SOUTH BEND — Perhaps lost in the very real big-picture implications and some glimmering historical footnotes was the real beauty of the first takedown of a top 10 opponent in a top 10 showdown in Notre Dame Stadium in 25 years.
Not in the traditional sense. But in the way Irish coach Brian Kelly has always wanted his teams to look.
Saturday night eighth-ranked Notre Dame was not only the decidedly better team in 38-17 defrocking of No. 7 Stanford, it was the team that bullied in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
When pressed about how big that gap might be between the lines, Stanford coach David Shaw — accustomed to having the edge in these matchups — shrugged.
“That is a question, isn't it?” he said. “I don't have an answer.”
Neither did the Cardinal (4-1), especially in the second half.
The burgeoning Irish defense smothered an offense that features the reigning Heisman Trophy runner-up, running back Bryce Love, and perhaps the best quarterback, in K.J. Costello, that ND (5-0) will face this season to the tune of 31 total yards and two first downs after halftime.
In the fourth quarter, the Cardinal went backwards — logging minus-13 total yards.
“We started fast, but we finished,” said Kelly, whose team had been outscored cumulatively 31-13 in its first four games but concocted a 14-0 finishing flourish Saturday night.
“And that's where you, as a football coach, when you're looking at your team, you see a resolve, a mental toughness that you're really trying to build with your group. And we saw that today.”
He also saw the dramatic re-emergence of previously suspended senior running back Dexter Williams during the first visit by a top 10 team to Notre Dame Stadium in the nine-year Kelly Era.
Inspired by his mother, Cheryl, who moved in with him for the duration of the four-game, university-imposed exile while she battled two terminal illnesses, Williams ignited the crowd with a 45-yard TD run the first time he touched the ball this season.
That gave the Irish an early 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter and set the tone for a 272-55 command in the run game by game’s end.
Williams, who had never carried the ball more than eight times in a game or 39 times in a season, amassed 21 attempts against the Cardinal for a career-high 161 yards.
“I'm really proud of his growth and his maturity,” Kelly said. “Those come first. If he wasn't growing as a young man, as a student-athlete here at Notre Dame, he wouldn't have the chance that he got here tonight.
“It's a privilege to play here, and he recognizes that. And when he got his chance, he made the best of it. And we needed him.”
Indeed. Converted wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, ND’s second-leading rusher, missed the game after suffering an infection in his left knee late this week, and likely won’t be back until after the bye week for an Oct. 27 matchup with Navy.
Kelly said the healing process required surgery.
Leading rusher Tony Jones Jr. left late in the third quarter with an ankle injury after picking up 40 yards on 10 carries.
Quarterback Ian Book was actually ND’s second-leading rusher on the night (47 yards on 15 carries), mixing those carries in around an impressive passing performance against statistically the best pass-efficiency defense the Irish will face the rest of the season.
In start No. 2 of the season and No. 3 of his career, the junior completed 24 of 33 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns, with senior Miles Boykin on the receiving end of 11 of those completions for 144 yards and a score.
Book was particularly impressive when Stanford dropped eight defenders in coverage and rushed three, a look that confounded demoted starter Brandon Wimbush — and Book himself, last week against Wake Forest.
“When they drop eight like that, we always talk about it, as the quarterback you gotta be able to go outside or use your feet,” Book said. “So it's something we worked on all week, and it's something I try to take pride in.”
The Irish finished with a 550-229 advantage in total yards, went turnover-free against the team that was seventh-best nationally in coaxing them, and put up 38 points on a team ranked 10th in scoring defense.
Senior Trevor Ruhland was part of the domineering Irish offensive line performance once standout left guard Alex Bars went down with a knee injury midway through the third quarter. Kelly said he won’t know the extent of the injury until Bars has an MRI.
Where Stanford has really had the edge in these Shaw-Kelly matchups is against the Irish defensive front. And the ND pass rush that had been chipping away with hurries and pressures this season, finally put up a big sack number — five.
Senior Jerry Tillery had four solo sacks himself, tying the school record in a game with Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri. To put that in perspective, Tillery had more Saturday night against a vaunted Stanford offensive line (and now has seven for the season) than the ND defensive line corps amassed collectively in 2016 for the entire SEASON (3).
“You can't block him one-on-one,” Kelly said. “He showed that tonight. He was outstanding. He got the game ball tonight.”
It might not have been an easy choice.
Also standing out for the defense was cornerback Julian Love, with two tackles and the record-breaking 33rd pass breakup of his career; rover Asmar Bilal, who had six tackles, a pass breakup and was stout in coverage; and linebacker Te’von Coney, with a team-high seven tackles and an interception to set up ND’s final points of the game on a 35-year Book-to-Alizé Mack scoring strike.
Bryce Love finished with 73 yards on 17 carries. Take out his 39-yard scoring run on a “structural mistake” and the Stanford senior averaged 2.1 yards a carry.
“We put them behind the chains and made them predictable,” marveled Kelly.
And because of all that, the 35th top 10 matchup in Notre Dame Stadium history became one of the more lopsided ones — certainly more so than the last time one of them went Notre Dame's way, the 31-24 upending of No. 1 Florida State by the No. 2 Irish in 1993.
“We're dominant and we're going to continue to get better,” Coney said. “We're not a finished product yet. We have a lot more work to do. We're going to go back and watch film and fix some mistakes and keep getting better each week."