Some nights it all works.
Some nights the play-calling, the execution, the urgency, the motivation and the preparation all intersect perfectly.
Or, as it said on one of the white boards in the Notre Dame football locker room Saturday, “Reach deep into your souls tonight to go to that place you’ve never been before.”
That’s where the Irish traveled Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.
Some nights it all works.
That’s precisely what happened as eighth-ranked Notre Dame (now 5-0) clearly and cleanly dispatched seventh-rated and previously unbeaten Stanford (now 4-1) by a 38-17 accounting.
“Lock arms. We’re all in this together,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly told his players a few minutes before kickoff.
“We’ve got a great plan, and now you’ve got to execute that plan. You have prepared well, we’ve pushed you during the week. Now you have to go out and execute. You have to bring everything else now.
“It’s that sense of urgency, players playing through every single play. You have to do that, we can’t do that for you.
“All those things are there for you – now you’ve got to tap into them. That’s your responsibility.
“It’s Notre Dame football – our tradition, our standard. It’s your time. They’re here to see you play.
“There will be some ups and downs, no doubt. But we stay together, every single play. It’s called grit. And we’ll come out victorious because that’s who we are.
“Let’s go win a football game.”
Maybe Irish fans should have appreciated how the night would unfold on the very first possession of the game when Stanford ran three plays for zero yards, including two runs by star back Bryce Love for no gain.
On Notre Dame’s second possession the Irish unleashed junior running back Dexter Williams who burst 45 yards for a touchdown on his first carry of the season.
The Cardinal immediately matched that – with Love sprinting 39 yards to tie the contest 7-7 just 10 minutes into the game.
After its initial 85-yard scoring drive Notre Dame added another of 77 yards – with quarterback Ian Book completing a key fourth-and-two pass to tight end Cole Kmet for 19 yards. Book’s six-yard throw to a wide-open Nic Weishar made it 14-7 as the first period closed. The Irish ran for 120 ground yards in those opening 15 minutes.
Stanford came right back, as quarterback K.J. Costello completed nine straight passes (after missing on his first three) and orchestrated an 84-yard Cardinal TD march that tied the game 14-14.
Maybe the most momentum-changing drive of the opening half came when Notre Dame took over at its own 20 with 2:03 to go until halftime. Instead of simply running out the clock, the Irish took the aggressive route.
Finding a match-up he liked, Book fired to Miles Boykin on first down for 12 yards. After a Book run for four, the Irish quarterback completed passes to Boykin on three consecutive plays to the Stanford 12. Those four throws to Boykin came in a little more than a minute and covered 64 yards.
Book’s scrambling translated to an on-the-move bullet to an open Chase Claypool in the end zone with 39 ticks remaining – and Notre Dame led 21-14 at the break.
Said Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long at intermission, “I want this second half dominated with our physicality. Nobody turns down a hit.”
Added Kelly as the Irish prepared to take the field, “This starts with effort and enthusiasm in the third quarter. And we finish strong. That’s how we play four quarters. You knew coming in this was going to take four quarters. This isn’t going to be the only battle we’re in this year.
“You’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to be gritty because your opponent is going to be there for four quarters.
“In the battle tonight you’ve got to do your job — and we’ll take that trophy back into this locker room. But we’ve got work to do.
“It’s old-fashioned Notre Dame football. Let’s go to work.”
After the teams traded punts, Notre Dame drove 56 yards – featuring a big third-down completion to Chris Finke for 16 yards – to a 37-yard Justin Yoon field goal that made it 24-14. On the way Williams passed the 100-yard mark in rushing. Stanford matched that with a 46-yard three-pointer from Jet Toner at the 2:16 mark of the third period.
Looking for another indication of the Irish domination? The Stanford rushing total in the third period was zero yards (on four attempts).
Maintaining a 24-17 advantage heading to the final quarter, Notre Dame saw it all go the Irish way.
A third-down rush by Love netted a loss of two yards on impressive backside pursuit from Julian Okwara. Love headed limping to the locker room moments later. He finished with 73 rushing yards on 17 tries (plus one reception for seven yards and a kickoff return for 23).
Taking over on his own 42, Book found Boykin and Claypool on successive third-down conversions – ultimately throwing to Boykin for the final eight yards and a 31-17 edge for the home team.
Next, Te’von Coney stepped in front of Cardinal tight end Kaden Smith on first down for his first career interception.
A brilliant play call on Notre Dame’s first play saw Book sprint out right, then throw back across the field to a wide-open Alize Mack for a 35-yard TD play.
It was 38-17 and the celebration was on after two TDs in 14 seconds.
Stanford ran seven plays in the final period for a net minus-13 yards.
The lone Cardinal pass attempt in the last 15 minutes became the Coney pickoff.
Stanford ran only 20 second-half plays for 31 net yards.
Notre Dame finished with 550 total yards. Williams ran for 161 yards, Boykin caught 11 passes for 144 yards and Book completed 24 of 33 throws for 278 yards and four TDs.
“It’s a night I’ll never forget,” Book said later.
Jerry Tillery made four sacks and earned the game ball. On successive plays in the second half he forced Costello to fumble and then sacked him for an eight-yard loss.
“This is why our kids come to Notre Dame,” Kelly said later.
The Irish ran 37 more plays than Stanford did – and held the ball for nearly nine more minutes.
Though Notre Dame came in with four victories, several of its triumphs featured third and fourth periods with middling results.
Not this time.
“We had guys making plays and we were up to the task,” said Kelly. “Our defense tonight was really good at taking away what their strengths are.”
Some nights it all works.
The postgame scene in the Irish locker room involved a serious level of exhilaration, dancing and yelling.
“Number one, a sense of urgency was on display for four quarters,” Kelly told his team.
“You finished the game, right? We started fast and we finished strong. That was four quarters of Notre Dame football.
“That’s how you have to play the game every week. You guys did it.
“That scoreboard reads what you wanted it to read. You controlled it tonight. Make no mistake about it. That was a complete victory from the start to the finish.
“That is Notre Dame football and that is our standard that you left out there for everybody to see.”
Kelly has actively embraced the many Irish rivalry trophies – and he was not shy about making sure his players knew that the Legends Trophy (for the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry) had been missing for a few years (after three straight Stanford wins in the series).
Kelly introduced former Irish All-American and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Casper to present the trophy.
Kelly then dumped a bottle of red Gatorade into the crystal bowl and proceeded to drain it (maybe a little bit dripped).
Notre Dame’s head coach suggested that the remaining Irish slate looks like “climbing Mt. Everest.”
Yet whatever those challenges involve, this Notre Dame team in a span of a couple of Saturdays feels a lot better about its ability to surmount them.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.