Notre Dame defense snarls again in victory over Wolfpack

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Before the scoreboard started to sting North Carolina State more than the wind chill, before Josh Adams flashed his Heisman-hype highlight, the Notre Dame defense took another quantum step forward.

And stomped.

It’s the kind of look that elite college football programs not only flash, but sustain over the long term. The short-term effects didn’t wear too shabbily either Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, as the ninth-ranked Irish wore out and wore down No. 14 North Carolina State, 35-14.

There were plenty of historical footnotes in a game that began with 39-degree temps and a 33-degree wind chill, including it being the sixth straight win by 20 points or more — something no Irish team has done since the 1966 national champs — and the eighth straight game to start the season that an ND opponent couldn’t breach 20 points.

Next Saturday against visiting Wake Forest (5-3), the Irish defense will try to be the first ND team to extend that streak to nine games since coach Ara Parseghian’s 1973 national titlists did so in all 10 of their regular-season games.

“We don't talk about winning. Winning is not even part of our vocabulary,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish bring a 7-1 record into the College Football Playoff selection committee’s first debate and rankings reveal Tuesday night.

“It's about the mindset that we've created to dominate our opponent. So winning is not even part of the equation with this group.”

The beauty in that mindset is that both sides of the ball seem to not only embrace it, but be able to execute it unlike Kelly’s previous best two ND teams, his defense-reliant 2012 12-1 squad and his offense-heavy 2015 team that finished in the Fiesta Bowl.

The nation’s sixth-best rushing team pounded the No. 6 rush defense in the FBS to the tune of 318 yards on 54 carries, 227 more than the Wolfpack’s average per game.

In fact, N.C. State (6-2) had not allowed more than 133 team rushing yards in a game this season and had not allowed an individual to run for more than reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s 73.

Saturday night, the Irish had 136 rushing yards by halftime. And Josh Adams ran for 202 yards on a career-high 27 carries, including the football equivalent of a home run — a 77-yard TD sprint.

“He's a great player,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said of Adams, who blipped past the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the game and did it in the fewest carries in school history (110). He pushed his season total to 1,165 by game’s end.

“Their offensive line is playing great,” Doeren continued. “You don't average 300 yards a game rushing after seven games, now eight, without being really good at what you do.

“I thought we had a good scheme. I thought they did a good job adjusting. You just have to tackle, you know. That's the No. 1 fundamental on defense. We didn't do that well enough, so it's disappointing.”

Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush rushed for a TD and the defense didn’t allow a rushing score, giving ND a 30-1 edge on its opponents in that category for the season.

The defense allowed just 50 rushing yards, though the Wolfpack was hurt by losing leading rusher and special teams star Nyheim Hines to an ankle injury in the first quarter. N.C. State finished with a season-low 263 total yards, 89 of which came in the second half when the Irish expanded a 21-14 edge to a 21-point command.

“The defense has been doing an amazing job this year,” Adams said. “Just going back to camp and just fighting with those guys each and every day, competing with them, making each other better. I mean, it's no surprise what they're doing this year.

“When we get to game day, it's just exciting to see those guys going out there and making plays. I just love that we're so close as a team that we're able to feed off each other, bring each other up and play off each other. They pick us up, and we try to pick them up whenever we can.”

Two pivotal pick-me-ups Saturday night came on N.C. State’s first two possessions of the second half. On a third-and-10 from the Irish 42-yard line, Irish cornerback Julian Love jumped a route and gave Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley his first interception after going 339 without a pick, dating back to last season.

That was 40 attempts short of the NCAA record held by former N.C. State/Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.

As Love did with an interception at Michigan State on Sept. 23, the sophomore returned it for a TD — this one for 69 yards for a 28-14 Irish lead at the 12:05 mark of the third quarter.

N.C. State tried to answer, driving all the way to the Irish six on its ensuing possession, but freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and junior linebacker Te’von Coney stuffed H-Back Jaylen Samuels for a one-yard loss.

“(Defensive coordinator Mike) Elko harped on us after the bye week,” Love said. “We were a good defense, and we needed to take that next step to be a championship-dominant defense.

“We were overlooked at times, but now it’s just us working hard and being relentless and showing the world what we’re about. It starts with our everyday preparation. It’s amazing it’s finally showing itself out.”

Adams provided the knockout blow with his long run at the 4:11 mark of the third quarter.

N.C. State struck first in the game, making a seismic special teams play for the second year in a row. Last year a punt block and return propelled the Wolfpack to a 10-3 win played in the outer bands of a hurricane in Raleigh, N.C.

This time defensive end James Smith-Williams had the block and linebacker Germaine Pratt fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 Wolfpack lead with 10:05 left in the first quarter. The momentum never took hold.

“I think that was most impressive for me, coaching for as long as I have, is when you get a punt block, it has a tendency to really affect your football team,” 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.

“The cumulative effect of that is what you saw today is, that we could run the ball 15, 16 consecutive times at the end of the game against a very, very good North Carolina State football team.”

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Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) brings down NC State’s Kelvin Harmon (3) during the Notre Dame-NC State NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN