Survive and Advance

"Grit and toughness" allowed Brian Kelly's Irish to overcome a slow start in 24-17 victory at Wake Forest.

In a performance reminiscent of his team's Week Four win at Pittsburgh, Brian Kelly's Irish found a way to win their third road game in four outings this season. And while most Notre Dame fans will likely wake up Sunday morning wondering why their team couldn't more easily handle a seemingly pedestrian Wake Forest group, the Irish head coach offered a far different take on his team's sixth win of 2011.

"The words I would use: ‘gritty, tough,'" Kelly beamed of his team's closeout effort post-game. "We had guys injured. Manti (Te'o) was playing on one leg, and he's fighting, playing for his teammates, playing for Notre Dame.

"You have to win games like this where it's just a gritty tough performance, that's all I can say."

Paramount in that performance was Notre Dame's two-headed running back monster of Jonas Gray (making his second straight start) and Cierre Wood. The pair produced 179 yards on 33 carries, the second-highest combined carries total for the duo this season.

Every one of those yards was needed against a Demon Deacons group that wouldn't quit. Of course, they couldn't score, either, at least not in the game's final 30 minutes thanks to another stout third quarter effort by Bob Diaco's defense (they've allowed six third quarter points in nine games this fall) and the first fourth quarter shutout by his crew since the aforementioned Week Four squeaker in Heinz Field.

Gray gained the game's final, decisive yard, barreling up the middle on 3rd and 1 at the 1:47 mark of the final quarter for a first down from which point the Irish knelt out the clock.

"There's a trajectory that you want to be on and that is when you go on the road you want to play the kind of football that allows you to win consistently, and that is closing games out," Kelly said. "Obviously the third quarter was the deciding part of this game in terms of our ability to put points on the board, and I thought we did a great job in the second half (defensively) against Wake Forest.

"And then closing out the game running the football."

The Irish didn't play a great game or defeat a great team. They won their sixth game because they slowed a solid offense and dominated the first 7:30 of third quarter, turning a 17-10 half time deficit into a 24-17 lead and final margin.

The Irish turned it over twice, responding to the latter with a fumble caused of their own as Wake Forest breeched the red zone late in the third; the fumbled recovered by Gary Gray, forced by omnipresent safety and team captain Harrison Smith. It was just the fourth taken away from an opponent by the Irish this season.

Most important, Brian Kelly won for the first time in six chances when his Irish trailed at the half. They won because Robert Blanton is as solid a cornerback the program has seen since Shane Walton in 2002. They won because a freshman named Stephon Tuitt starred in his third career start, playing four strong quarters punctuated by a red zone sack that helped move the Demon Deacons out of field goal range in the final quarter.

They won because unlike the season's first two contests, they refused to give away a game to a team with far less-developed talent.

"We did not beat ourselves tonight," Kelly concluded.

Sometimes that's all it takes.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories