Notre Dame's 45-17 victory over Maryland Saturday night was a (modern) football purist's dream: Tommy Rees threw 38 passes, completed 30, and found three different receivers at least seven times en route to an efficient 296-yard, two touchdown effort, one that complimented the yeoman's work put forth by senior running back Jonas Gray and his compliment – who just happens to be Notre Dame's leading rusher – Cierre Wood.
In short, head coach Brian Kelly made Maryland pick its poison: death via the two-headed rushing monster, or contend with Rees and his three perimeter weapons.
The Terrapins couldn't choose and thus endured all of the above.
"That's something our offense needs," said Rees of the balanced attack. "We've been running the ball so well, and it's good to see the passing game get back up there tonight. I think it is just hats off to everyone on the offensive side, from the coaches on down to the players."
For the third straight game, Gray was the feature act, rushing for a career-high 136 yards and scoring his 10th and 11th touchdowns of his career and the season (and of the last eight weeks). Wood added his ninth score of 2011, finishing one yard short of the century mark on the ground.
Gray's 11 scores are the most for an Irish runner since Autry Denson's senior season in 1998 (15 plus two more in the bowl game). Though he offered that he's yet to "play a complete game" this season, the senior was nonetheless thrilled with his first effort over the century mark.
"It was great. The guys in front did a great job blocking," Gray said. "The receivers did a great job blocking up field. Like I always do, I did the rest with my legs. Coach Kelly did a great job drawing the plays. We knew we would be able to run the ball. It was starting with a physical mentality and continuing that throughout the game."
Maryland offered little resistance, falling behind 17-0; 24-7 at the half, and 38-7 midway through the third quarter thanks to little-used Lo Wood and a 57-yard interception touchdown.
Maryland is rebuilding – and in the early stages of the process. Notre Dame is doing the same, but with each win, albeit vs. less-than-staggering opposition, Kelly's Irish appear to have the program at its highest late-season level since the 2005 juggernaut rolled into a BCS matchup.
"You know, it's Saturday, November the 12th: we played the way we need to play in all three phases," Kelly said post-game. "We'll see what happens on the 19th of November.
"Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week, and they know that they have to be able to bring all three phases. We'll look to repeat that next week, and that's the challenge to our football team."
That challenge will include Senior Day and an old struggling rival. The following week will provide the season's toughest test (Stanford) though it no longer includes national implications after the Cardinal dropped a 53-30 contest at home to Oregon Saturday night.
Stanford's decisive loss likely dropped Notre Dame from BCS contention despite their convincing win, but the Irish aren't of true BCS quality anyway – a Champs Sports Bowl berth would do the program well as it builds toward bigger things. After initial proclamations of "BCS or Bust" Kelly has adopted a more reasonable, micro-view of his growing group.
"We're making good progress there," he said of a big picture outlook for his roster. "We really can't fly at 35,000 feet, so to speak. We have to really focus on the day to day."
That focus yielded a four-game winning streak before derailment vs. USC and has since afforded another three-game run.
Notre Dame is on the outside looking in. They're good on offense, not great. Solid on defense, not spectacular. The staff is in control of the proceedings but not without its failings.
In short, Notre Dame football is back – to respectability. Back to taking care of business when it should, and back from the brink of near-extinction that the program faced last October 30 (at 4-5 with shocking losses to Navy and Tulsa in tow) and back from the dark days preceding the Kelly era.
Next week should offer more of the same (Boston College is not up to snuff). Thanksgiving Saturday will then provide the final litmus: a Stanford team that is very good, but no longer considered great after its 17-game win streak and utter dominance ended unceremoniously – bookend losses to the mighty Oregon Ducks.
Kelly's Irish have won 11 of their last 14 – one more win will equal the best 15-game run since the Brady Quinn era. Again, a period of Irish football described as good not great, but this time, we can see continuous improvement awaits.