- Can Notre Dame handle a Syracuse team with a dangerous offense at Yankee Stadium? If Dexter Williams keeps things up, the Irish should be in good shape.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This fall, Notre Dame remains undefeated deeper into the season than it has since 2012, when its first and only loss came in the national championship game against Alabama. With two games to go, the Irish are eyeing their first College Football Playoff berth, and they’ve gotten to this point thanks to stingy defense and a strong, if at times inconsistent, offense. The Irish have had two quarterbacks this year—first Brandon Wimbush, then Ian Book, and then Wimbush again last Saturday after Book was sidelined with a rib injury—and their star running back came into the year unproven and suspended.
At times, there have been too many interceptions and a running game that’s disappeared for entire quarters. But on Saturday night, against a run defense that entered the night allowing opponents just 111.1 yards per game, and with Wimbush starting for the first time in six weeks, the Irish offense looked like a force most teams would rather not reckon with.
There’s no questioning that Florida State is not the opponent it looked like in August—and neither was Stanford or Virginia Tech, two of the other supposed gems of the Irish’s intended-to-be-tough schedule. Still, the game was noteworthy: The Irish looked steady with their backup QB, and they established the running game in a way they hadn’t all season.
“There’s no limits on this team,” Dexter Williams, the team’s leading rusher, said. “We can go as far as we want to go.”
“This team just has a lot of grit,” he continued. “It’s a different type of energy, a different type of vibe.”
A year ago, the Irish couldn’t get past their early-November opponent from Florida: Miami exposed Notre Dame. This time around, Brian Kelly’s team cruised, and in a trick of the schedule, it’ll meet its toughest opponent since Week 1 on Saturday at Yankee Stadium: Syracuse.
Against the Orange, Notre Dame won’t face an elite defense. What it will get is the No. 7 offense, in terms of points scored, in the country. Quarterback Eric Dungey’s unit has put up an average of 44.4 points per game this season, and for the first time this year, the Irish are going to need every score they can rack up. Book, who’s been far less turnover-prone than Wimbush and has a bigger arm, should be back at quarterback; that said, Saturday’s game instilled enough confidence in Notre Dame’s No. 2 that he seems like a realistic option should anything go wrong. And if Williams can chew up the Yankee Stadium turf like he did in his final home game last week, the Irish should be able to go point-for-point with the 12th-ranked Orange.
With Book under center, Notre Dame certainly won’t need to lean on the run—but in cold November temperatures, they’re at a unique advantage: their most talented back is fresh. Williams, a senior, saw limited playing time before 2018 thanks to a stacked Notre Dame stable of rushers, including C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams. Coming into this fall, he’d carried the ball just 89 times over three seasons, but in limited play last year, he racked up 360 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per carry. Williams looked the part, and after returning from a suspension in Week 5, he’s delivered.
“He doesn’t have a lot of miles on him, and I think that helps as we go through, later in the year,” Kelly said after Saturday’s 42–13 rout of Florida State. “You know, he hasn’t played a lot. Backs that have a lot of carries, that are banged up, especially here in the month of November, have a tendency to wear down a little bit. He’s got fresh legs. He’s still learning.”
He’s learning—to the tune of 202 yards last Saturday, when he averaged 10.1 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. It was a career night for the senior, who’s had an up-and-down breakout season. The previous week against Northwestern, he’d rushed for just 56 yards on 19 attempts, and in a tight win over Pitt in October, he had just 31 yards on 13 carries. In the other four games he’s played this year, he’s hit triple digits, averaging more than 170 yards. Those have also been the Irish’s most comfortable wins since his return.
“I’m not really worried about the yards,” Williams said Saturday. “I’m not really worried about the carries. As long as my team is calling on me any time they need me, I’ll just try to get in there, spark, and be the player they need me to be.”
Against Florida State, Notre Dame showed the full arsenal of what its run game can accomplish; it finished with a season-high 365 rushing yards, averaging 7.3 yards per carry against a unit that had allowed an average of fewer than three yards per carry going into the night. On Notre Dame’s longest touchdown drive of the night, a 97-yarder in the fourth quarter, the Irish relied entirely on their running backs and the dual-threat Wimbush, who logged five first downs and 12 straight rushing plays, culminating in a 32-yard Williams run into the end zone.
After the game, Kelly was jovial with reporters, joking that it might be time to start a quarterback controversy after the offense’s success in Wimbush’s first start since September. Book will get the nod against Syracuse, though, and with him, the Irish have a quarterback who’s excelled in play action, spread-option and run-pass-option schemes, across the breadth of Notre Dame’s offensive playbook. “I think there was an emphasis that was placed on some things that put us in a better position,” Kelly said of the rushing attack against Florida State. “When you talk about running the football, it’s time and place. Our running game is tied into so many different RPOs, that if you drop down two extra defenders, we’re throwing it out, and then it’s not a run anymore.”
Before last week, Notre Dame knew it could rely on Book and its talented receiving corps. After Saturday, it has newfound confidence in Wimbush, should it need him, and yet another indication that Williams can be the man down the stretch. With a coast-to-coast jump to end the season, from Yankee Stadium to Los Angeles, it’ll need all the help it can get.