High-powered Notre Dame offense overwhelms Wake Forest, 48-37

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It wasn’t so much a style-point issue as it was Notre Dame’s defense getting away from the personality it had spent months forging.

The AP fifth-ranked and CFP No. 3 Irish managed to survive and advance a step deeper into the College Football Playoff picture, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, thanks largely to a near-record offensive performance that coaxed only 22 yards from Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams.

With Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s stamp on both defenses Saturday, it seemed the unlikeliest of settings for a Big 12 game to break out. The Irish ended up on the right side of the offense-a-palooza with Wake Forest, 48-37, but left doing some deep soul-searching.

“It didn’t really feel like a win,” said sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool, who contributed nine receptions for 180 yards — both career highs — and a TD to the 710 total yards the Irish amassed against Elko’s former team.

“Obviously, we’re happy we got the win, but we expect so much more of ourselves offensively and defensively.”

They’ll need it all next Saturday when Notre Dame (8-1) heads to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., to face CFP No. 10 Miami (Fla.) in primetime (8 p.m. EST, ABC-TV). The last time the Irish played in that facility was the 2012 BCS National Championship Game with Alabama, a game the Irish lost 42-14.

Saturday’s game had some of that feel defensively, with the nation’s No. 10 scoring defense and 34 total defense getting gashed for 587 yards, 30 short of the school record for most yards in a game yielded, though ND’s offense was overwhelming enough to keep Wake (5-4) from sniffing an upset.

Instead the Demon Deacons fell to 1-59 all-time against top 10 teams.

“Winning is hard, especially in November,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “And anytime that you find a way to win football games when teams are executing at a high level, which Wake Forest executed their offense extremely well today, you're very pleased.

“Having said that, this game will humble you in a heartbeat if you take any of it for granted. I think it was a great reminder for our players that this game requires you to be 100 percent locked in at all times.”

Presumably, Notre Dame will have Adams at 100 percent moving forward. The junior running back left the game in the first quarter with 22 yards on five carries and never returned. He was ND’s seventh-leading rusher on the day.

Kelly never really pinpointed what kept Adams on the sideline, but he went into great detail about what it wasn’t.

“He had a busy week with exams,” Kelly said of the nation’s No. 6 rusher (146.1 yards per game) coming in. “He was a bit rundown this week. He wasn't feeling himself. So we were really conservative with him in terms of not putting him in the game, but he wasn't in our concussion protocol.

“We didn't have to move him through with a head injury, per se. Hopefully, he's feeling better tomorrow with some rest. … We're not going to put somebody in the game if he doesn't feel 100 percent. Sometimes it doesn't even have to do with head injury.”

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush took the baton and ran for 110 yards on 12 carries and his school record 12th and 13th rushing TDs, as the nation’s sixth-leading rushing team surpassed the 300-rushing mark for the seventh time this season and fifth game in a row (388).

With 639 rushing yards this season, the junior first-year starter is 28 yards away from passing Carlyle Holiday for the No. 3 spot on the ND single-season rushing list for QBs and on pace to break Tony Rice’s record of 884 set in 1989.

Junior Dexter Williams (33 yards, 3 carries) also left early with an apparent re-injury of a chronic ankle injury that’s lingered with him since a 38-18 win at Michigan State on Sept. 23. As he has done so many times this season, fourth-stringer Deon McIntosh came through — this time for 63 yards on nine carries with a TD.

Wimbush himself had to come out of the game late in the first half with a contusion to his left (non-throwing) hand. After returning to start the third quarter with the Irish up 31-10, Wimbush turned the game over to Ian Book for good with plenty of time left for a Wake Forest comeback.

Book was stout, but the Irish defense wilted.

The sophomore was 8-of-8 for 50 yards passing in relief with a TD and rushed for 54 yards on three carries. Wimbush managed 280 yards through the air on 15-of-30 accuracy, and it could have been more had it not been for several drops by the receivers.

“I think there is a lot of points that we left up on the board, and it's scary,” said Wimbush, who was awarded the game ball by Kelly. “And I say that every week, but I think one of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking.

“I'm not worried about those guys dropping balls. I've got to continue to give them opportunities to go make plays, because those guys are playmakers.”

“It could have been a 900-yard day for them,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson added, pointing to the missed offensive opportunities.

Still, Notre Dame is now averaging 41.3 points a game, more than three points per game more than the school record owned by coaching legend Ara Parseghian’s 1968 team. At one point Saturday, it appeared the Irish had cleared Ara’s 1969 team’s school record for total yards in a game.

But an end-of-the-game kneel-down for a loss of three yards and a corrected clerical error of 10 yards left the Irish 10 yards short of the 720 put up against Navy 48 seasons ago.

In the bigger picture ND missed out on some bigger history. The Irish had gone eight games into the season without allowing more than 20 points, and was the only team in the FBS this season to do so. Had ND done it one more game, it would have been the first Irish team do to so since the 1973 national champs.

And its string of six straight wins of 20 points or more was also truncated by Wake. That leaves the 1966 and 1943 teams, both national champs, as the only two of 129 Irish teams ever to push such a streak to seven games.

Wake quarterback John Wolford, No. 7 nationally in passing efficiency, looked the part Saturday. He threw for 331 yards and two TDs, and ran for 59 yards and became only the second player this season to score a rushing touchdown on the Irish defense.

Then teammates Matt Colburn and Isaiah Robinson each added one more.

“It was frustrating, and as the game went on, we got more and more frustrated,” said cornerback Julian Love, one of the few bright spots on the defense.

Love recorded his third interception of the season and returned it 25 yards to the Wake 5 in the first half. That, in turn, set up a five-yard scoring run by Tony Jones Jr.

With 153 interception return yards this season, Love stands second on the ND single-season list. Nick Rassas is first with 197 yards.

And with three pass breakups Saturday, the sophomore broke Clarence Ellis’ single-season school record of 13 set in 1969. Love has 14, with three regular-season games and at least one postseason game left to go.

“I almost can’t believe it,” Love said of the record. “I’ve been a fan all my life. To be etched in history is pretty special to me.”

But it didn’t take away the concern or the burn of the moment.

“I think we need to keep a more level head,” he said. “Keep doing what we’ve been doing all season. It’s tough when the (CFP) rankings come out. That’s what the rankings do — they weed out some teams. I think we maintained enough focus to win.

“It just shows that the little things matter. We got the win. We’ll take that. We’ll celebrate that, but we have to come back from this.”

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Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) runs in a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Wake Forest NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN