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Five things we learned: No. 3 Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0

Nov 17, 2012, 9:43 PM EDT

Wake Forest v Notre Dame Getty Images

For a long time 38-0 signified the gap between Notre Dame and college football’s elite programs. In 2003, Michigan embarrassed the Irish, a top five team proving skeptics right that 2002 was a fluke as the Wolverines pounded the Irish, holding Notre Dame to just seven first downs and 140 yards.

“They came at us in every imaginable way,” Tyrone Willingham said. “There’s nothing positive about how we played. We were outplayed, outcoached, everything.”

A year after another Irish resurrection, Notre Dame felt the brunt of two more ugly 38-0 defeats. With Charlie Weis needing to rebuild after back-to-back BCS berths, the Irish crashed back to earth, in a season where Notre Dame had to rally to avoid being the worst team in school history. Again against Michigan, the Irish were thumped, gaining just 79 total yards against a Wolverines team that had lost to Appalachian State. And against the Irish’s other heralded rival USC, the Trojans demolished the Irish at home, with back-up quarterback Mark Sanchez breezing by Notre Dame before Pete Carroll called off the dogs.

“You see where they are, you see where we are,” Charlie Weis said after the defeat. We’re at different ends of the spectrum at this point.”

They symbolism of Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory over Wake Forest will mean a lot more if the Irish take care of business against Southern Cal next weekend. But after lopsided losses so often over the past decade, the fact that it’s Notre Dame — now 11-0 and marching towards a potential birth in the national title game — separating itself from competitors by wide margins, well, it shows you just how far this team has come.

“We’ve played three top ten teams, all of them great,” Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said after the defeat. “I can’t imagine anybody from what I saw today, playing better than Notre Dame.”

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Irish’s 38-0 demolition of Wake Forest.

***

On a day filled with emotion and enthusiasm, the Irish played close to the perfect game.

After an emotional pregame ceremony that honored the Irish seniors and their families, many wondered how Notre Dame would start the game. After an inauspicious beginning — a holding call on the opening kickoff pinned the Irish deep in their own territory — Everett Golson threw a perfect strike to Theo Riddick for a big 3rd and 11 conversion. On the very next snap, Cierre Wood broke a 68-yard touchdown run on a nice option pitch from Golson.

From there, the route was on, with Notre Dame  sprinting to 21 first quarter points and playing their most complete football game of the season.

“We have a paradigm for winning.  It’s something we talk about actually in our locker room.  It’s called four quarters of winning,” Kelly explained.  “It starts with getting off to a quick start.  We talk about getting off to that quick start how important that is in the first quarter.  Second quarter is attention to detail.  The third quarter is effort and enthusiasm, and the fourth quarter is finish strong.  I think that came together in this football game more than any game we’ve played this year.”

The Irish checked off every box their head coach asked for, gaining 221 yards in the first quarter, their most since the third quarter of the Miami blowout. From there, they handled their business, continuing the offensive explosion until it was time to clamp down and win the football game.

On a day where the emotions of the moment could have taken away from the attention to detail, credit this football team for playing like champions.

***

With another tremendous game, Everett Golson’s progress is right on schedule.

By halftime, Everett Golson was in uncharted territory. The young quarterback in his first year on the job came out firing from the start, throwing for an astounding 317 yards in the first half, not far from the 30-minute record set by Jimmy Clausen in a 2009 losing effort against Navy. Golson completed 17 passes in the first half before exiting the game in the third quarter with an impressive stat line of 20 for 30 for 346 yards, with three touchdown passes and one ill-advised interception.

“What you impressed me with that kid today is how accurately he threw the football,” Grobe said after the game. “We knew that he was going to be a problem for us with his feet, either running the football or making plays out of the pocket. I couldn’t be more impressed with how accurately he threw the football, especially two or three of the deep balls.”

Even without DaVaris Daniels, Golson had no problem finding receivers, throwing accurately both short and long and once again being incredibly efficient on third down. For the first time this season, the Irish offense seemed to stress defenses vertically, with Golson hitting Theo Riddick up the seam, John Goodman and TJ Jones on deep balls, and letting Tyler Eifert do what the All-American tight end does.

Outside of the one ill-advised interception Golson threw in the end zone, it was a spectacular game for the young quarterback, who is growing into his role as the leader of the offense quite nicely.

“Obviously, he’s a guy that makes explosive plays. He’s got the ability to throw it. He can run the football. He’s elusive. I think we’re seeing a guy that’s growing each and every week,” Kelly said. “Now he made some mistakes that a young quarterback has a tendency to make. We’ve got to kind of slow him down a little bit. But he’s definitely on the right path to providing us the offense that we need.”

Golson is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence heading into Los Angeles for Monte Kiffin and the Trojan defense. After extending the field vertically, he’ll give the Trojans one more thing to expect.

***

Better late than never, Tyler Eifert turns into an offensive difference maker.

It has taken some time for All-American tight end Tyler Eifert to develop some chemistry with Everett Golson. But with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, the duo is making headway, with Eifert making big plays in the passing game, and finally started to do some damage down field.

It was a tremendous day for Eifert, with the senior from Fort Wayne breaking Ken MacAfee’s 35-year school record for career catches by a tight end. Just as important as any individual record, Eifert continued to develop as a key cog in the Irish offense, a process that’s taken longer than many expected. After turning down an opportunity to head to the NFL after last season, Eifert hasn’t put up the numbers you’d expect from a player of his caliber, but he certainly hasn’t harmed his cause.

“Coming back, not going into the draft. Coming back to get his degree says so much,” Kelly said. “But to also play at the level that he’s played, to break the kind of records with the great tight ends that have been here at Notre Dame is an amazing feat.

“I think it’s a combination of a guy that understands Notre Dame, understands the value of a great education, and wanted to be on a championship football team. I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.”

Mike Mayock spoke about Eifert’s decision to return to school during the broadcast, saying that while his stats aren’t what they were last year, talent evaluators and NFL scouts think Eifert has helped his cause by showing his ability to both block and make plays down the field. Jim Grobe certainly echoed that sentiment.

“What we find so often in tight ends is they’re one or the other,” Grobe said of Eifert. “They’re big guys, really good blockers, or they’re undersized guys that can run and catch a football.  He’s the perfect combination.”

***

In Cierre Wood, Brian Kelly has a chance at another six-star recruit.

In his three seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has landed a few “six-star” recruits — players that decided to come back to school instead of putting their names in for the NFL Draft. After landing Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Manti Te’o, Kelly and his offensive staff should set their sights on running back Cierre Wood.

After leading the Irish in rushing the past two seasons, Wood started the season seemingly in the head coach’s dog house, suspended for the year’s first two games for a mysterious violation of team rules along with linebacker Justin Utupo. And while Wood has continued to put up impressive stats in his third season in the Irish backfield, Kelly and the offensive staff have leaned more heavily on fellow senior Theo Riddick, choosing versatility and consistency, even if the results are more modest.

On paper, the decision is confounding. Riddick is averaging a decent 4.58 yards a carry on the season while leading the team with 160 carries for 734 yards. Wood, after running for 150 yards on just 11 carries, now has 720 yards on just 102 carries, averaging more than seven yards a carry. If you’re looking for consistency, its been Wood delivering on a weekly basis, not Riddick. At his worst, Wood has averaged 5.4 yards a carry, while having two games where he averaged better than 10 yards a carry. On the other hand, Riddick has had seven games where he’s failed to average four yards a carry, with big ball games against Navy, BYU, and Boston College buoying his stats, leading you to believe that the better place for him would be in the hybrid role many envisioned him playing from the start.

Wood mentioned on Facebook that Saturday would be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, leading you to believe that he’s ready to depart South Bend after getting his diploma. But Kelly believes that the senior running back, who has a year of eligibility remaining, still has work to be done.

“Cierre continues to do the job we ask him to do,” Kelly said.  “He’s getting better. I mean, he’s got a long way to go, but he had a great night tonight. I think we blocked well up front.  He saw the things necessary to put his foot in the ground and play North and South. He’s a better football player when he goes North and South. I think he’s starting to understand that as well.”

No coach has handled his players better than Kelly at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz was on the sideline, so it’s difficult not to give the benefit of the doubt to Kelly about distributing touches at a crowded running back position. But with George Atkinson still learning on the job, there’s not a ton of options behind Wood in the backfield, even with Cam McDaniel as an excellent safety blanket.

With NFL scouts likely to throw some tough questions his way after the two-game suspension, perhaps there’s unfinished business in South Bend for Wood. It would behoove the Irish head coach to at least present the case.

***

It was a storybook ending at Notre Dame for the senior class.

Even the gruffest of men had to feel their emotions stir during the introductions of the senior class. Watching veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, and Manti Te’o embrace their family and celebrate an up-and-down career at Notre Dame brought out the best in college football, and the afternoon romp felt like a celebration of the Irish’s greatest hits in a resurgent season.

Te’o had said many times that one of the big reasons he returned to South Bend for his senior season was for the chance to run out of the tunnel and be met by his parents. When asked if the moment lived up to his expectations, the senior linebacker was unflinching.

“Everything and more,” Te’o said. “I can’t believe this is the last time I’ll be playing here.”

With the game well in hand, Kelly paid special tribute to his senior defenders, calling a timeout to remove them to the roar of the approving home crowd.

“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense,” Kelly explained. “They have been obviously the rock.  They’ve carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively. It just seemed to me to be a pretty good gesture to allow us to honor those seniors.”

It was certainly a moment well received, and one that will never be forgotten by Te’o.

“Just Magic,” Te’o said of the timeout, where he, Zeke Motta, and Kapron Lewis-Moore ran off the field for the last time. “Like everything’s come full circle. For coach to do that, he could have easily taken us out and not even put us on the field.  But it was a TV timeout, and he said I’m going to send you guys out there, and then I’m going to call a timeout, and one by one I’m going to sub you guys out. So that’s the type of coach that Coach Kelly is.  I’m just very lucky to play for him.”

In Kelly and Te’o, player and coach found the perfect partner. For the head of the Irish football program, he found a transcendent leader to bridge the gap between past and present. For the linebacker, he found a coach that brought out the best in him, challenging Te’o to surpass the expectations heaped on his shoulders from the start, something entirely uncommon for Notre Dame lately.

With one last step in front of the Irish, the job is far from complete. But on Saturday afternoon, a perfect autumn day for football turned into a celebration of Notre Dame’s miraculous season. Another chapter in a storybook season.

“That’s the great way to end my career playing here in Notre Dame,” Te’o said.

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