Wake Forest cherishes underdog role against Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Say you’re Wake Forest, prospective party-crasher and playoff-preventer. You’re 3-6, an ACC afterthought, the next supposed laugher on Notre Dame’s hearty schedule. You’re the Titanic, with as few playmakers as the ship had lifeboats, and the Irish represent a mountain of an iceberg.

At least, that’s the mounting perception.

On Saturday, it’s not just about the who, but the where. Notre Dame Stadium. Home under the dome. It’s the final time that many of these Irish will play there. Ronnie Stanley. Sheldon Day. Chris Brown. Elijah Shumate. Joe Schmidt. Matthias Farley. Likely Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller, too.

Your challenge, on the road, in the midst of a three-game losing streak, is to disrupt a blossoming quarterback, reign in a surging wide receiver and counter the wealth of emotion on Senior Day in South Bend. Your reward, if you can handle all that, is a seismic perception shift.

It’s a tall task, but here’s a substitute perspective:

What have you got to lose?

“I’ve had friends that worked at Notre Dame, and the challenge for them is always when they get to November they don’t have a conference, so there is nothing to play for,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “They’re right in the thick of it. They’re probably three games away from securing a spot in the College Football Playoff and we’re their first game up.

“This will be a great challenge for our football team. This is why people come to Wake Forest. You get to play in games like this, in a venue like this, and our players are excited about it.”

On Saturday, they’ll need to be equally excited from the first snap to the last. Their excitement must be matched by an obsessive attention to detail. A defense that has allowed 10 plays of 50 or more yards this season, a gruesome 118th nationally, must manage an Irish team with as many weapons as national titles.

And they’ll have to do it all coming off of a bye week, coated in inevitable rust.

“We haven't been in a game situation in a week and a half, so we've got to come out firing,” said redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Chubb, who leads the Demon Deacons with 78 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.

“We can't stay in that calm, sedative mood we've been in this past week, so it's going to be a challenge to come out on fire from the beginning of the first quarter to the end of the fourth quarter. Playing a team like Notre Dame, you don't have time to play catch-up. You've got to do it for four quarters — not two, not three."

Alas, even four quarters of Wake Forest’s best football may not be enough. Its offense ranks a lowly 121st nationally in rushing, averaging 110 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. It shuffles two quarterbacks, John Wolford and Kendall Hinton, though they have combined for 10 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Its next two opponents, to make matters worse, are playoff hopefuls Notre Dame and Clemson — both on the road.

In three weeks, barring an upset, Clawson will face the downtrodden reality of a second consecutive 3-9 campaign.

But say, for a second, that you’re Wake Forest — and all of this is true. Maybe, on Saturday, you’ve got no expectation, no anticipation, no spotlight on your shoulders.

That means no pressure, too.

“It’s just an opportunity to show what we’re made of and show that we can compete with anyone in the nation, so we’re preparing just like it’s any other game,” said junior offensive lineman Tyler Hayworth. “We’re ready to take this opportunity and roll with it.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

North Carolina's Elijah Hood runs the ball as Wake Forest's Brandon Chubb dives for the tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Wake Forest place kicker Mike Weaver (18) reacts with offensive lineman Tyler Hayworth (78) after kicking the game winning field goal at the end of the second half of an NCAA college football game for a 17-14 win over Army on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)