Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame, Brian Kelly excise road demons in dominant second half display

BLACKSBURG, Va. — For all intents and purposes, Notre Dame’s win on Saturday night was more than just another top-25 notch in the belt. It was a victory that not only gave the Irish a 6-0 start for the first time since 2014, but also helped erase a narrative that has plagued Brian Kelly’s program — the inability to win in hostile environments.

As much as Kelly tried this week to dismiss the impact of Notre Dame’s dismantling at Miami last season in the buildup to Lane Stadium, the Irish clearly learned their lesson. While the offensive showing was impressive and the defense continued to make stops, it was Notre Dame’s ability to take punches in stride that proved the ultimate difference-maker Saturday.

Irish senior running back Dexter Williams celebrates while scoring his third touchdown of the game during Notre Dame's 45-23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
Irish senior running back Dexter Williams celebrates while scoring his third touchdown of the game during Notre Dame's 45-23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.

Despite jumping out to an early 10-0 lead with scores on their first two drives, the Irish offense sputtered as the Hokies settled in behind their crowd. Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book had receivers open downfield, but couldn’t hit them, and the Virginia Tech run defense stifled the Irish line and senior running back Dexter Williams. The mistakes started to add up — first a poor long snap on a punt gave the Hokies great field position, and two drives later junior quarterback Ian Book threw his first interception of the year to give the Hokies another great chance at seven. But the Irish defense managed to hold firm both times, and forced field goals that cut the lead to 10-9.

“Our guys rallied together, like ‘we want this stop right now,’” junior defensive end Khalid Kareem said. “Holding them to a field goal, that’s the best option we had right there.”

Even after an incredible hustle play by Kareem forced a fumble which junior corner Julian Love took 42 yards to the house to momentarily silence the crowd, the Hokies answered with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that saw Irish junior defensive end Julian Okwara ejected for targeting and a touchdown right at the end of the half to seize back the momentum.

But instead of a collapse, Notre Dame made the necessary adjustments; not just to respond, but to dominate.

“[We wanted] to go out there and step on their throats and to put them out and finish a game on the road,” Irish graduate student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “I think it’s our first road win against a ranked opponent since 2012 [sic], and to go out there and get the job done — almost pitch a shutout defensively in the second half — and see the offense really go out there and close the game was big.”

It was a complete team effort in the second half, and it started off with a bang. After Tech entered Irish territory, Notre Dame’s defense held firm and forced a punt from the 42-yard line, which was downed at the five. After a two-yard loss on a rushing attempt on first down, the second play of the drive would also be the last. Williams found a hole after a great blocking sequence by the Irish line — which was still coping with the loss of graduate student captain Alex Bars — and sprinted 97 yards for the score.

“It was just amazing to come out here in the second half and start it off the right way, and be that spark for my team, being able to finish that run and make my offensive line happy. I couldn’t do it without them boys, so I had to show them all the love and support,” Williams said of the play. “My eyes lit up, I was like, ‘Wow, this hole is big,’ and I had to hit it and finish the run, because I knew if I didn’t finish it, I’d hear a lot of talk from my offensive line and my coaches, so I just had to finish the run.”

After the Hokies missed a 47-yard field goal, Notre Dame and Book took over. On third-and-eight from the Stanford 40, the junior managed to escape the pocket and scrambled out to the left. When the Tech secondary bit, Book managed to find a wide-open Miles Boykin, and the senior receiver ran 40 yards for another score.

“I had a shaky first half, and that’s something I really wanted to take back and forget about,” Book, who finished 25-35 for 271 yards, said. “[I wanted to] start 0-0 and start over the second half and just play Notre Dame football the way we play.”

“He hit some big, big throws, too,” Kelly echoed. “I mean, if you look at some of the throws that he hit to extend drives, they were pretty good. He was a little flat with throws, he missed some of the big ones down the field. When the ball comes out flat, level one not level two, he’s a little excited and those throws he’ll hit. But he hit some of those big throws to keep the chains moving on third down. Ian Book, I got no problem with the game he played today.”

After a pair of traded drives, the Hokies missed another field goal, and the Irish made them pay. Notre Dame marched down the field with 11 plays for 64 yards, culminating in another Book-to-Boykin score. Just like that, the Irish had put 21 unanswered on the Hokies and had silenced Lane Stadium.

In the second half, Notre Dame scored a touchdown on four of its six drives. The Hokies managed only one score in seven drives, despite facing a depleted Irish front that was also missing junior Daelin Hayes.

“Before we even left, the whole defensive unit told Daelin, ‘We got your back, we’ll step up for you,’” Kareem said of Clark Lea’s unit and its motivation. “Then Julian [got ejected], we let him know, ‘We got your back,’ so that just gave us more fire to go out there and make plays.

“ … It’s just the next man in mentality. We’ve been preaching that for so long, and in practice, we’re just trying to do our jobs to the best of our ability, and we’re gonna come out in the game and do the same thing.”

By the time Dexter Williams sprinted another 31 yards to put Notre Dame up 45-23 with 4:50 to go, Tech fans were streaming out of the stadium. After the win, the Irish sang the alma mater in the away fan corner, lacking a band but still flooding the whole stadium with the sound of Notre Dame’s anthem. It was a stark difference to “Enter Sandman” just a few hours earlier — and Miami’s filling of Hardrock Stadium with “Kiss Him Goodbye” last November.

“It definitely prepared us a lot,” Williams said about what Notre Dame learned from South Beach.  “Going through practice each and every day listening to the Sandman for the whole entire practice, it was so loud, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m tired of hearing this song.’ It was like we gotta come out and get this win for Notre Dame, and our coaches and our whole entire team.

“ … We just gotta keep going, day by day and take each game one by one and just continue to focus on us and continue to strive for greatness.”