SOUTH BEND – Brian Kelly's postgame press conference sounded like an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.
The Notre Dame coach thanked everyone from the school's administration to the trainers, team doctors, assistant coaches and, of course, his players, for helping the Irish emerge from a pandemic-affected 2020 season with a perfect record and a berth in the ACC Championship Game in Notre Dame's first-ever campaign in a conference.
After the game, seniors, some of whom likely played their final game at Notre Dame Stadium today, and their parents milled around on the field, taking photos and basking in the scene after the No. 2 Irish beat Syracuse 45-21. There was plenty to celebrate following a victory that ran Notre Dame's record to 10-0 and completed the 18th undefeated regular season in program history and the team's third straight unbeaten home schedule.
"They're incredible players that have had to commit themselves and sacrifice all year and then have an undefeated season," Kelly said of his team. "I'm so proud of them. I'm so blessed to be their head coach and I'm so happy for them to go undefeated this year. All those people who made it happen, we wouldn't be here without them."
There are more important games coming for Notre Dame – the victory against a game but overmatched Orange team felt more like a formality for much of the second half despite some tense moments early – but since today was Senior Day, it's appropriate to recognize how successful this senior class has been. The 2017 recruiting class came in following a 4-8 campaign and in its four years has posted a 43-6 record, gone unbeaten in the regular season twice and reached the College Football Playoff. At Notre Dame Stadium, where players like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Drew White, Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa might have played their last game, the class is 25-1, including 24 straight wins over the last three-plus seasons. By any measure, it's one of the most successful Notre Dame classes in decades.
"This is a class that has really created a new era of Notre Dame football," redshirt freshman linebacker Jack Kiser said. "The success that they've had is unbelievable. They've really set the bar. They are the bar. Underclassmen coming in, whether it's winter workouts, summer conditioning or in-season, we're following in their footsteps and we're trying to be just like them. They're setting that bar and we're trying to achieve it or even get higher."
Not to be lost in Notre Dame's victory and all of the team success that this group has achieved are some pretty impressive individual records. In addition to Ian Book becoming the winningest quarterback in Irish history with his 30th victory, running back Kyren Williams ran for 110 yards on 20 carries to boost his season total over 1,000 yards. He's the first Irish back to cross that barrier since Josh Adams in 2017. Prior to the season, there was some surprise when the redshirt freshman Williams emerged from a talented, crowded running backs room as the official starter, but he has proved that he deserves that spot and can carry any load necessary for the Irish.
"Kyren is a playmaker," tight end Tommy Tremble said. "Everything he does, he juices us up, he brings that fire to us."
"Reaching (1,000 yards) has been a goal of mine since quarantine, when I really realized that I could do this and I could play at this level," Williams added. "When I came in this season, that was one of my goals, to get to 1,000 yards, so I just attribute that to my offensive line. Without them, it's not possible."
That offensive line was banged up when this game began and got more so as the game went on. Backup center Zeke Correll played sparingly, forcing redshirt junior Dillan Gibbons into action. Another backup, Josh Lugg, moved to center with Correll out and he and Book fumbled a snap exchange in part because Lugg developed a large welt on his hand in-game that affected his snapping and limited his playing time. Eventually, Gibbons moved to center and starting right guard Tommy Kraemer, whom Kelly said would only play in an emergency situation after having an appendectomy two weeks ago, entered the game. Kraemer had told Kelly he wanted to play in his last game at Notre Dame Stadium so it worked out for the Irish, but the line is not 100% healthy by any stretch.
This was not a clean victory for Notre Dame. The Irish turned the ball over twice, gave up 6.5 yards per carry (including two long rushing touchdowns) and trailed in the second quarter against a team that is now 1-10. Still, a win means the Irish are still undefeated and will meet either Clemson or Miami in the ACC Championship Game in two weeks in Charlotte. Kelly said the Irish will have Sunday off and then some light work Monday before treating the rest of the bye week as a game week in practice. The extra time off should give some ailing players time to get healthy and get the Irish as close to full strength as possible for what could end up being a College Football Playoff elimination game.
More important games are coming the rest of this month, but the Irish deserve to soak in the good feelings from this victory, which caps a season unlike any other. Notre Dame is 10-0 and three wins from a national title. After one day to celebrate, the real season begins.