Efficient Notre Dame offense wears down Wake Forest in 56-27 road win

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.

The tempo of Wake Forest’s offense was supposed to cause problems for Notre Dame’s defense.

There were moments on Saturday that was the case. But by the time the game shifted to the fourth quarter at BB&T Field, the Irish were able to clear their bench with fresh bodies and a comfortable lead in a 56-27 victory.

Instead, Notre Dame’s offense was taking it to the Demon Deacons. The No. 8 Irish (4-0) ran through Wake Forest defenders, finished drives in the end zone and pulled away from a team in the second half for the first time all season.

“We beat them in tempo today,” said head coach Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame may have not run more plays (76) than Wake Forest (92), but it appeared that the Irish were the better conditioned team with the kickoff temperature at 83 degrees.

“I’m pleased with the conditioning of our football team,” Kelly said. “You get challenged on the road, certainly against Power Five teams. First road game for us, but you don’t expect it to be over 100 degrees on the field as well against an uptempo team.

“That challenge, in terms of your conditioning and your football team and its ability to handle that, that to me is very satisfying, because you know that you prepared your football team.”

The preparation included installing junior Ian Book into the starting lineup at quarterback against Wake Forest (2-2). After a shaky start, the decision played out in Notre Dame’s favor as Book led eight touchdown drives.

Book, who finished 25-of-34 passing (74 percent) for 325 yards and two touchdowns, only left the field late in the fourth quarter when freshman Phil Jurkovec took his first college snaps. Wimbush, the starter in the first three victories, didn’t play at all.

Book even rushed 10 times for 43 yards and three touchdowns.

“Obviously we made a big decision to go with Ian Book in the game,” Kelly said. “I didn’t sleep great (Friday) night, because that’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback that was leading your football team was (12-3) as a starter. But I had a lot of confidence in Ian, and our offense played to the level that it was capable of. That certainly showed itself (Saturday).”

Book and the Irish offense started quietly. For the first time this season, Notre Dame failed to score on its first offensive drive in a game. The next drive, which lasted six plays and gained 21 yards, ended in a turnover on downs. The third drive derailed on its second play, with wide receiver Michael Young fumbling on a sweep.

That miscue allowed Wake Forest to score first and take a 3-0 lead. It was the first time Notre Dame had trailed all season.

But it didn’t last long. Book responded by completing all four of his passes for 47 yards on the next drive. Then running back Jafar Armstrong finished it off with a 30-yard touchdown run through the heart of the Wake Forest defense. In a matter of two minutes and 13 seconds, the Irish took the lead.

The offense accelerated from there. Notre Dame pushed the next three drives into the end zone to take a 28-13 lead into halftime. At that point, Book had already completed 16 of his 24 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown. Wimbush needed 31 pass attempts for his season-high of 17 completions in the Ball State game. The offense looked different — and more efficient — with Book at the helm.

“It’s where we have wanted it go and grow,” Kelly said of the expanded offense. “The balance necessary of run and pass is where ultimately this offense has been. I brought (offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) in to run a balanced run-pass offense. You saw what it should look like today.”

The Irish also showed what it looks like to finish off an opponent with authority. Book led the offense on four consecutive touchdown drives to start the second half. Kelly asked his team at halftime to deliver at the start of the second half, and they followed his orders.

“I said, ‘We’ve been here before a la Vanderbilt, Ball State, whatever game, Michigan, and we haven’t been able to put an opponent away.’ ” Kelly said. “I said, ‘Listen, here’s what we need. I want to kick this thing off and tackle (kick returner Greg Dortch). OK? Defense three-and-out, and we are taking this ball and scoring.’

“That’s a sense of urgency. That’s how we’re going to define who we are — and we did that. Then they saw that, and we’re able to feed off of that.”

Notre Dame’s defense allowed the Irish to stretch the lead in the second half. Wake Forest entered the game averaging 542 yards per game. Its offense only managed 398 yards against the Irish.

Dortch, who led the country through three weeks with 224.7 all-purpose yards per game, was limited to 109. He caught six passes for 56 yards.

“We doubled him the whole game — inside, outside,” Kelly said. “You’re going to have some issues. The quarterback run caused us some problems. But we were willing to give some things up to take some things away.

“We were relentless up front. We were physical. Every time they threw the ball, there was pressure on the quarterback. It’s a difficult offense to defend in its entirety, but we were smart in what we gave them, if you will, and what we took away.”

Notre Dame’s defense sacked Wake Forest three times and recorded 10 tackles in the backfield. Safety Alohi Gilman finished with a team-high nine tackles. Despite getting some breaks at linebacker for the first time this season, Drue Tranquill still finished with eight tackles, two tackles for a loss and one sack.

The Irish rotated in a lot of bodies on defense and special teams. Twenty-six different players recorded tackles for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s defense had been pressed in previous games. Because the offense hadn’t scored more than 24 points in each of the first three games, the defense had to make big stops in the second half. Inserting Book at quarterback was part of the solution, Kelly said.

“The end in mind is that we needed to win,” Kelly said of the Book decision. “But we weren’t winning at a level that was going to allow us to continue to win. We were putting too much stress on other parts of the operation, in particular the defense.

“They played 97 snaps against Ball State. It was going to break. So it needed to get fixed now, and it had nothing to do with Brandon in particular as much as how the offense needed to be much more effective. That’s it.”

A total of 566 yards of offense, including 98 of the team’s rushing yards from Armstrong, was plenty efficient. That led Wake Forest’s defense to breaking down.

“It was pretty hot out, so when we’re going tempo and we’re just keeping on 10 yards this play, 15 yards, 20 yards, it’s going to wear out any defense,” Armstrong said. “Our tempo and our production was definitely getting them tired.”

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill, back, sacks Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman (10) during the Notre Dame-Wake Forest NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, NC.
Notre Dame senior Troy Pride Jr. (5) is setting the tone for the Irish cornerbacks in spring practice.