by John Vannie
Notre Dame will play its final home game of the season on Saturday against Wake Forest. The Senior Day contest will mark the last appearance at the Stadium for seniors such as Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, John Goodman, Braxton Cave, Mike Golic and Theo Riddick. Tyler Eifert is also expected to forgo a final year of eligibility and move on to the NFL. The Demon Deacons stand at 5-5 on the season and were on the wrong end of a 37-6 thrashing by North Carolina State last week.
The Irish, on the other hand, are one of only three unbeaten teams that are eligible to gain a spot in the BCS Championship Game. Alabama’s loss last week opened the door for shameless campaigning by Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame for votes in the polls. None of these teams can afford a misstep while victories by comfortable margins are the gold standard. As the pressure builds and opponents are highly motivated to pull off an upset, there are no longer any guaranteed wins.
On paper, Notre Dame is a heavy favorite, and justifiably so. Wake Forest has struggled to score points and lacks explosive players on offense, while its defense has some talent but statistically is barely average. Only a positive turnover margin (19-12) and a relatively weak schedule have helped the Deacons keep hope alive for bowl eligibility. Injuries have also taken a toll on Wake Forest’s offensive line and slowed down a few key defenders. The Irish lost wide receiver DeVaris Daniels last week, but are otherwise reasonably healthy.
The only common opponent between the teams this season is Boston College. The Deacons beat the Eagles by 28-14 a week before the Irish won in Boston by 21-6. These programs met last season in North Carolina, where Notre Dame escaped with a 24-17 victory after trailing at the half. Wake forest Coach Jim Grobe was asked this week if the Irish might be vulnerable given their recent close encounters. “I think what you find is that most good teams find a way to win. It’s not always the prettiest win, but a win is a win and they’ve won them all. You know that they know how to do it. I think if you have a chance late, you have to make plays. We have a big challenge. This is a really good Notre Dame football team.”
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Wake Forest’s Defense
The Irish will continue to emphasize power running while Everett Golson develops as a passer. Once again, Notre Dame’s offensive front has a distinct size advantage over the Deacons’ three down linemen, who average about 260 pounds. Rugged nose tackle Nikita Whitlock is nursing a turf toe injury and has missed parts of the last few games. End Zach Johnson is an above-average player despite carrying only 255 pounds.
Wake Forest has surrendered 29 points and 418 yards per game. Opponents average only 3.7 yards per rush, which is very respectable. Outside linebacker Justin Jackson is the team’s best defender and leading tackler. He is joined by Mike Olson and Riley Haynes on the inside and Joey Ehrmann on the other flank. Each weighs in at 220 pounds except for Olson, who lists at 230. Both cornerbacks are good players, although Bud Noel has been battling injuries and Chibuikem Okoro may have to fill in. The other starter, Kevin Johnson, has 12 pass break-ups on the season. Free safety A. J. Marshall is an aggressive player who is a converted cornerback.
Although Notre Dame should be able to move the ball and score points in this game, there are plenty of reasons for fans to watch and worry. Many believe that Coach Brian Kelly is taking a low risk approach against outmanned opponents, which is fine as long as the Irish play a clean game. Two fumbles last week killed promising drives that would have made the win over Boston College much more comfortable, and one can only hope those mistakes are not repeated this week. Golson must throw the ball to further his development, but the object of the game with so much at stake this month is simply to win.
The Deacons will try to take away the big play and force Notre Dame to execute on long drives. The Irish really have not established a quick strike capability in the passing game, as the Golson to Chris Brown connection has only worked once all season. Compounding the issue has been consistently poor field position resulting from subpar special teams and fewer turnovers forced by the defense of late. This game will become a lot more fun to watch if Notre Dame is able to generate a couple of quick scores rather than 12-play, 80-yard marches, but doing things the hard way has become the only way.
Wake Forest’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The Deacons started five seniors along the offensive line in last year’s game, and their backups were penciled in as this season’s projected starters. Unfortunately, injuries to Steven Chase and Antonio Ford along with a transfer last spring removed three players from the mix. Only center Garrick Williams and right tackle Colin Summers are playing on Saturday. The patchwork lineup has only been able to generate 103 rush yards per game and has allowed 23 sacks. Another telling statistic is quarterback Tanner Price’s completion rate has fallen from 61% in 2011 to only 55% this year, which may be driven by protection issues. Wake Forest’s passing yards per game have also dropped precipitously from 275 to just 207 this year.
Wide receiver Michael Campanaro leads the team in receptions with 65 despite missing a few games with a broken hand. Senior Terence Davis is next with 37 catches and represents a deep threat in this offense. Price throws mostly short passes to Campanaro and also to fullback Tommy Bohannon, who has the good hands of a safety valve receiver. The Notre Dame defense will essentially be looking at a passing attack that is strikingly similar to that of Boston College. The Irish did have a few coverage errors early in that contest with wheel routes and short completions on third down that kept them on the field, so they will have a chance to clean up some of those issues this week.
The Deacon’s ground game is not particularly robust, but tailback Josh Harris can be effective if he is given a crease to run through. Backup Deandre Martin is a bigger back who is a step slower than Harris, but will also see action. This offense can remain balanced as long as the score does not become lopsided. They have been disciplined and avoided turnovers for the most part, so the Irish will need to win enough individual battles to stop them.
The plan for the Notre Dame defensive line will be to stop the run, the linebackers must cover Bohannon out of the backfield and the secondary must pay special attention to Campanaro on short and intermediate routes. Price will get rid of the ball quickly to his favorite targets to negate the pass rush, while the Irish will try to keep any third down conversions to a minimum. Wake Forest may very well try to introduce new wrinkles into its offense to attack the Irish in ways it may not anticipate. One such tactic includes a no-huddle approach, which produced some success for them earlier in the season.
Place kicker Jimmy Newman was excellent last season on field goals but struggled early this year and was recently replaced by Chad Hedlund. The range of either kicker is roughly 45 yards. Punter Alexander Kinal averages about 41 yards per boot and about 40% of them are returned. It remains to be seen whether the Irish will join this party. With regard to the return game, Lovell Jackson does a credible job fielding punts as indicated by his ten yard average. Kickoff returns have been disappointing, which has prompted Grobe to insert his starting tailback Harris into that role.
Notre Dame’s own return game remains poor, while the performance of its coverage teams is about average statistically. Kyle Brindza did not get a field goal opportunity last week, although his clutch kick in overtime against Pittsburgh kept the Irish alive. The key for Brindza appears to be a clean snap and hold, as any variance to his timing often results in a miss.
It’s safe to assume Wake Forest will not score enough points to win unless Notre Dame is guilty of costly turnovers or special teams breakdowns. Such things are not out of the question, however, as the Irish have struggled to maintain focus against weaker teams this season and the added distractions of Senior Day may be difficult to block out. It would be best to put the Deacons away before halftime, and the offense will have to be sharp in order for that to happen. Sloppy play and the inability to convert drives into points will place an inordinate amount of pressure on the defense. Te’o and company have been up to the task thus far, but they deserve a less stressful week before facing the Trojans in Los Angeles.
Notre Dame’s position in the polls may also begin to play into Kelly’s strategy. At this point in the season and with only three teams competing for two spots in the championship game, these remaining football games are fights for survival rather than beauty contests. This team must win by sticking to the formula that got it this far. Both Kansas State and Oregon have difficult challenges remaining, and a stumble by either team is a distinct possibility. If that happens and the Irish are still unblemished at the end of this month, the detractors that cite a lack of style points will be effectively marginalized.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Can Notre Dame generate defensive three and outs to get off the field?
Will the Irish be able to start fast and take control of the game early?
Can Wake Forest’s offensive line hold up against the powerful Irish front?
Will Notre Dame have any short field opportunities to convert into scores?
Can the Irish offense generate a few explosive plays to excite the crowd?
Will Notre Dame display any improvement on special teams?
Is it permissible to root shamelessly for Baylor and Stanford?
Fans have been waiting since the victory at Oklahoma for Notre Dame to play another clean and inspired game from start to finish. The fourth quarter and overtime against Pittsburgh were memorable, but Golson threw an interception in the end zone during that stretch and Cierre Wood forgot to bring the football with him when he dove over the goal line. While it may appear this team has an on/off switch that just needs to be flipped, it may just be that scoring bunches of points is not going to happen until Golson advances his game to the point where he can stay poised in the pocket and pick apart defenses that are stacked to stop the run. In other words, wait until next year. While Wake Forest might pull a few mild surprises, expect another workmanlike, grind-it-out victory for the Irish.
NOTRE DAME 24 WAKE FOREST 10