SOUTH BEND — Waking on Saturday morning to go to work later that night in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in three weeks, sophomore running back Kyren Williams didn’t know what the rest of the day, or night, would hold.
He didn’t know that he’d fumble the first time he touched the ball against Florida State. He didn’t know that he would go long stretches as the best player on the field. He didn’t know that he’d end up rushing for over 100 yards before the end of the first quarter, or finish with a career-high 185 yards and two touchdowns as No. 5 Notre Dame rolled to a 42-26 victory.
What Williams did know, what he reminded himself at the team’s downtown hotel, was that it still was football, something Williams has been playing since second grade back in St. Louis. Don't overthink everything. Just go play.
Still, Saturday was different, as different as it’s ever been for this group for the first and hopefully the last time in what already has been a strange college football season. How strange? The post-game Zoom press conference format proved a little more problematic for the Irish and coach Brian Kelly than the previous three-plus hours against the Seminoles.
Florida State offered its share of concerns, and it didn’t help when the Williams fumble was an express trip to an early Irish deficit. But that’s the way this one was going to go. Some good moments. Some not-so-good moments. There were times when Notre Dame looked a lot like the fifth-ranked team in the country. There were times when it looked like a team that had sat around too many days and collectively wondered if they would ever get back to something like Saturday.
This one wasn’t going to be pretty. Not from your view from the couch in front of the television at home. Or in the sparse stands of Notre Dame Stadium. Not even from the ninth-floor press box on the stadium’s east side, which felt like a house where the tenants had long moved out and had left only a few work chairs. And a couple dozen hot dogs.
You can't put any football team, let alone a collection of college kids, on ice for three weeks the way the Irish were forced to cool it and expect them to pick up where they left off. It doesn’t happen.
Notre Dame (3-0; 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) showed some signs of rust, but way more signs of resilience. In the same game. Sometimes, in the same series. The Irish weren’t great, but current events being current events weren’t going to let them be. Not Saturday. Not yet.
“We didn’t have our ‘A' game,” Kelly said in his post-game radio interview. “There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s not something I want to do again.”
Yet the Irish proved they could do it. Teams like Notre Dame have plenty to win with and win easily with when it’s a ‘B’ or ‘C’ game.
No matter what the Seminoles did, and there were moments when they did a lot, there never was any sense that the Irish were in trouble. Like, uh-oh, here's where it all goes sideways. This game. This season. This everything. Not with this team. There's too much experience. Too much talent. Too much resolve. Too much everything.
The Irish weren’t game ready. They weren't sharp. They tried to be, but probably overworked themselves trying to get there. You could see it on defense. You could see it on special teams. You could sense it. The Irish fought through it and wouldn’t allow the layoff to be a crutch. Gotta go play, so play.
Nothing underscored that more than the early Williams fumble.
“I had to get into my groove," Williams said. "We had to get into our groove."
Notre Dame collectively shook free from that early Williams fumble, then scored on six of their next eight possessions. Anything offensive coordinator Tommy Rees dialed up seemed to hit. A Williams run. A Chris Tyree sweep. Ian Book working the tight ends. And a career night from Javon McKinley, the latest wide receiver flavor of the week. All of it added up to 554 yards of total offense.
Saturday saw a big dose of Williams. A year ago, that early fumble would’ve put his backside on the bench for the rest of the game, and maybe even the rest of the season. That’s what happened when he looked so unsure at Louisville in the 2019 opener. But Kelly and Rees stayed with Williams, and he delivered.
“We just reminded him of ball security,” Kelly said. “He’s a great competitor and he bounced back.”
As much fight as Florida State showed, and as many yards as it gashed coordinator Clark Lea’s defense for (405 total yards), you never got the feeling that the Seminoles were going to do enough to make this that interesting. They were close, yes, but never close enough. Even up in a near-deserted press box, the overall intrigue level barely registered.
“They were bringing it to us with the run game,” said Irish safety Kyle Hamilton, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles. “Slowly, they started to fade away. We got stronger as the game went on.”
Other than Clemson next month, the previous three weeks might be the toughest opponent Notre Dame faces this season. There was the stop, then the restart, then the let's-get-back-in-game-mode urgency. That was hard on everyone, because no one knew what was coming next. More positive tests? A green light to get back to business?
Doubt duked it out with determination. The determination won.
Kelly said Saturday felt like a season opener, and in a lot of ways, it was. Teams don't play two games, then take three weeks off in any sport. The calendar’s heading toward the middle of October but this felt a lot like late August. So much uncertainty. There were sputters. There was some good stuff. Still, Notre Dame eventually had to restart and it did Saturday. The Irish worked through it and got past it. Now it’s time to go.
Barely an hour after this one went final, the area surrounding the stadium was void of any evidence that a game had been played. Everything had cleared out and everyone had gone home. It was eerily quiet.
What already has been an eventful and uneven season could use some of that. Some quiet. Some normalcy. Some routine.
Saturday was a good start. Toward what, let's not even try to guess. It's football. Go play.