Week Nine: Wake Forest
Allan Joseph | Sunday, November 6, 2011
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Against a brand-new opponent in the smallest venue Notre Dame had played in since 1945, everything seemed different for the Irish. Yet it was a familiar statement that spurred Notre Dame (6-3) to a 24-17 victory over Wake Forest on a chilly night in BB&T Field.
“[Irish coach Brian] Kelly talked about it at halftime: playing like champions,” senior running back Jonas Gray said. “Champions grind out. They have grind-out games where everything may not be going the right way and you come together as a team and you can count on each other to make adjustments and get the victory.”
While the Demon Deacons (5-4) gave the Irish all they could handle in front of the over-capacity crowd of 36,307, Notre Dame battled back in a manner that pleased Kelly and adhered to his mantra.
“We have a sign that says ‘Play Like A Champion,’ and to play like a champion, you have to play consistently,” Kelly said. “You can’t have spurts. Tonight was a great step in that direction.”
Sophomore Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price led the Deacons to a hot start on the opening possession, finding open receiver after open receiver on the way to an early 7-0 lead.
“I just think they executed very well,” Kelly said. “They attacked some things and we had to make some adjustments to it. They are a well-coached football team.”
While the Irish would battle back and tie the game at 10-10 at the end of the first quarter, Wake Forest was able to seize a 17-10 lead less than 30 seconds before halftime on the strength of a two-yard scoring plunge from running back Josh Harris.
At halftime, however, Kelly and the coaching staff made a number of adjustments that would prove timely in the second half, as Harris’ touchdown and the ensuing extra point would be the last points the Deacons would earn all game.
“Our coaches do a great job of making adjustments and settling the guys down,” Kelly said. “We’re working hard at halftime. There’s a lot going on and I just think we do a pretty good job as a staff of getting our guys focused on what needs to happen in the third quarter.”
One of those adjustments was a renewed focus on a smashmouth running game, as the Irish ran the ball 22 times in the second half for 105 yards.
“The coaches did a great job making adjustments in the second half, just sticking to the stuff that worked,” Gray said. “When it came down to it, short-yardage situations, they put it in my hands, [and] the linemen did a great job blocking up front.
“We knew we had to be physical in the second half.”
That mentality paid off as Notre Dame scored on each of its first two possessions in the second half, retaking control of the contest and never looking back, In doing so, Notre Dame established the final 24-17 margin of victory.
“[That was] huge. It just gets the momentum back,” Irish sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees said. “It put our defense in a position where we weren’t playing from behind.”
Wake Forest had an opportunity to knot the game back up when Rees threw an interception on a “flea-flicker” trick play designed to find senior receiver Michael Floyd downfield.
“It’s kind of hit-or-miss sometimes, but I’ve got to do better than that,” Rees said.
The Deacons’ threat was short-lived, as just three plays later, senior safety Harrison Smith forced a fumble recovered by senior cornerback Gary Gray.
“Our defense came up and made a huge play for us,” Rees said. “That was kind of a turning point in the game.”
Kelly said he was encouraged by that sequence of plays, as the turnovers that have so often cost the Irish this year did not do so this week.
“We can overcome those things,” Kelly said. “It’s the mistakes that we’ve had in the red zone, the fumbling the football, and those things. We did not beat ourselves today.”
After struggling to contain Price and the Wake Forest aerial attack in the first quarter, the Notre Dame defense shut the Deacons out in the second half, aided in large part by a switch from a base 3-4 defense to a nickel package.
“They completed some passes, but we kept the ball in front of us and didn’t give up the big play,” Kelly said. “[We] made it very difficult for Wake Forest to run, and then it became, for us, the ability to get after the quarterback, so we knew the ball was going to be thrown.”
As the Irish took a one-possession lead into the fourth quarter, Kelly went to the ground, calling runs on 14 of Notre Dame’s 15 fourth-quarter plays to grind out the game.
“It’s who we are and this football team obviously takes on an identity,” Kelly said. “They’ve run the ball effectively all year. Again, when you’re on the road and you’re playing good competition, you’ve got to close the game out and we did a great job closing it out running the ball.”
Senior center Mike Golic Jr., who entered the game after senior center Braxston Cave left with an injury, said he and his fellow offensive linemen enjoyed closing the game out.
“The O-linemen always want to pound the rock, and that’s something Coach Kelly’s really emphasized,” Golic said. “Anytime you get to see Jonas and [junior running back Cierre Wood] and those guys going off, it makes the O-line feel really good.”
For his part, Jonas Gray said he enjoyed being able to close out the game.
“I wanted to make sure that I had a hand in finishing the game. That’s what it came down to,” he said. “Our linemen did a great job blocking up front. Our receivers did a great job blocking on the perimeter, and Coach Kelly did a great job dialing in plays.”
With his Irish bowl-eligible with three games remaining, Kelly said the program has finally started to show signs of responding to his overall mission.
“We’re on the right track. … The guys know what they’re playing for,” Kelly said. “We’ve been trying to build this and it’s starting to come and you can see it and that’s why I’m proud of my guys tonight.”