Adding up the positives in Notre Dame's clunky victory
SOUTH BEND —There were times when it felt more like a Mulligan than something that might enhance the still very much thriving playoff run for Notre Dame.
You kept waiting for the dominance on the field to kick in, and the marshmallow sideshow in the stands, the partial scores coming in from Ames, Iowa, and Carol Boyd’s Senior Day pregame sprint and bear hug of son/defensive tackle Sheldon Day to kind of fade into footnotes.
It took one of the seniors, left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, long after the game to expose the beauty in CFP No 4 and AP sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s 28-7 subduing of ornery Wake Forest, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
That the record-tying 21st home win by the senior group, who were freshmen the last time the Irish were in national title conversation this deep into the season, really had no business happening.
Not with the injuries this team endured, and added to Saturday (linebacker James Onwualu left in the first quarter with an MCL injury to his left knee). And not with the attrition to a class that was small to begin with (17 players).
Three of the top four-rated players in that class, per CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, were playing elsewhere this weekend (Gunner Kiel and Davonte’ Neal) or out of football (Tee Shepard). And the fourth (Irish nose guard Jarron Jones) was still sidelined from an August knee injury.
Two others (Justin Ferguson and Will Mahone) are also long gone.
“I’ve always told these guys we’re a small group, but we pack a big punch with all the guys we have,” Stanley said. “All the guys who are in our class, we never blinked when kids were transferring or had to leave school for different reasons.
“We just kept our head down and we knew we’d end up where we are today.”
Where they are is 9-1 heading into an off-site home game in Boston College’s backyard, Fenway Park next Saturday, where the Irish in the Shamrock Series will meet a team of extremes. The Eagles (3-7) boast the nation’s No. 1 defense and are dead last in total offense.
The Irish are probably a win away from making the Russell Athletic Bowl scouts, who attended Saturday’s game, feel like they probably wasted buying plane tickets. A 10-win ND team likely at worst plays in a New Year’s Six game, either in the Peach (Dec. 31 in Atlanta) or Fiesta (Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.), with the four-team playoff a reachable reality at 11 wins.
That said, the victory that gives Notre Dame only its third unbeaten/untied home season since 1989 (joining the 1998 and 2012 squads), and coach Brian Kelly career win 225 was a statistical, and at times an aesthetic, clunker.
“We outplayed them, we outgained them, we had the ball longer,” said Wake Forest second-year coach Dave Clawson, whose best offensive recruits over the past four years are sitting in Bowling Green, Ohio on one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.
“But we beat ourselves. Notre Dame is a very good football team. They don't need our help, and we gave them a lot of help tonight.”
Still, Wake Forest (3-7), a team with the smallest senior class in the FBS (6), was largely able to do strategically what it wanted — play keep-away with the ball, and confound ND’s offense with a variety of looks and lots of pre-snap movement on defense.
The Demon Deacons won the battle of first downs (23-15), time of possession (35:48 to 24:12) and total yards (340-282). It was the first time, in fact, that the Irish failed to hit the 400-yard mark this season after a school-record nine straight such games out of the gate.
Two players making their first starts of the season, and neither one a senior, provided the necessary momentum to make it a happy Senior Day and send Wake to its 13th loss in succession against ranked teams and drop the Demon Deacons to 1-57 all-time against the AP top 10.
Freshman Josh Adams, starting in place of convalescing senior C.J. Prosise, for the second straight game had one of the most prolific rushing games for a freshman in Notre Dame history — 141 yards on 17 carries.
In the process, he moved past Tarean Folston, Allen Pinkett and Randy Kinder and into fourth place on the all-time single-season freshman rushing list, with 553 yards. Just ahead of Adams is his position coach, Autry Denson at No. 3 (695).
“I think he could have,” Kelly said when asked how close Prosise, still 25 yards from 1,000 on the season, was to playing on Saturday. “We were going to be prudent all the way through this. He worked out before the game, and he really felt good. But we weren't going to push it. So yeah, we feel like we would have him for next week.”
Adams did something, though, Saturday that neither Prosise nor any other Notre Dame player in the program’s 127-year history has done.
Rip off a 98-yard play from scrimmage.
Notre Dame led 14-0 in the second quarter, when Jaylon Smith stuffed Wake running back Tyler Bell on fourth-and-goal at the Irish 1 with one of his game-high 14 tackles.
Irish QB DeShone Kizer moved the pile a yard on first down, then Adams took over. He broke the tackle of linebacker Nate Mays near the line of scrimmage, then delivered a nasty stiff arm to safety Ryan Janvion and turned on the jets.
“Basically, that was just great blocking, all around from the team,” said the humble Adams. “I basically was just trying to do my job and do what I could, reading the holes correctly.”
Previously, the longest play was a 96-yard TD pass from Blair Kiel to Joe Howard against Georgia Tech in 1981. The previous long for a rush was 92 yards by Bob Livingstone against USC in 1947.
Adams’ 98-yard TD rush is the longest play from scrimmage in the FBS this season, deleting Hawaii’s Paul Harris’ 95-yard scoring run against UC Davis from that distinction.
“It wasn’t about me,” Adams said. “It was about the seniors. So I just tried to make this night memorable.”
Sophomore defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, in his first start of the season and second of his career, helped that cause with a 28-yard interception return in the first quarter for a 14-0 Irish lead.
It was the first pick for Notre Dame this season that wasn’t credited to a defensive back (out of eight). And it was the first interception by a defensive lineman for a TD since Stephon Tuitt did so against Michigan two seasons ago.
Notre Dame ran a season-low in offensive plays (49) and Kizer had his season-low in passing efficiency (117.5) a week after having one of the all-time highs in ND history.
But he scored two TDs on the ground, a 12-yard keeper to open the scoring in the first quarter and a five-yard run at the 10:58 mark of the fourth quarter to close the scoring.
Those were his seventh and eighth rushing TDs of the season, leaving him one short of tying Tony Rice (1988) and Rick Mirer (1991) for the most by a Notre Dame quarterback in a single season.
“It just shows the style of team that we have. We live on adversity,” Kizer said. “We lose guys each week, and it's really unfortunate, but somehow we end up coming out on top.
“This is a week in which maybe our passing game wasn't where it should have been, and we didn't have the big, explosive plays to Will Fuller and things like that. But yet we still come out with some sort of a way to put up 28 points, which is huge against a team of any level.
“We're going to take that for what it is and continue to move forward.”