LANDOVER, Md. — Robby Toma was fielding postgame questions from reporters Saturday night when Tony Alford stuck his head in.
"What did you do?" the receivers coach asked. "What did you do?"
"I don't know," Toma replied with a smile. "This is new to me."
The career-best seven catches for 73 yards was new. The starting role in place of the injured Theo Riddick (hamstring) was a change. And the ability to capably fulfill Notre Dame's next-man-in philosophy in the Irish's 45-21 rout of a hapless Maryland team made the not-so-easy look not only simple, but rewarding.
Notre Dame beat a two-win Terrapins team, as expected. But they did it by improving their play in nearly all facets of the game, most notably on offense.
In notching their fifth 500-plus-yard offensive performance this season, the Irish ran 84 plays, the most in the Brian Kelly era. They showed a steady balance, with 46 runs and 38 passes. And they ran the offense at a tempo that embodied the pace Kelly has wanted to push at, one his quarterback ran efficiently throughout the evening.
"We wanted to kind of go with a hurry up, no-huddle — we're always no-huddle, more of a hurry-up, push the tempo a little bit," Tommy Rees said. "I think it worked out. I think we caught them and they weren't lined up. And you can tell throughout the game that — hats off to Maryland — but throughout the game the guys were getting tired, and I think that has a lot to do with how we pushed our tempo."
Rees finished 30 of 38 for 296 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. During one stretch that ended in the third quarter, the sophomore completed 17 of 18 passes.
The run game, which has looked dominant at times, was never as sharp as it was before a Notre Dame-heavy crowd at FedEx Field.
But the numbers cannot convey the helplessness of the Maryland defense, evident on two separate plays involving the two running backs.
Facing a third-and-10 from his own 8 on Notre Dame's third drive, Wood rushed for 13 yards. Facing a third-and-17 from his own 20 on the Irish's first drive of the second half, Gray bursted up the middle for 19 yards.
Notre Dame ended up scoring on both drives, the latter kicking off a 14-point third quarter that extended the Irish lead to 38-7 and their third-quarter margin this season to 77-13.
"I think our guys settle into the game, they're tuned in, we can talk to them and they know exactly what we want to do in the third quarter and they go out and do it," Kelly said. "Again, our guys understand how important it is to get some adjustments made at halftime. There's good communication. Our guys go out and execute."
There were other signs of improvement across the board aside from Toma, the run game and Rees. Namely, reserve cornerback Lo Wood stepping in for Robert Blanton (stinger), taking a third-quarter interception back 57 yards for a touchdown and making it 38-7.
There was Mike Golic Jr. filling in nicely for Braxston Cave at center, and Ethan Johnson bringing his veteran presence to the defensive line in his first game since Oct. 1.
And, of course, there was that tempo, which showed that opponent and circumstance were irrelevant in the Irish's attempt to make something of this week and next, when three-win Boston College comes to town.
"It was a big emphasis this week, to play at a fast tempo, and we did that well," Gray said. "A few guys were getting gassed — we're not used to doing it, even myself. But that's a dimension of this offense we're trying to continue to keep doing. And when we do that we're a pretty good offense and hard to stop."
And if the offense was getting gassed, does that make for an exhausted defense?
"Oh yeah, yeah," Gray said. "Just a lot of exhaustion. They can't line up as fast as they want to, just small things like that. And Coach Kelly's done a great job of dialing plays up."