth’ Stanford defense as the Cardinal sometimes has had, but they’re way better than Wake Forest. Not that Book seemed to notice as he averaged almost 8.5 yards per pass attempt and made just about every big throw he needed to make. Just like last week, he was pretty much on target almost every time he threw the ball. And in case anyone was concerned he couldn’t do the athletic stuff Wimbush can, just show the replay of that TD pass to Chase Claypool on loop. (The flawless two-minute drive leading up to it wasn’t bad either.)
He even capped it off with his flip to Jahmir Smith for a first down in the final minutes, a true “I’m Keith Hernandez” moment if ever there was one. Book was the toast of college football last week, and he will be even more so this week.
When Jafar Armstrong was revealed to have a knee infection Friday, the first thought most ND fans had was something along the lines of “Dexter better be ready”. Well, he pretty well answered that question by going 45 yards to the house on his first touch of the season. And while that was the last huge run he broke off, most of the rest of his carries were very effective. He averaged close to eight yards per carry on 21 carries – over half of his 2017 season total. We’d been waiting to see what the Irish running game can be with Williams. It turns out it can go from ‘occasionally effective’ to ‘legitimate weapon’.
We don’t know how long Armstrong will be out, but Williams and Jones with a dash of Avery Davis should be a solid group, and when Jafar returns, the Irish will boast a very, very good RB trio, probably as good as they’ve had since the 1990s.
The defensive line
Holy magical mother of Betsy, that front four. Tillery’s four sacks were the most by an Irish player since 2005. (I’m assuming Victor Abiamiri?) Khalid Kareem got to K.J. Costello several times, even hobbled by an ankle injury. Julian Okwara is a straight-up homing missile on some plays. The D-line was also directly responsible for three different coulda-been INTs. Costello will need an ice bath like no other.
It’s been no secret that the lack of a difference-making front four has been an Achilles heel just about every year other than 2012 since probably the Justin Tuck era. ND has a difference-making front four right now, and they just proved it by MANBALLing the crap out of the most MANBALL team there is west of Tuscaloosa.
Here’s a number:
Notre Dame Rushed 55 times
Stanford got 55 rushing yards
— James Briggs (@fighting4jesus) September 30, 2018
Also, Stanford ran 51 plays to those 55 rushing attempts (88 plays overall).
The schedule going forward
No ND fan is dumb enough to count chickens before they’re hatched anymore. We’ve seen the movie before, especially in the Kelly era. That being said, it’s hard to ask for a much more navigable slate the rest of the way.
If ND beats Virginia Tech next week (and that’s ‘if’, not ‘when’; the one thing this team hasn’t done yet is win in a tough road environment like Blacksburg at night), you’re looking at a schedule that includes a pretty good Syracuse team, a USC squad that might have it put together to some extent by November (and both of those games are away) and a bunch of teams ND has no business losing to.
The bad news there is that ND may not be able to afford a loss. The good news is there may not be a team left capable of delivering that loss unless the Irish screw it up (and yes, we know they can).
The only bad news: Alex Bars. It didn’t look good. Get well soon, big man. Hope Trevor Ruhland is up to the task.
A playoff bid might hang in the balance, after all.
(Photo credit: Indianapolis Star)