SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame was looking for a soft landing between last Sunday’s jarring overtime fall at Texas and next week’s always punishing collision with Michigan State. The schedule obliged by bringing Nevada, from the Mountain West Conference, to Notre Dame Stadium for a Saturday matinee.
The oddsmakers who established the Irish as 28-point favorites had proved their point by halftime, as Notre Dame rode a 25-point second quarter to a 39-10 victory.
“I’m proud of our will to prepare,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We had to bounce back in a very short week. They put in the time and the effort. They prepared to win, and they deserved to.”
DeShone Kizer continued to put distance between himself and co-quarterback Malik Zaire. The big-body junior accounted for two passing touchdowns and ran for a third, completing 15 of 18 throws for 156 yards while taking every offensive snap of the first 40 minutes.
“I’d lost my last three games [to Stanford, Ohio State and Texas], so this is definitely a better feeling,” Kizer said.
Wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. needed a day off after taking a brutal hit against Texas, so the game was a coming-out party for sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. The elegantly named St. Brown caught six passes for 85 yards, and Sanders scooted his way to 107 all-purpose yards, catching one TD pass, setting up a second with a 24-yard punt return and earning a game ball for his elusive antics.
“I feel I have a chance to make a play every time they kick it to me,” Sanders said.
The Irish’s most productive quarter in 11 years was equal parts ND efficiency and Nevada tomfoolery. Kizer directed an 11-play, 75-yard march to a field goal and a 13-play, 88-yard excursion that Tarean Folston finished with a two-yard TD run.
Nine other Irish points came gift-wrapped. Nevada quarterback Tyler Stewart threw an interception to Jarron Jones at his 8-yard line, which Kizer converted into a four-yard TD pass to freshman Kevin Stepherson.
After Sanders’ TD catch, Ahki Muhammad thought better of running the kickoff out of the end zone, but he crossed the goal line before changing his mind. When he went back in and took a knee, Notre Dame had a safety.
“Frankly, that’s an embarrassing play,” Nevada coach Brian Polian said. ‘‘I wish we played cleaner. Penalties, silly mistakes and young-guy mistakes hurt us, but I’m not going to judge our team off this. Notre Dame is not our peer. They were better by a wide margin.”
One down note for the Irish is that cornerback Shaun Crawford will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn left Achilles tendon.
These teams met once previously, in 2009, when Charlie Weis and Chris Ault were the respective coaches. Ault, a College Football Hall of Famer, was 233-109-1 over 28 seasons as the Wolf Pack coach. Growing up Catholic in Southern California, Ault dreamed of playing and/or coaching at Notre Dame. When neither path materialized, he opted for coaching against the Irish.
His team didn’t share his zest for the idea and looked intimidated, watching Jimmy Clausen throw for 315 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-0 thumping. The Irish defense pitched a shutout against a QB named Colin Kaepernick, of whom you may have heard.
Polian, son of Pro Football Hall of Fame exec Bill Polian, was on the Irish sideline that day as special-teams coach. He insisted the Wolf Pack were not intimidated this time.
“It was a very cool atmosphere, but when you play like we did, you don’t have fond memories, and we shouldn’t,” he said.
Michigan State will mount a stronger argument.