Jim Grobe

Wake Forest embraces the role of spoiler


On Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium, we won’t be short on subplots. A group of seniors will be saying goodbye to the Golden Dome. Manti Te’o will take his curtain call. And the Irish will look to sway some undecided voters as they try to make up ground in a three-team race for the national championship.

Somewhere down the list is Jim Grobe’s Wake Forest team. And that’s probably just fine for the Demon Deacons, who are desperately looking for their sixth win of the season.

“I think certainly you’d be a spoiler if you got to sneak up there and get a win,” Grobe said in his weekly press conference. “Just playing Notre Dame is going to have your kids pumped up.”

On paper, there isn’t much to like about this Wake Forest team. They’ve been brutal on the road, outscored 118-36 in their four road games, averaging less than 200 yards while going 1-3. Their lone victory against a winning team came in week two against North Carolina. They’ve got an offensive line that’s decimated by injuries and plagued with youth, a combination that doesn’t bode well against Notre Dame’s front seven. But they’ll line up on Saturday afternoon knowing they have the opportunity to knock off a national championship contender in mid-November.

“Well we certainly hope our guys don’t go there for sightseeing,” Grobe said. “That’s going to be a key. I think we just have to go play. I’m going to try not to make too big of a deal out of it. We’ve played a lot of good teams so far this year. This will be our third game against a top 10 team that we’re playing. We just know that going on the road is tough and playing a great team like Notre Dame will be a challenge.”

One thing playing in the Demon Deacons favor is their somewhat familiarity with the Irish. Last year, in a game that was one of the most highly-anticipated in Groves Stadium history, Wake Forest battled Notre Dame until the end, having a chance to tie the game up late before falling 24-17. And while Grobe’s squad won’t have the friendly confines of home field advantage on their side, the familiarity with an opponent helps.

“We were very disappointed last year because we had a chance to win, or at least tie it late, and didn’t get that done,” Grobe said. But I think playing at Notre Dame is a little different. This will be a great environment and make our job a lot tougher. But I think playing at home last year really helped us.”

Grobe’s experience coaching at Air Force has given him a look at a football Saturday at Notre Dame. And with the added emotions of Senior Day and a perfect crisp autumn day forecasted, the veteran head coach has his team ready for their surroundings.

“It’s kind of business as usual at practice, but he’s told us that it’s going to be a crazy environment,” fullback Tommy Bohanon said. “You have to think of the craziest stadium that you’ve played in, and it’s going to be something like that. Like going down to Death Valley or something like that. It’s going to be even more crazy than that.”

Perhaps overstating the Notre Dame crowd-noise experience just a bit, Bohanon’s point is valid, if only because of the perfect storm that’s been building in South Bend all season. And for an inexperienced football team that’s crumbled at the seams this year when facing stiff competition, the mental battle will be just as important for Wake Forest as anything happening on the field.

“It’s all mental,” safety A.J. Marshall said about the nerves that come with playing a big road game. “Once you get that first little bit of contact, I feel like we get relaxed. Whether it’s the first catch, first block or first knockdown, you really start to get comfortable and get acquainted to the game.”

“There will be almost 100,000 fans going against us, and we can’t wait to go out there and play.”

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”