Vorel: Notre Dame responds to early adversity by dominating N.C. State

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A close game is coming.

One day. Maybe.

Many thought it would arrive on Saturday afternoon, with a top-15 match up between No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 14 N.C. State. After all, the Wolfpack were owners of six consecutive wins, the last two coming in conference play by double digits. Dave Doeren’s team touted the No. 6 rushing defense nationally and a balanced offense averaging 35.4 points per game.

It was uncomfortably cold, with a wind chill of 33 (think: “33 Trucking”) degrees at kickoff.

N.C. State (6-2) was healthy, rested and prepared, the result of a well-placed mid-season bye week.

Surely, this week, after winning the previous five games by an average of 28.4 points, Notre Dame would finally — finally — be tested.

Adversity would hit.

Would the Irish hit back?

“I would be totally OK beating the rest of the teams by a lot of points,” senior linebacker Greer Martini said with a smirk on Wednesday. “But I think definitely as a competitor we want a close game and we're ready for that close game. And when it comes I think we're going to be able to dominate that type of situation.”

On Saturday, in a 35-14 Irish victory, it was close … until it wasn’t. For the first time since Notre Dame trailed Boston College 3-0 on Sept. 16, the Irish didn’t score first. For the second consecutive season, N.C. State blocked a Tyler Newsome punt and returned it for the game’s first touchdown.

Notre Dame trailed 7-0, then 14-7.

This time last year, the Irish would have crumbled like saltine crackers in a soup.

On Saturday, like Martini said, Notre Dame (7-1) was ready, and it dominated the situation.

“When you get a punt block, it has a tendency to really affect your football team,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Our guys never flinched. It was as if nothing ever occurred other than, ‘Let's get back out on the field and get back to work.’

“That's hard to build. It took us a long way, a long time to get to that, and our guys just have that never-flinch, keep-playing, one-play-at-a-time (attitude), and the cumulative effect of that is what you saw today.”

Instead of flinching, Notre Dame rushed for 318 yards and 5.9 yards per carry against a defense that allowed an average of 91.3 rushing yards in its first seven games. Instead of flinching, junior captain Josh Adams ripped off his second 200-yard rushing game of the season, trucking his way to 202 yards and a runaway 77-yard touchdown.

In eight games this season, Adams has eight runs of 59 yards or more.

In the 13 seasons prior, Notre Dame’s program had — you guessed it — eight runs of 59 yards or more.

Instead of flinching, the Irish snapped a streak. N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley, who had thrown 339 consecutive passes without an interception, lofted a ball towards the sideline that cornerback Julian Love jumped in front of, then carried behind a cavalcade of blockers 69 yards into the end zone.

It was Notre Dame’s 18th forced turnover in eight games, four more than the Irish managed all of last season.

Instead of flinching, Notre Dame tight end Durham Smythe and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson dragged their tippy-toes in bounds for back-to-back acrobatic catches, the latter being an 11-yard touchdown.

The distributor of those passes — junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — completed 10 of 19 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, while tacking on 21 rushing yards. It was his fourth consecutive game without an interception.

“We know what we have on the defensive and offensive side and special teams,” Wimbush said, wearing a “33 Trucking” hat that represents Adams’ Heisman Trophy campaign. “We weren’t worried (after the blocked punt). We knew we were going to put up points, and the defense was going to do what they’ve been doing all year.”

On Saturday, the Irish followed a predictable yet effective formula. They pummeled an overmatched opponent into submission, again. They turned turnovers into touchdowns, again. They allowed 20 or fewer points, something first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s group has done in all eight games this season.

Only this time, they were served up some early adversity.

Instead of flinching, they responded. Loudly. Emphatically.

And in no uncertain terms.

After it was over, as he walked to the northwest corner of the stadium to sing the alma mater, senior center Sam Mustipher said seven simple words — to no one, and everyone.

“Maybe one day we’ll get some respect.”

One day. Maybe.

How about Tuesday, when the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings come out?

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes (9) and C.J. Holmes (16) celebrate during the North Carolina State at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA