But the first shutout by Notre Dame's best defense in a quarter century was a fitting end to an undefeated home slate in which Bob Diaco's unit yielded just 11 points per game and six offensive touchdowns.
Per usual, the effort was made possible by the team's dominant front.
Front SevenSenior linebacker Manti Te'o is one of the two to three best players in the nation, all positions considered, but he has doubtless benefitted this fall from the presence of four future NFL players directly in front of him.
Nose guard Louis Nix casts aside futile solo-block efforts. His presence allows Te'o and the Will 'backer combo of Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox free lanes to charge into their gaps when they read run. Nix Nix just casts aside solo blocks. Makes run fits by the inside 'backers a lot easier. The massive junior anchor made stops of one yard or less on The Opening series, the second series, and the third series, immediately after which he broke up a pass at scrimmage. Notre Dame led 21-0 by the time I made one critique in my notes that "Nix still allows himself to be cut on occasion."
He began the second half in similar fashion to the first: shedding a solo block to make a stop for no gain before later showing his short space quickness, skating down scrimmage to contribute to a tackle on a screen pass to the boundary.
Most Improved -- October/November: Starring both next to Nix and on the edge over the last six weeks is 5th-year senior defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore. After missing nearly all of Game Two vs. Purdue with a calf injury and battling through it vs. Michigan State, Lewis-Moore has torn up opposing offensive lines, appearing as one of the team's (not defense, team) top 10 players against Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, BC, and Wake Forest.
Saturday I noted the veteran for "pushing the pocket" or creating pressure four times in the first half and two more in the second while "losing" (double teamed and pancaked) just once during the contest. On his loss, that double-team allowed Carlo Calabrese to fill the vacated gap for a 3rd and 1 tackle-for-loss.
Lewis-Moore broke up a pass at scrimmage, sniffed out a screen pass for a five-yard loss, and most important, moves his gap protector to the other side of scrimmage more often than not.
The 5th-year leader's understudy Sheldon Day produced his best effort since September, recording five tackles -- with just three total yards gained on the five stops. Day was the best football player on the field during the fourth quarter. He'll fill in well for the departed Lewis-Moore next season and has a chance to ascend to the latter's 5th-year level by 2014 (Day's junior season).
Bookends: I noted junior defensive end/Cat 'backer Prince Shembo for three pocket pressures Saturday in addition to drawing a holding call on a fourth. A revelation on the edge this season, Shembo finished with just one tackle but continued to influence plays with his consistent push. (Shembo posted a defensive season high four tackles for loss last week vs. Boston College and had seven total over three games prior to Saturday.)
Shembo (7 sacks, 12 QB hurries) has worked in congress with Stephon Tuitt (12 sacks, 9 hurries) from the season's outset. Tuitt recorded his 12th sack of the season (Shembo applied pressure forcing quarterback Tanner Price toward the sophomore behemoth) and influenced three key stops vs. the run, winning with a push across his gap on the aforementioned 3rd and 1 hit by Calabrese; combining with Nix for a two-yard stop one snap prior, and cleaning up a three-yard run after Te'o just missed on a run blitz in the first quarter.
Notre Dame has one clear team MVP this season in Te'o -- he owes a great debt to the nation's best front four for 11 games of dominance to date.
Te'o and CalabreseOutside of a standout effort vs. Stanford, Saturday was likely Calabrese's biggest game of impact this fall or since his sterling five-game stint to begin his career in 2010.
He created a fumble with a crushing hit downfield; he filled his gap with authority on a 3rd and 1 stop to force a punt, and aside from one "Ole'" effort on the sideline vs. running back De'Andre Martin following a screen pass, the senior played fundamentally sound football -- exactly what the WIll 'backer position needs next to the indomitable Te'o.
Te'o executed his 2012 calling card -- the delayed blitz inside -- to force yet another incomplete pass, this time one of the few instances Wake Forest appeared in Irish territory. He later brought a run blitz that helped contribute to a two-yard stop by Tuitt.
He combined with Day for a stop at scrimmage in the second half then later took pity on defense-less receiver Sherman Ragland, offering a "just-to-let-you-know-I'm-here" pop instead of a kill shot with the ball already dropped. Late in 2010 and throughout 2011, Te'o took away the tunnel screen game from opponents; he's added the negation of most short crosses to his pass defense repertoire this fall.
Front Seven Odds and EndsRedshirt-freshman Tony Springmann filled in on the nose (rather than both nose and defensive end) Saturday night. He contributed to an early incompletion with a pocket push into Tanner PRice's face on what likely would have been a easy 15-yard completion downfield. Springmann later brought pocket pressure up the middle (3-4 front) on Lewis-Moore's pass knockdown...
Dan Fox had a quiet game with Calabrese playing well and thus earning more time. He nonetheless finished with three tackles including a nice pop after a short catch late in the contest. Fox also helped force a third-down incompletion with a delayed blitz inside as Ishaq Williams came off the edge...
Lewis-Moore is inside his blocker's jersey upon the snap; absolutely influencing the line of scrimmage every play…Wake's offensive line gave ground to the Irish front with lane disciplined bull rushes most of the day. When a few twist stunts were employed, an Irish defensive lineman broke free late more often than not…It'll be tough for USC to run on the Irish as the edge is nearly always secured...
Redshirt freshman Cat 'backer Anthony Rabasa earned time late as a defensive in both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts…Classmate Ben Councell looked the part with two big sticks, one in space and through traffic from his Dog 'backer position…Aside from Calabrese's forced fumble and 3rd and 1 stick at scrimmage, Councell likely offered the best shot of the day with his seek and destroy mission vs. a late Wake Forest screen…
The linebacking corps third and most oft-reference RS-frosh Jarrett Grace has improved in his kick coverage efforts of late. He was running sideline to sideline in reserve duty Saturday…Ishaq Williams is a much more effective player in long-yardage situations: he can cover his zone, run up the seam, and apply outside pressure as a pass rusher pending 3-4 or 4-3 nickel fronts. Williams still plays a bit tentatively on the edge vs. the run in the base defense when he occasionally relieves Shembo...
Its notable that Lewis-Moore and Te'o both sought out strength & conditioning coach Paul Longo after leaving the field to standing ovations…