Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

Gray leads Irish to blowout win

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LANDOVER, Md. --- It took Jonas Gray four years and 25 games to find the end zone. Now no one can keep him away.

The senior running back scored two more touchdowns in Notre Dame's 45-21 win over Maryland at FedEx Field on Saturday night, giving him at least one touchdown in seven straight games, which no Notre Dame player has done since Autry Denson in 1998. Gray has 11 touchdowns, which is the most since Denson had 15 that same year.

"Jonas Gray was what we have all been talking about," coach Brian Kelly said. "He has been a consistent performer for us, and he's really emerged as a big time back."  

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly prepared for Saturday's off-site "home" game as if it were a road game, which was logical since it was played 12 miles from the Maryland campus. There was nothing hostile about the crowd of 70,251, which was mostly clad in green-and-gold. The Irish (7-3) looked at home while handing Maryland (2-9) to its sixth straight defeat.

The result was a another lopsided win in the "Shamrock Series." Notre Dame has now outscored opponents 112-35 in three off-site "home" games. 

"It was an enjoyable atmosphere," Kelly said. "We really loved being here. I know our players were excited when they got out on the field and heard the crowd and the action that was in the stadium.  Our guys were excited, you could tell that."

Gray scored on a pair of 1-yard runs, the first of which gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead after its first offensive drive. His second served as the most electric moment of a game in which the outcome seemed predestined from the onset. With Notre Dame leading 17-7 late in the first half, Kelly decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal with 32 seconds left. With the crowd as excited as it would be all night, Gray bulled over right tackle to give his team a commanding 24-7 lead at the end of a half they dominated both physically and statistically.

Gray finished with 138 yards on 21 carries. It was the first 100-yard game of his career.

He wasn't the only player to put up big numbers for Notre Dame's balanced attack. Tommy Rees compled 30 of 38 passes for 296 yards, Michael Floyd caught nine passes for 90 yards and Tyler Eifert had eight for 83. Robby Toma, filling in for the injured Theo Riddick, added 73 yards on seven catches.

"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," Kelly said. "We'll look to repeat that next week, and that's the challenge to our football team."

Gray's prolific numbers are a surprise only because his production never matched expectations until this year. A Parade All-American in high school, he had never earned consistent playing time until preseason training camp, when he was the only option behind Cierre Wood and ahead of two true freshmen. 

Disaster struck when his fumble near the goal line was returned for a touchdown in a devastating season-opening loss to South Florida. Gray responded by using his combination of power and breakaway speed to take the starter's job away from Wood. He's also raising eyebrows among NFL scouts who didn't know who No. 25 was when the season began.

"We had challenged him to be the kind of back that we think he should be, and that is powerful, keeps his feet moving, doesn't go down after first contact," Kelly said. "We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical, and you could see he doesn't want to get off the field."

Gray is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, which is less than a yard behind George Gipp's single-season record of 8.1 yards in 1920. While Gray will ever replace the Gipper in Notre Dame lore, he is suddenly finding his name listed among some of the all-time greats in Notre Dame history, which few could of envisioned when he walked dejectedly off the field after the season opener.

"It means a lot," Gray said. "It's very special. Fans talk about it al ot, you guys talk about it a lot. I'm happy to be mentioned with those guys. It has been a journey."

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This page contains a single entry by Neil Hayes published on November 12, 2011 9:39 PM.

Thursday injury report was the previous entry in this blog.

Toma shines while replacing Riddick is the next entry in this blog.

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