NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Dexter Williams couldn’t have conjured up a better reintroduction to Notre Dame Stadium.
Not only was the senior running back eager to offer his football services in his first game of the 2018 season, he was ready and willing to provide any emotional boosts his team needed in a match-up of top-10 teams with No. 7 Stanford in town.
Williams did all that in just his first carry Saturday night, bursting through a seam for an untouched 45-yard touchdown to stake the No. 8 Irish to a 7-0 first-quarter lead en route to the 38-17 victory over the Cardinal.
They’ve called him “The Juice” since high school for a reason.
“I have to be that spark for my teammates,” Williams said. “I have to be the one that comes in and gets everybody hyped.
“It was an amazing feeling being in that end zone, hearing the crowd roar and being able to celebrate with my teammates. That’s a feeling that I haven’t had in a long time, so to get that feeling of celebrating with them and my coaches was one of the best feelings ever.”
But he didn’t stop there.
Entering Saturday’s game, Williams hadn’t recorded a carry since New Years’ Day when he tallied two rushes for 36 yards against LSU in the Citrus Bowl. His last rushing attempt on this field came against Wake Forest on Nov. 4, 2017 — nearly 11 months ago.
After all that time, Williams figured there was none left to waste. After his initial 45-yard ramble, he tacked on another 116 for a career-high 161 yards (his previous high was 124 yards last season against Temple), averaging 7.7 yards per rush and laying the the groundwork for the rest of the offense. Notre Dame’s 272 yards on the ground were a season best, while its 550 yards of total offense more than doubled Stanford’s 229.
Not only that, but Williams’ 21 carries were six more than the next leading rusher — quarterback Ian Book — and 11 more than than the next leading running back, Tony Jones Jr.
“He was very juiced up,” Book said. “Dexter’s such an explosive guy who brings a lot of emotion to the game, and he loves football. I just knew this couldn’t be a better week for him to come back. And I’m just excited for him. That first touch was just great to see him go score.”
It was a night the Irish needed after learning late in the week that leading scorer Jafar Armstrong would be unavailable due to a knee infection. Equally as important was maintaining the momentum in the run game, which had been steadily improving week-by-week in terms of total yards.
Through the season’s first four games, the Irish had averaged 183.8 yards per game on the ground, good for 4.2 yards per carry. By the end of Saturday’s game, that number had improved — modestly — to 201.4 yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush, thanks in large part to Williams’ efforts.
“It’s a privilege to play here and (Williams) recognizes that,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “When he got his chance, he made the best of it. And we needed him. We got unexpected news late Thursday that Jafar Armstrong was not going to be able to play. And so put him in an even brighter light, in a sense. But he was up to the task.
“He had been practicing with us and stayed on top of everything. And he did the right things.”
“I just had to step up, knowing my brother was down,” Williams said. “I told (Armstrong) before the game that I was going to play for him and he didn’t have to worry about anything tonight. (Running backs) Coach (Autry) Denson talked with me before the game and he just said, ‘You have to be that guy, be that spark.’ That’s what I had to do for my brothers.”