The timing could not have been better for NBC play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico and color commentator Tony Dungy.
They lauded Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams for his pass-protection skills as the Irish lined up for a third-and-11 against Clemson early in the fourth quarter. Then, right on cue, the sophomore picked up blitzing safety Joseph Charleston off the edge from his left. Williams’ effort afforded quarterback Ian Book enough time to connect with tight end Michael Mayer on a crossing pattern for a 29-yard gain.
That play extended a drive that ended with three points for the No. 4 Irish (7-0, 6-0 ACC) in their thrilling 47-40 double-overtime win over the top-ranked Tigers (7-1, 6-1) at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night.
“I know we are social distancing and we don’t go into crowds right now, but if I’m going into a crowd, I’m taking Kyren Williams with me,” said Tirico on the broadcast before the third-down conversion. “He has been an NFL-level blitz pickup tonight. He has been incredible.”
Producing numbers has not been a problem for Williams this season. He continued his hot streak in career start No. 7, turning 23 carries into 140 yards and three touchdowns. But what Williams did that does not show up on the stat sheet also made a significant difference.
After halftime, Book threw 25 passes. He was not sacked once during that stretch, not even when the Irish ended regulation with 15 passes on 17 plays. Williams played a major role in keeping Book protected, stymying pass rushers on multiple occasions.
Book completed 22-of-39 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 64 yards on 14 attempts.
“As a running back, we have a motto called B.A.M. — by any means,” Williams said. “So as a running back, you’ve got to be able to do everything in the game. That’s all aspects: catching the ball, running the ball and blocking. I just feel like that’s part of the game that I enjoy a lot. I don’t ever shy away from contact. So whenever I see a blitz rusher, I’m going to take him on how I see and what I feel best.”
Tiger defensive coordinator Brent Venables is known for confusing offenses with his complex, aggressive scheme. For the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Williams to impress as a blocker against Venables’ defense shows how polished and complete his game already is in year two.
Which is significant when considering Williams’ journey from his high school days to now.
When Williams entered the football program of St. John Vianney High, a private, all-male Catholic school in Kirkwood, Mo., he was one of the smallest players on the team at 5-9, 160 pounds. Williams did not play full-time running back until his junior season. He even told college colleges he wanted to play slot receiver.
That aspiration changed as Williams grew physically and he started playing running back in 2017. Still, Williams needed to continue developing. He came to Notre Dame in January 2019 as a slightly overweight, early-enrolled freshman at 210 pounds. He redshirted after seeing limited action in four games last season. Through dieting and training, Williams dropped 15 pounds and improved his straight-line speed this past offseason.
The difference could be seen on the first official play from scrimmage Saturday night — a 65-yard touchdown run from Williams. He burst through a hole on the left side of the offensive line, used a juke move to slip past Clemson safety Nolan Turner when matched up with him one-on-one, and was not caught.
In each of the overtime periods, Williams scored on three-yard runs.
“That was another point of emphasis this week: it was going to be a dogfight, so we’ve got to punch them in the mouth first before they punched us,” Williams said. “We knew that coming in on offense, we would have to be dialed in on all the levels of execution. We punched them in the mouth first and then react to what they do.”
Williams recorded his fourth game with multiple touchdowns this season, which ties C.J. Prosise (2015) for the most by an Irish player in the last 20 years. Former Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (four) was the last running back to total at least three rushing touchdowns against Clemson, on Oct. 29, 2016.
Backup Irish running backs C’Bo Flemister (one carry for five yards) and Chris Tyree (minus-four yards on two attempts) saw limited action. Williams received the bulk of the workload. His effectiveness beside Book on third-and-long made him too valuable to keep off the field.
“Our confidence the whole game never switched. We stayed even-keeled,” Williams said. “That was our big point of attack this game, to stay cool, calm and collected as an offense. We knew that no matter what, when we go on the field, we are going to do our thing. And we did that.
"Obviously it turned out so that we came out on top. So that’s big for our offense going into next week. Like I said, the confidence is really high.”
Good pass protection from Williams would not have meant much had Book struggled in the passing game.
Book started the game 5-of-5 through the air before throwing his first incompletion with 13:20 left in the second quarter. The graduate senior recorded the eighth 300-yard passing game of his career and came through in the clutch when it mattered most.
With 22 seconds remaining in regulation, Book connected with wide receiver Avery Davis on a four-yard touchdown pass to send the game to overtime. The play capped an eight-play, 91 yards drive that lasted 86 seconds. Williams turned his lone carry on that possession into 15 yards to convert a third-and-1.
“That’s Ian. That’s what he does. Big stakes, big game — he’s there,” Williams said. “He’s going to make those plays. We trusted him all night. He never let us down. As an offense, he was the one who kept us going. That kept us alive. We trusted him a whole lot tonight. That’s our quarterback for a reason.”
Notre Dame likely will face Clemson again in the ACC Championship Game scheduled for Dec. 19 in Charlotte, N.C.
And the Tigers could look like a completely different team. They were without several key players against the Irish, including star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. His COVID-19 test from Oct. 28 came out positive, keeping him out for two games.
The following Tiger starters also were unavailable: wide receivers Justyn Ross (spine) and Frank Ladson (hip), defensive tackle Justin Foster (undisclosed), defensive tackle Tyler Davis (ankle), linebackers Mike Jones Jr. (hamstring) and James Skalski (groin). Wide receiver Joseph Ngata, defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and left guard Matt Bockhorst were notable Clemson players who left the game with apparent injuries.
“I think it’s very likely,” said Irish linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on if he sees them playing the Tigers again on Dec. 19. “Clemson’s a great team. They’ll get Trevor back in a few days. The team is really good. They have a lot of guys, a lot of assets.
"I’m sure the whole world thinks we’ll see them again. It will be a great experience to see them again as well.”
• Notre Dame boasts the longest active winning streak (13) and second-longest home winning streak (23). The Irish have started the season 7-0 for the third time under head coach Brian Kelly.
• Only Alabama (10) has defeated the Associated Press’ No. 1 team more times than Notre Dame (nine) in history. Miami also has nine such wins. The Irish scored the most points (47) against an AP No. 1 opponent in program history.
• Clemson running back Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, entered the game averaging 86.6 yards per game. He had just 18 carries for 28 yards but caught eight passes for 57 yards. The Tigers averaged 167 rushing yards per game entering the matchup. They were limited to 34 rushing yards on 33 attempts. The last time Clemson rushed for less than 34 yards was against Nebraska on Jan. 1, 2009 (four).
• For the first time since 2016 (Syracuse), Notre Dame scored an offensive touchdown on its first official play. Clemson had not yielded a touchdown on its opening play in the last 15 seasons.
• Place-kicker Jonathan Doerer set a Notre Dame record with 18 kicking points. The senior connected on six extra points and field goals from 24, 27, 44 and 45 yards. He missed a 57-yard field goal attempt as the clock expired to end the first half.
• With five catches for 102 yards, Irish wide receiver Javon McKinley eclipsed 90 yards receiving for the third time this season.
• Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah scored Notre Dame’s first defensive touchdown this season with his 23-yard fumble return in the second quarter.
• Defensive end Daelin Hayes represented Notre Dame for the coin toss to open the game and before overtime.