by John Vannie
Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions of the second half to erase a 17-10 deficit, and the Irish defense slammed the door on Wake Forest in a 24-17 road victory. The running duo of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for 180 yards to lead the way, and Tommy Rees threw a pair of touchdown passes. The Demon Deacons had a few chances to score in the second half, but Notre Dame rose to the occasion with a forced fumble and a key sack on a first and goal play.
The Irish were lethargic at the outset and quickly fell behind by 10-3 just eleven minutes into the contest. A penalty against Wake Forest on a kickoff return by Notre Dame moved the ball to midfield, and the visitors needed only two plays to tie the score as Rees connected with a wide open Tyler Eifert from 38 yards. The game appeared to be on the verge of becoming a shootout, but both defenses began to assert themselves until late in the second quarter.
The Deacons went on an 81-yard march as the half drew to a close. A pass interference penalty near the goal line set up a short run by Josh Harris for the go-ahead score. Notre Dame’s defense was thinned by injuries to Manti Te’o and Aaron Lynch during this stretch, although Lynch returned to action after intermission.
Notre Dame took the opening kickoff in the third period and marched 62 yards to tie the game at 17. Jonas Gray’s 26 yard burst around left end moved the ball inside the one yard line, and Gray walked in untouched two plays later. After a quick three and out by Wake Forest, Rees followed a 27 yard run by Wood with a perfectly thrown corner route to Michael Floyd for a 16 yard touchdown at the 9:04 mark.
When the Deacons were immediately forced to punt once again by the resurgent Irish, it looked as though the game could turn into a blowout. Notre Dame found itself in good field position and quickly crossed into enemy territory. Unfortunately, Coach Brian Kelly elected to reach into his bag of tricks at this point, and a flea flicker pass by Rees fluttered into the hands of safety Josh Bush. The senior returned the ball to the Notre Dame 39, and a questionable late hit penalty at the end of the play put the ball fifteen yards closer to the Irish goal. A pass by Tanner Price moved the ball inside the ten, but Darius Fleming forced a fumble two plays later and Gary Gray recovered for Notre Dame.
Wake Forest had another chance to score as the third period drew to a close, but a promising opportunity was killed when Lynch drew a holding penalty and Prince Shembo sacked Price two plays later. The Irish got the ball back on their own three, and could not put together a drive that would lengthen their lead. The last gasp for the Deacons reached the Notre Dame nine yard line midway through the fourth quarter. This time it was Stephon Tuitt who crashed through to sack Price for a 12 yard loss, and the series ended with a missed 42 yard field goal attempt.
Wood and Gray ran out the last five minutes of the game and Notre Dame moved to 6-3 on the season with the win. It was far from an impressive performance for the offense, but a no-frills rushing attack spelled the difference in the second half. Defensively, the Irish front line dominated so that Price could not repeat the success he enjoyed earlier in the game, and they came up with big plays down the stretch with the outcome in the balance.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions:
Which young quarterback will be the most efficient and protect the ball? Price was 17 of 24 for 170 yards and did not turn the ball over despite good pressure. He also ran for a couple of first downs at critical points in the first half. Rees threw a pair of touchdown passes but his poor decisions resulted in two interceptions.
Can the Deacons establish a credible running game against Notre Dame? Only in the early going, but Notre Dame adjusted and shut them down.
Will the Irish stick to the running game from start to finish? Yes, and it was decisive.
Will Riddick and T.J. Jones make meaningful contributions if called upon? The Deacons tried to lock down Floyd, and both Riddick and Jones did not take full advantage. Either they are not getting open or Rees simply cannot find them. Fortunately, Tyler Eifert and Floyd made enough plays to carry the passing game.
Can Notre Dame’s special teams generate points? The Irish had a couple of solid kickoff returns but surrendered 59-yarder to set up a Deacon field goal. David Ruffer did drill a 44 yard field goal, which was good to see.
Will the Irish be sufficiently focused to take on a highly motivated if undermanned opponent? It didn’t seem so at first. Fortunately, they warmed up to the task until Kelly killed their momentum with the flea flicker and forced the defense to hold on through some anxious moments.
Will this game be decided early so I can watch LSU-Alabama? Unfortunately not, but the Tigers and Tide had the good grace to go into overtime. An added bonus was getting to watch the end of the Kansas State-Okie State shootout.
Notre Dame will return to the East Coast next week for its second of three consecutive dates with an ACC opponent. One may soon start to wonder if this stretch of games is really some sort of conference audition. Whether that is the case or not, Irish fans can only hope that the team will improve upon what was decidely a lukewarm performance against a very average foe.