Wake Forest v Notre Dame

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

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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.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.