Dexter Williams took a handoff from Ian Book, danced for a moment in the backfield, then found a small hole in the line and burst through, rocketing past everyone in the Stanford secondary for a 45-yard touchdown.
It was Williams' first carry of the year after starting the season on the sideline and he made the most of it, giving Notre Dame an early lead and kicking off a huge night for the senior running back.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Williams rushed for a career-high 161 yards on 21 carries, more than double the touches he's had in any other game of his Notre Dame career. It was a performance four games in the making for Williams, who was reportedly suspended after facing disciplinary issues over the summer.
“I'm really proud of his growth and his maturity,” coach Brian 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.”
Kelly never officially announced that Williams was suspended and praised him throughout fall camp for his work ethic and performance on the field. Williams likewise declined to explain why he hadn't been on the field for the first four games after his breakout performance.
Regardless of the reason, it's clear that being kept off the field was incredibly difficult for the Orlando, Florida, native. He said it was a “big loss” to have football “taken away from me.”
He got through the interminable four weeks with the help of his mother, Cheryl Williams, who moved into his South Bend apartment the week before the game against Michigan. Cheryl Williams, 60, has a pair of terminal illnesses, pulmonary arterial hypertension – a lung condition – and myasthenia gravis – a muscular disease – but that didn't stop her from doing everything she could to help her youngest son.
“She kept me focused,” Williams said. “Before this game, she told me to just go out there and have fun, just be able to just go out there and live your dream out. ... I went to see her as soon as we won. I told her I loved her and blew her a kiss, so it was a great feeling.”
Any thoughts of easing him back into the lineup vanished Thursday when the Irish learned freshman Jafar Armstrong had an infection in his knee that would keep him out against the Cardinal. Armstrong's injury, along with an ankle sprain Tony Jones Jr. suffered during the game, left the Irish turning to Williams almost exclusively in the second half.
“I knew he was going to have a lot of energy,” Kelly said. “I don't think that we envisioned 21 carries, that the workload would be at that level, but he earned the 21 carries. So all the credit to him because he was vigilant in his workouts and in his preparation.”
Energy is a large part of the running back's game – his teammates call him “The Juice” and he is the loudest player on the field in every practice drill – and after four games of holding that energy in, he let it out Saturday night. Stanford paid the price.
“Dexter's such an explosive guy who brings a lot of emotion to the game and he loves football,” quarterback Ian Book said. “This couldn't be a better week for him to come back. And I'm just excited for him. That first touch was just great to see him go score.”
Williams now seems set to be Notre Dame's feature back against No. 24 Virginia Tech this week. Armstrong is likely out several weeks, while Jones' ankle will limit him in practice and possibly the game, according to Kelly.
After four weeks on the sideline, Williams is getting his opportunity and is ready for what's next.
“I'm not focused on what happened the past,” he said. “I'm just really trying to move forward.”