Nov. 13, 2016
By John Heisler
Maybe it was the Shamrock Series environment where Notre Dame’s football team is now a perfect 8-0 in those contests.
Maybe it had to do with the Irish spending two weeks working against the triple option—and improving their defensive approach and production.
Maybe it had a little to do with Army’s starting quarterback, Ahmad Bradshaw, sitting out due to an undisclosed knee injury.
Maybe Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s squad was simply tired of coming up a little short on the scoreboard.
Probably it was a little bit of all of those.
After another week’s worth of practices and hours of meetings, maybe the most impactful words of the day came about two and a half hours prior to kickoff in San Antonio from Kelly in a ballroom at La Cantera 20 miles north of the Alamodome.
First Notre Dame’s coach noted all the factors that play into a football game—from eliminating foolish mistakes, big plays and missed assignments, to getting the opponent off the field on third down and staying on the field on third down on offense, to scoring touchdowns in the red zone and winning the kicking game.
“But above all that at some point,” offered Kelly with particular emphasis, “you’ve got to say, ‘Not today. Not today--it’s not happening.’
“You have to say in your own mind, ‘It’s not happening today. We’re not going to lose.’
“We know what the factors are, but the will to win is greater than all of those. You have to decide that today is the day that we refuse to lose. Under any circumstances we do not lose. That takes care of all those factors.
“You’re gonna fight for every inch, for every blade of grass. And you just decide today, ‘We are not losing.’ It’s that simple. Because mentally you’ll be stronger individually and collectively as a team—and you’ll win a football game.
“It’s a mindset, a determination and a will to win. That’s the mental edge.”
A dominating Irish offense that notched TDs on five of its first six possessions (and a field goal on the sixth) never gave Army a chance. C.J. Sanders set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 92 yards for a score—and the defense held the Black Knights in check all afternoon.
The end result? Kelly’s crew roared to a 38-6 halftime advantage on the way to a 44-6 final score—in a game in which the Irish looked nothing like the 3-6 record they brought into the contest.
In the locker room just prior to kickoff Kelly referenced Rocky Bleier, the former Irish running back and Vietnam veteran who served as the honorary Irish captain during the coin toss:
“I want to give him the game ball for what he’s given to our country and our University. You’ve gotta get that done. There’s no other option. Period.
“You are playing a team that will fight you for four quarters. You’ve got to match that and make a stand.”
Sanders started things with a bang—and quarterback DeShone Kizer made certain the Irish offense did its part. Benefitting from solid pass protection all day, Kizer put the Black Knights on notice that Notre Dame would be testing an undersized Army secondary—and early success in that category simply made it easier for Notre Dame to run the ball.
Irish linebacker coach Mike Elston said before the game to his defense, “We’ve seen this offense once already. You’ve gotta do your job better than last week.” Even former Irish All-American Jaylon Smith offered a few words of pregame wisdom to his former defensive mates.
Army’s first two possessions netted a combined minus-10 yards and two punts—and a third straight Notre Dame TD drive made it 21-0 just more than 11 minutes into the contest.
At intermission Notre Dame held advantages of 16-4 in first downs and 287-111 in total yards. Army had yet to complete a pass, while Kizer’s line already read 13 of 19 for 171 yards and three TDs.
At halftime, Kelly offered, “Let me remind you who you’re playing. You’re playing Army. You’re playing a group of guys that have an immense amount of pride in what they do and the sacrifices they make to play this game. They will come after you in the second half. You better be prepared to give it back to them.
“I want a complete four quarters of effort. I want to see this football team change its demeanor in the second half--let’s execute for four quarters. There is no letdown, there is no stopping. I don’t want to see anything else but four quarters of getting after them when you’re out there.
“You executed extremely well in the first half, but this game is four quarters. This is a great test—can you do this for four quarters?
“Do you have the mental toughness to put your opponent away?
“They’re not put away. You’re gonna have to do that.”
The Irish went a long way to accomplishing that on the opening drive of the third period. Army used a 40-yard run by Darnell Woolfolk to navigate to the Notre Dame nine. But Greer Martini made a tackle for a loss of two yards, then he sacked quarterback Chris Carter for minus-five—and Army missed a 33-yard field goal attempt. The only other Black Knight opportunity ended with a Julian Love interception at the Irish one midway through the final period. Notre Dame ran for 145 yards in the final two periods.
The Irish literally ran off the final 8:51 of the game—a week after being on the other end of that in Jacksonville.
Kizer threw for 209 yards and ran for 72 more. Tarean Folston ran for 81 of his 84 yards after halftime, and Josh Adams contributed 70 ground yards. Rookie Kevin Stepherson had five receptions for 75 yards (including a 37-yarder for Notre Dame’s first offensive TD) and tight end and Texas product Durham Smythe had a pair of TD receptions. James Onwualu made 13 tackles and option specialist Martini added nine.
“Any time on defense you hold an option team to six points that’s a great job,” Kelly told his team after the victory. “Great job following the game plan defensively—that’s how it comes together. Sacks coming off the edge, we had interceptions, we had pass breakups—we had guys doing their jobs, guys that don’t get the recognition but they are doing their jobs. Middle linebackers that have to go in there and do the dirty work today—the two tackles that had to be in the ‘A’ gaps—that was hard work but you did your job and we won the football game.
“Offensively, starting the way we did on special teams is the way to begin a ballgame. That’s 14 out of 16 possessions we’ve scored points going back to the Miami game. Effectively doing it on the offensive side, defensively and special teams—all three units, that’s what it takes to win football games. That’s what’s happening right now.
“The guy that gets the game ball today is leading, he’s vocal, he’s after his guys holding them accountable in the right way, he was physical and when he needed to make a play he did it throwing it or running it. The game ball goes to DeShone Kizer.
“Great job coming back in the second half and doing what you needed to do which was to continue to play physical.”
Army coach Jeff Monken was impressed: “They played like a championship football team.”
Notre Dame’s offensive game plan worked almost to perfection:
Said Kelly in the interview room, “We were able to throw the ball over their heads, and it backed them off, so that gave us some opportunities to run the football. Any time you get the ball vertically down the field, it's going to open up your running game because they certainly weren't going to play their safeties down. They were much more interested in staying over the top, which gave us the opportunity to get some pretty good looks to run the football.”
Earlier in the week, Duke coach David Cutcliffe described his Blue Devil squad which had lost four of its last five games as “a good team—we just don’t have a good record.”
The Irish on a Saturday in San Antonio maybe showed even better than that.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling the fortunes of Notre Dame football since 1978.