SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame needed a game like this. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment after the No. 7 Irish dismantled New Mexico 66-14 this afternoon. Notre Dame needed a game like this to boost its confidence before it goes on the road to face No. 3 Georgia a week from today. The Irish knew they were capable of playing like this, making big plays on offense and forcing turnovers on defense, but they hadn't seen it on the field. Today, they saw it and they got a glimpse of just how good this team can be.
Brian Kelly rattled off a list of players who needed to make plays and delivered in this game: Ian Book, Javon McKinley, Braden Lenzy, C'Bo Flemister. These are all players that stepped up against a lesser opponent and now should have the confidence they'll need to make plays against a team such as Georgia.
That might be the biggest positive coming from this game: so many of the big plays the Irish turned in were from players that hadn't been asked to make significant contributions before. Guys such as McKinley and Avery Davis were put on the spot and they came through with flying colors. The Irish depth chart got significantly deeper tonight.
McKinley's performance today is possibly the most consequential going forward. The senior receiver had gotten "lost in cyberspace" as Kelly put it, buried on the depth chart over the last few seasons and in some legal trouble this past offseason. Now, he might be Notre Dame's third receiver. He caught two touchdown passes today, one for 65 yards and the other for 20. Neither of them was easy, especially the 65-yarder, which came on an 8-yard drag route that McKinley turned into a big play when he began breaking tackles all the way down the field. He could be the extra weapon beyond Chase Claypool and Chris Finke that this receiving corps needs.
"He's a physical presence," Kelly said of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound McKinley. "As you know, he got on the field in a first-team rotation. We're starting to get it here, figure out that he's not a No. 2. He can play as a No. 1. ... He would have been playing a long time ago if we'd had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that (now). He is practicing well, he is doing the right things on and off the field. He's preparing himself for a big year for us."
Just as surprising as McKinley's breakout was Davis's 59-yard touchdown on a jet sweep in the second quarter. It's not surprising that he scored a touchdown – he's always had the athletic ability and instincts to be an offensive force for the Irish – but rather that he was playing offense at all. In one of the strangest odysseys in recent Notre Dame football history, Davis came in as a quarterback, moved to running back in 2018, moved to cornerback this season and now has moved back to running back because of the injuries to Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith. After all that, to come out and make the kind of play he did today is one of the best stories of the season. By all accounts, he's never once complained about his constant position-switching and his teammates were ecstatic for him. He earned the Game Ball for his performance today.
"(The game ball was) for him being so humble as a player and unselfish to flip from quarterback to running back to defense and back to the offensive side of the ball and come up big with an electric run that really got the entire team and the stadium into it," Kelly said.
Kelly hinted that Davis could have a larger role in the offense going forward. The Irish didn't want to show their entire hand today against New Mexico, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are some trick plays involving Davis in the works, maybe as soon as the primetime matchup against Georgia.
This game answered most of the questions and concerns that existed coming out of the Louisville game: Ian Book looked more comfortable in the pocket, the defensive front flew to the ball and tackled well and the Irish were able to put an inferior opponent away. Next up, the Bulldogs, about whom there was already plenty of discussion tonight just minutes after the win over the Lobos had ended. The Irish know this upcoming game is the opportunity they've been waiting for all offseason. They passed the two preliminary tests, but now the quality of play gets ratcheted up significantly.
"I thought it felt really good to be able to put (this game) away," Book said. "It's Georgia Week and we've been talking about this since the year began. We need to be road warriors and this will be our second (road) test."
The Irish cleaned their plate on the appetizer. Bring on the main course.