Snap Judgments: ND vs. Wake Forest

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame remains solidly in the playoff hunt. Lost yardage plays and a hit-and-miss defense make the home stretch for the Irish a bit uncertain.

• One of the reasons I suspected that Notre Dame might not reach the 40-point mark – besides the fact that Wake Forest is quite respectable defensively – was the potential for an offensive letdown. Coming off the road in back-to-back weeks on senior day against an inferior opponent, there were ample reasons to suspect that the Irish might not be real crisp, especially against a Wake Forest defense that proved itself capable throughout the previous nine games.

The pre-game notion of “Notre Dame should beat Wake Forest by 40!” was far-fetched it you looked at the reality of the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest came into this game ranked among the nation’s top 60 in all the major defensive categories. Plus, they were 20th in red zone touchdown percentage defense and 12th in third down defense.

Only one of its first nine opponents – North Carolina – had scored more than 35 points against the Demon Deacons. Five of the nine had scored 24 points or less. Other than North Carolina – which scored 50 against Wake Forest – the Demon Deacons’ defense had not seen an offense like Notre Dame’s.

This isn’t a push button game. Emotions run high and low, due largely to the physical nature of the game. It’s difficult to get up for every game, especially one with some built-in reasons for a letdown.

Throw in the fact this was senior day as Notre Dame was trumpeting the fact that with a victory over the Demon Deacons, the senior class would walk away with the most wins in Notre Dame Stadium history.

A 27-point favorite winning by 21 in its home finale? That sounds about right.

• It’s really astonishing how an offense as accomplished and explosive as Notre Dame’s gets dumped for lost yardage as frequently as it does. Notre Dame had six lost yardage plays in the first half alone, including four in one series!

They say it only takes one breakdown along an offensive line for a play to fail. Maybe the frequency of lost yardage plays indicates it’s more than one. It also may explain why Notre Dame has been so hit-and-miss on third-and-short this season.

We’ve been affixing the problem to C.J. Prosise and his lack of experience hitting the holes quickly because he’s only been a running back for such a short period of time. But Josh Adams experienced many of the same things that Prosise has this season. Of Adams’ 17 carries, more than half (nine) were for two yards or less, including several for loss.

There are two reasons why it’s difficult to picture Notre Dame as a playoff team. One is the propensity for the defense to give up more points than the opposing offense seems worthy (although that wasn’t the case in this game). The other is the offense’s inability to avoid 2nd-and-12, 3rd-and-13 plays, as well as the difficulty it continues to have in 3rd-and-short situations.

Ultimately, one or both of those factors will prove to be Notre Dame’s downfall.

• While it’s true the defense has struggled holding opponents down this year, Brian VanGorder’s unit sure stepped up big in the red zone against Wake Forest. Four times the Demon Deacons entered the red zone. They came away with just one touchdown, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.

Sheldon Day said that VanGorder kept asking his defense when they were going to man-up in the red zone, and this was the game, although it helped that Wake Forest is ranked No. 116 in touchdown percentage in the red zone. In other words, it was weakness vs. weakness and Wake Forest’s weakness was greater than Notre Dame’s.

With the Irish leading 14-0 early in the second quarter, Jaylon Smith stopped running back Tyler Bell on 4th-and-goal at the one. Talk about a momentum swing. Two plays later, Josh Adams put his name in the Notre Dame record book with a 98-yard touchdown run. That was a 14-point turnaround and Notre Dame led, 21-0.

The second red-zone stonewalling came with a double whammy – a Romeo Okwara sack and a personal foul on Wake Forest, which forced a 51-yard field goal that drifted wide right as time expired in the first half.

Wake Forest scored on its third red-zone entry, and after the Irish responded to make it 28-7, the Demon Deacons had one more shot midway through the fourth quarter.

How great is Jaylon Smith? On 3rd-and-goal from the seven, his blitz forced an incompletion. On 4th-and-goal from the seven, it was Smith who defended tight end Cam Serigne at the goal line.

The kid can do it all, which is why we almost assuredly saw Jaylon Smith play in Notre Dame Stadium for the final time.

This game ends up a whole lot closer without Notre Dame’s tremendous red-zone defense, led by a tremendous player.

• Remember the name Dave Clawson. He’s going to build the Wake Forest program into a respectable one, and that’s going to propel him to a much higher profile job in a Power 5 conference.

Wake Forest is abominable offensively, but they’re a whole lot better than they were a year ago when they averaged 1.3 yards per carry and 39.7 yards rushing per game. They’re only at 3.1 and 110.0 now, but that’s a huge improvement.

Meanwhile, their defense has continued to get better, and it’s not like they’re doing it with four- and five-star recruits. Yeah, they gave up 50 to North Carolina, but if you saw Notre Dame try to corral the Tar Heels last year, you know it can happen.

Five of Wake Forest’s first nine opponents this year scored 24 points or less. Notre Dame’s offense scored just 21 points. This is remarkable when you consider how anemic the Demon Deacons’ offense is. That means the defense is constantly being tested, and they haven’t been able to rely on turnovers with just a total of eight forced through 10 games.

Bottom line: Notre Dame did what it needed to do in order to win the game by three touchdowns. But Clawson is a good coach who is going under the radar among fans, but not among athletic directors.


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