Defense holds Wake Forest to one red-zone score in win
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, November 16, 2015
On a day where sustained offense was hard to come by for the No. 4 Irish, it was the defense that delivered a strong performance, holding Wake Forest to single digits in Notre Dame’s 28-7 victory Senior Day.
The Irish (9-1) were unable to hit the 300 total-yard plateau on offense for the first time all season, and the Demon Deacons (3-7, 1-5 ACC) out-gained them to the tune of 340-282 yards.
The defense, however, bent but never broke to lead the Irish to victory. It amassed eight tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and three fourth-down stops to make the big plays needed to stunt the Demon Deacons offense despite being on the field for 35 minutes and 48 seconds.
Notre Dame set the defensive tone for the game on the Demon Deacons’ first offensive drive. Despite a long, methodical 11-play, 61-yard drive, the defense stopped the Demon Deacons on a fourth-and-eight situation on the Irish 33-yard line to bring an end to Wake Forest’s early momentum.
That drive marked the first of several long offensive possessions for Wake Forest that ended with big defensive stops by Notre Dame.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said his defense made a few mistakes on third downs that kept the Irish on the field but corrected those errors by making the plays it needed to make when it mattered.
“Wake Forest did a very good job of controlling the football,” Kelly said. “We gave up a couple of throws [on third down] where we just have to be tighter in our man coverage situation.
“But you know, we were pretty stingy on fourth down, so we made up for it in fourth-down situations.”
The fourth down stops proved to be crucial late, as Wake Forest managed to push into the red zone four times but only had seven points to show for it. The defensive success in the red zone was due largely in part to the play calls, Kelly said.
“We did some really good things in mixing some things up in terms of pressures and then not bringing pressures, so I thought [defensive coordinator] Brian [VanGorder] did a very good job of calling the game in that short field,” Kelly said. “That’s really important, too. You have to call a good game. You have to be diversified down in the red zone, and I thought we were.”
Notre Dame’s defensive performance was not limited to big stops, however. With the offense only pushing the ball into the red zone twice over the course of the game, the Irish relied on the defense to put points on the board. And the biggest play on the defensive side of the football came by way of sophomore defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti.
On Wake Forest’s second offensive drive of the day, Trumbetti intercepted Demon Deacons sophomore quarterback John Wolford and ran the ball back 28 yards for the score to push the Irish ahead 14-0, swinging the momentum fully in favor of the home team.
“That’s kind of what we’ve been preaching all week,” Irish junior linebacker and captain Jaylon Smith said. “Coach has been telling us that we need turnovers, and we need a score as a whole defense, and that’s something we accomplished.”
For Trumbetti, the play was so exciting he doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he said.
“When I got to the sideline, I was really worried about catching my breath because I thought I was going to pass out because I was so excited and everyone was like jumping on me,” Trumbetti said. “I think I forgot to breathe or something.”
Although Trumbetti’s play might have been the most impactful for the unit, it was senior defensive lineman Romeo Okwara who had the biggest game overall. In fact, he earned his first career game ball in his last game at Notre Dame Stadium for his game-high three sacks and relentless pressure on Wolford throughout the evening.
Over the last five games, Okwara has racked up eight sacks, giving him a team-high nine on the season. Okwara said he attributes his recent success to finding what works for him out on the field and sticking to it.
“In the past, I’ve been trying a lot of different things,” Okwara said. “I knew I was good at certain things, but I always tried a lot of different things. [Now], I’ve just been doing the things that keep working.
“It’s using my power more instead of trying to do speed rushes outside. I guess my power works better for me, so I’ve just been sticking to that.”
Kelly said Okwara is beginning to come into the player he’s always had the potential to be.
“We’re just seeing that maturation process kind of come together,” Kelly said. “[He’s] long, athletic, starting to really understand the game of football, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in front of us.”