Opponent Outlook: Wake Forest could wear down Notre Dame's defense

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

A wrapped non-throwing hand didn’t stop Brandon Wimbush from passing for 280 yards against Wake Forest last season.

Wimbush’s passing yards in the 48-37 Notre Dame win were a career-high until Ball State, when he had 297 yards on Sept. 8. It helped the Irish fend off a Demon Deacon attack that finished among the top in a handful of offensive categories.

Quarterback John Wolford graduated, though, handing the reigns to true freshman Sam Hartman. No. 1 quarterback Kendall Hinton returns from a three-game suspension, but Hartman’s impressive start allowed him to retain the starting gig for now.

Will Hartman and Co. be able to finish this Saturday unlike Michigan, Ball State and Vanderbilt the previous three Saturdays? We caught up with Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal for a closer look at the Demon Deacons.

Wake Forest ran 105 plays against Boston College and ranks second in plays per game (93). Notre Dame yielded 97 plays to lowly Ball State. Do you expect the Demon Deacons to wear down the Irish more than any opponent will this season?

O’Neill: “Yes, it’s Wake Forest’s strategy every game to run an up-tempo offense. That term might actually sell it short. The Deacons ran 88 plays last year against Notre Dame in South Bend, for 587 yards. Wake Forest’s offensive line prides itself on wearing down opponents, but not by traditional run-it-down-your-throat standards, but by being the better-conditioned unit. Once a Wake Forest possession starts, the Deacons rarely substitute, meaning those 10-to-15-play drives can drain defenses.”

Hartman’s favorite target has been Greg Dortch, who ranks fourth nationally with 28 receptions. You documented, however, that he didn’t catch his second pass last Thursday until the end of the third quarter. Why did Wake go away from Dortch and how do you expect that to change this week?

O’Neill: “Last week was a matter of two things that mostly kept the ball out of Dortch’s hands — one, Boston College brought their safeties to blanket-cover him several times and two, Wake Forest didn’t come up with creative ways to get him the ball. Almost all 28 of his catches have been downfield, and I’d expect that to change with some quick screens or even shovels on jet sweeps if Notre Dame does the same thing, in terms of shadowing Dortch with a safety in addition to a nickel cornerback.”

Last week, the Demon Deacon secondary allowed five touchdowns of 27, 35, 29, 71 and 40 yards. They now allow 310 passing yards per game (118th). What changes are coming, and how do you expect they will defend Brandon Wimbush?

O’Neill: “I’m not sure wholesale changes are coming to personnel — the Deacons have talented defensive backs, they’re just caught out of position way too often. I’d expect safety Chuck Wade Jr. to be replaced, possibly by true freshman Nasir Greer. They’ll definitely challenge Wimbush to beat them with his arm — though the same could be said for Wake Forest’s defensive scheme in last year’s meeting, and he threw for 280 yards on them.”

In the second half against Boston College, Wake scored six points across three trips in which it crossed the 10-yard line. Vanderbilt crossed Notre Dame territory seven straight times but managed 17 points. Was Wake’s struggles a fluke, and how big of a role do you expect red zone efficiency to be in this one?

O’Neill: “The red-zone struggles were puzzling because of the play calls from Wake Forest. Offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero didn’t have one of his better games — he’s a brilliant play-caller, normally — and I thought that was the difference. Wake Forest has two explosive running backs in Matt Colburn II and Cade Carney, and giving them the ball inside the 10-yard line needs to be a priority — especially without tight end Cam Serigne (graduated) in the mix anymore.”

Wake Forest has nine days to prepare for Notre Dame. What kind of impact did Hurricane Florence have on Wake and its ability to prepare?

O’Neill: “Good question. Wake Forest wasn’t scheduled to practice until Sunday, which is when the impact from Florence was heaviest in this area. But McCreary Field House opened in spring of 2016, giving Wake Forest a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility. They don’t lose practice time to weather conditions anymore, which Dave Clawson will beam about in his Tuesday news conference.”

Who: No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. Wake Forest (2-1)

Kickoff: Saturday at Noon, EDT

Where: BB&T Field; Winston-Salem, N.C.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 7½