It wasn't a night of spectacular offensive fireworks or game-changing pick sixes. But Notre Dame did what it needed to do in prevailing 24-17 over host Wake Forest on Saturday night.
On the ball
In his evolution from hybrid linebacker-safety to starting safety to team captain, senior Harrison Smith
has become one of Notre Dame
's most indispensable players.
That's especially evident when watching Notre Dame play from the press box. Smith flows to the ball so well, plays with such speed, and diagnoses so well, he is able to clean up many mistakes that might otherwise lead to big offensive yards by the opposition.
Smith led Notre Dame with 11 total tackles (eight solo) against Wake Forest
. His major miscue was a an arguable pass interference call that led to Wake's second and final touchdown.
He forced a fumble on second and goal from the 4 with six minutes left in the third quarter that was recovered by Gary Gray
. And on another big play late in the game, he made a tackle on a screen for a four-yard loss that helped lead to a late missed field goal.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly praised the team's defensive effort, which came without two major players on the defensive line, Ethan Johnson
and Kapron Lewis-Moore
, who are out with injuries.
"They completed some passes, but we kept the ball in front of us," Kelly said. "We didn't give up the big play. We made it very difficult for Wake Forest to run."
Notre Dame had some momentum with a 24-17 lead midway through the third quarter. After a first-down completion to Michael Floyd
, Kelly went into the bag of tricks. Tommy Rees
gave to Jonas Gray
, who pitched back to the quarterback. Rees heaved the ball deep for Floyd: interception and a big return, to boot. Rees had two interceptions, with the other on a deep ball with time almost expired late in the first half.
Why the trickeration?
"Obviously, we felt like it was set up well for us," Kelly said. "We will have to look at what happened there. I didn't see exactly and I didn't talk to Tommy about it. We can overcome those things."
And the Irish did, with the forced fumble by Smith recovered by Gary Gray on the next possession.
Young players made their presence felt on Saturday. Stephon Tuitt
had a huge game, with four tackles, two for loss, and a sack. Aaron Lynch
recorded a sack and broke up a pass. Prince Shembo
also had a sack.
A couple of less heralded younger players also made nice contributions. Austin Collinsworth
, always active as a defender on special teams, had two kick returns for 67 yards, the longest a 41-yarder. And with the Irish trailing 7-3, Wake's Lovell Jackson
broke off a 59-yard kickoff return. Josh Atkinson
made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Notre Dame 33, and the Irish held the Demon Deacons to a field goal, keeping within a touchdown early.