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  • Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book throws during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill rushes the line during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Sunday, September 30, 2018 1:40 am

Irish roll to huge Top 10 win, dominate fourth quarter

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Early in the season, Notre Dame started fast, but struggled to put teams away, leaving the Irish to sweat out the fourth quarter against opponents that should have been overmatched.

Against No. 7 Stanford, the opposite scenario played out: Notre Dame faced a team that on paper should have given it a very good game, took an early lead, and then pulled away with a brilliant performance in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. The Irish ended up with a 38-17 victory and left with a 5-0 record and a good claim on a Top 5 ranking.

"Every guy on our team knew (the fourth quarter) was a great time to just keep going, keep attacking, keep scoring points and really shut this game out and don't let up," Irish quarterback Ian Book said. "We didn't want to let up at all tonight and that was something we talked about throughout the whole entire week."

The Cardinal "gained" negative-13 yards on offense in the fourth quarter, while the Irish scored two touchdowns in a 14-second span to turn the game from a tense, one-score contest into a rout. When the Irish got the ball back, leading 31-17 after a Te'von Coney interception, they could have played it safe and tried to bleed the clock down. After all, there were still eight minutes left and the victory wasn't sure yet. Instead, offensive coordinator Clark Lea went for a knockout punch and got it with a 35-yard pass from Ian Book to a wide-open Alize Mack for a touchdown on the first play of the drive. The sellout crowd lost its mind and the game was never in doubt again.

In the end, the Irish didn't just defeat Stanford, they dominated the Cardinal. Running back Bryce Love had just 73 rushing yards and the Notre Dame defense was magnificent almost all night, except for a few big plays in the first half. In the second half, there was nothing there for the Cardinal. They ran into a solid wall on nearly every play, all of their athletic weapons on the outside completely helpless as quarterback K.J. Costello ran for his life from an inspired Irish defensive front. This Notre Dame defense is fearsome and it's still getting better.

"I don't know if they get enough credit for who they are as a defense," Kelly said. "They've been really good at taking away what your strengths are. ... (Stanford) is really good if they can control down-and-distance. We put them behind the chains and made them predictable."

The Irish are now firmly in the College Football Playoff picture. A lot of experts seemed lukewarm on Notre Dame after lackluster wins over Ball State and Vanderbilt, but after this thrashing of a highly-ranked opponent, the hype train will begin to roll in earnest. This could be the beginning of a special season in South Bend.

Or, it could be derailed next week. The Irish have to go to Blacksburg to face a Virginia Tech team that beat No. 22 Duke on the road tonight, easily. Kelly doesn't like to look ahead, but he did tonight, and he saw pitfalls everywhere for the Irish if they don't remain focused.

"We've got a long way to go," the coach said. "We've got a long season ahead of us. So if we're gonna walk out of here thinking we're just the best team, we're gonna get beat and it's gonna diminish this victory. I told our team, 'I'm proud of what you accomplished tonight, but if we don't embrace how hard this is gonna be, we're climbing Mount Everest with this schedule. Take one step at a time.'"

The Irish took a significant step tonight. There are more to come, but there's time to enjoy this one.

dsinn@jg.net