Kelvin Harmon

Notre Dame ‘dominates’ Wolfpack 35-14

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The Irish 35-14 victory over No. 14 North Carolina State was maybe five minutes old, if that. Junior running back Josh Adams — he of the burgeoning Heisman campaign bearing his uniform number, “33 Trucking” — was asked to describe No. 9 Notre Dame’s mindset.

Adams offered one word to all inside the stadium.

“Dominating.”

It certainly fit Saturday, just as much as it did last week.

This might start to sound familiar, perhaps even repetitive, though still welcome to Irish fans.

For the second consecutive week, the Irish welcomed a top-15 opponent to Notre Dame Stadium. For the second consecutive week, they did not turn over the ball, they wore down the opposing defense, and they never allowed the offense to find a rhythm.

“We don’t talk about winning,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “Winning is not even part of our vocabulary. We didn’t talk about winning any games this year.

“It’s about the mindset that we’ve created to dominate our opponent. Winning is not even part of the equation with this group.”

As much as a 35-point afternoon against one of the nation’s toughest defensive fronts deserves notice, the Notre Dame defense’s ability to shut down the Wolfpack attack possibly warrants even more. North Carolina State scored only one offensive touchdown, the other coming on a punt block recovered in the end zone. Adjusting for sacks, it rushed for 56 yards on 23 carries, a mere 2.4 yards per carry, and gained all of 263 total yards.

“It’s got to be one of our best performances in some time defensively,” Kelly said. “… A lot of respect for North Carolina State. That’s a good football team, but our team was up to the task today.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Coming out of halftime trailing 21-14, the Wolfpack received the opening kickoff and commenced marching down the field. A nine-yard Ryan Finley completion followed a 12-yard run by senior Jaylen Samuels. Two plays later the senior Finley connected with sophomore receiver Kelvin Harmon for 20 yards to cross into Irish territory. Six plays and 38 yards brought up a 3rd-and-10.

North Carolina State opted for strategy and a hard count. The hope was to draw Notre Dame offsides and take a shot downfield. Worst-case scenario, the Wolfpack would cut the third-and-long to third-and-five.

“We had a hard count called, with no play called,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. “Just something that a lot of spread teams do. If they jump, we snap it, roll out, take a shot.”

Senior center Garrett Bradbury thought the Irish jumped. Perhaps junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery moved, but he stayed shy of the neutral zone, meaning he was not offsides. Bradbury thought otherwise, snapped the ball, and the Wolfpack line stayed in its pre-snap pose, trying to emphasize the presumed penalty. No flag was thrown.

“I can’t criticize the officials unless you want to pay the fine for me,” Doeren said. “I can’t. I’d love to tell you what I thought, but I’m not going to do that.”

Thinking he had a free play, Finley threw a 15-yard pass toward Harmon. At this point, that theoretical worst-case scenario should be revised to something much more drastic. Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Julian Love jumped the route and, thanks to a convoy from sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and senior linebacker Nyles Morgan, proceeded 69 yards for a touchdown.

Love admitted he wondered if the Irish had jumped offsides, but he still played to the whistle, especially when the opposing quarterback has yet to throw an interception this season and the chance to snap that streak was suddenly presented.

“It was definitely on my mind, all of our minds,” Love said. “But we weren’t going to do anything extra. We were going to play our game and play how we’ve been training.”

Playing that game gave Notre Dame a 14-point lead when North Carolina State thought it had set up a free shot toward the end zone.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Following Love’s touchdown, Samuels returned the ensuing kickoff to the Irish 42-yard line. A quick score would put the Wolfpack right back into the game with the majority of the second half remaining. Again, Finley led a methodical drive. This time, a near-turnover did it in.

On a 2nd-and-9 from the 14-yard line, a snap caught Finley off guard. Samuels picked it up and looped around a few defenders to avoid a 10- or 15-yard loss, but the play still cost eight yards. Finley then completed a bubble screen for 16, bringing up a fourth-and-one.

Down two touchdowns, Doeren opted to go for it. Irish freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovaioloa-Amosa beat his block at the point of attack and junior linebacker Te’von Coney used that aid to bring down Samuels for a loss of one and a change of possession.

“I thought we would get the first and score a touchdown,” Doeren said. “That was a big play against us. It’s like a turnover.”

Notre Dame’s offense managed only nine yards in a three-and-out, but the Irish defense’s stop in its own red zone halted the last North Carolina State threat of the day.

PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
Most NFL receivers, not to mention ballerinas, would be envious of the body control displayed by fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe on an 11-yard reception in the second quarter. For being a speedster, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson showed an equally-impressive toe-tap a play later on an 11-yard touchdown reception to give Notre Dame the 21-14 lead it would carry into halftime.

In finding Smythe, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — who finished with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-19 passing — worked through his progressions, past Stepherson and past junior Equanimeous St. Brown. He stayed patient, not taking off to try to run for the needed six yards on third down. Finally, he spotted Smythe approaching the sideline.

“I was extremely confident when I caught the ball,” Smythe said. “There’s always that little seed of doubt when they bring the review, but luckily I looked up at the video board and was assured.”

Stepherson made it two review-necessary snags in two plays with his leaping touchdown grab, though that necessitated little such reading of coverage from Wimbush.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
His long touchdown runs receive the most hype — and are the impetus behind the “long haul” theme of the burgeoning “33 Trucking” campaign for the Heisman Trophy — but Adams does much more than that. He finished with 202 yards and a touchdown, a notable 77-yard touchdown.

On his other 26 carries, Adams wore down the Wolfpack defense. In mentioning him here, equal acknowledgement needs to be paid to his offensive line, which knows the demoralizing effect it can have on the opposition.

“We take a ton of pride in that,” senior left guard and captain Quenton Nelson said. “We take pride in the 10-yard runs and the five-yard runs. Sometimes we’re even on our guys and it doesn’t break for a 70-yard run, but we just keep pounding play after play and it eventually opens up and happens after wearing their defense out.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame rushed for 318 yards. If accounting for sacks, that figure rises to 325 yards on 52 attempts.

The previous seven Wolfpack opponents averaged 30 rushing attempts per game, preferring not to repeatedly run into a wall. The most yards gained on the ground were the 133 by FCS-level Furman in a 49-16 loss.

“We approach each and every week preparing to dominate our next opponent, whoever that may be,” Adams said. “They’re going to bring the house, so we have to prepare likewise.

“Each and every guy on the team did a great job of bringing that mindset on Monday and carrying it throughout and, of course, to the game. … We just tried to play all four quarters and bring that mindset to dominate.”

Dominate they did, and it started on the ground.

QUOTE AND CHUCKLE OF THE EVENING
As Adams delivered his first mention of “dominating” on the field in a post-game interview with Notre Dame reporter Mike Monaco, a head popped up on the video board between Adams and Monaco. With a big smile on his face, there was Love, Saturday’s defensive star.

Fitting, considering Love apparently likes to watch Adams on the video board.

“He’s electrifying,” Love said. “It’s fun to watch him. I can’t look away from the when he’s on the field. [Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght] is yelling at me to pay attention to the board, and I’m just like, come on coach, that’s Josh.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:05 — North Carolina State touchdown. Germaine Pratt punt block recovery. Carson Wise PAT good. North Carolina State 7, Notre Dame 0.
9:36 — Notre Dame touchdown. Durham Smythe 25-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina State 7. (2 plays, 60 yards, 0:29)

Second Quarter
14:48 — North Carolina State touchdown. Harmon 15-yard reception from Ryan Finley. Wise PAT good. North Carolina State 14, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 71 yards, 2:46)
9:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina State 14. (14 plays, 72 yards, 5:11)
5:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 11-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, North Carolina State 14. (8 plays, 60 yards, 2:18)

Third Quarter
12:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 69-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, North Carolina State 14.
4:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 77-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, North Carolina State 14. (2 plays, 77 yards, 0:16)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina State

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When opponents are described as “trap games,” that typically indicates the foe is only an average team, but Notre Dame will play down to its level for whatever scheduling or otherwise reason. Make no mistake about it: When the Irish host North Carolina State on Oct. 28, they will not be entering a trap game. The Wolfpack will be anything but average this season.

Come year’s end, NC State’s record may be only 8-4 or perhaps 9-3. More than a reflection of the team’s overall talent, that will be an effect of playing in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

2016 REVIEW
That division ground down the Wolfpack last year. If a particular field goal had found its mark, though, current projections would likely be far more optimistic. Such are the perils of college football and its small sample size.

NC State finished 2016 with a 7-6 overall record, 3-5 in the ACC. If deferring to advanced metrics, it could be quickly argued the Wolfpack performed such they should have won eight or nine games, losing four separate contests by one possession or less while winning only two such games.

The first of those losses came in the season’s second week, 33-30 at East Carolina. From there, NC State rattled off three wins, culminating with the 10-3 victory over Notre Dame in a literal hurricane.

A week later, the aforementioned fateful field goal missed its mark, allowing eventual national champion Clemson to sneak into overtime when hosting the Wolfpack, later prevailing 24-17. That started a four-game losing streak for NC State, including a 54-13 shellacking at Louisville (44-0 at halftime) before stumbling 21-14 vs. Boston College.

Looking to end that disappointing stretch, NC State led Florida State late in the fourth quarter before giving up a touchdown, falling 24-20.

The Wolfpack ended the season with a 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.

WHAT NC STATE LOST
This section will be quick today, as the Wolfpack lost only three players of distinct note. Running back Matthew Dayes heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s seventh round after leading NC State with 1,166 rushing yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns.

Defensive backs Josh Jones and Jack Tocho also enjoyed the NFL Draft, going in the second and seventh rounds, respectively. Jones led the Wolfpack with 109 tackles last season, adding eight pass breakups and three interceptions, matching Tocho’s nine pass breakups and two interceptions.

WHAT NC STATE GAINED
The Wolfpack signed 20 commits in the class of 2017, the No. 53 class in the country per rivals.com, including two four-star recruits. Defensive tackle Grant Gibson will not see much action this year, but receiver Antoine Thompson could find himself in the mix.

UPDATE: the dismissal of two freshmen and the suspension of three

Early Tuesday afternoon NC State announced more following an investigation into sexual assault allegations from an incident occurring during the summer. Thompson was one of the two dismissed from the team.

HEAD COACH
Dave Doeren enters his fifth year at NC State with a middling 25-26 record. Even if removing his 3-9 debut, the resulting 22-17 record includes only ho-hum seasons of 8-5, 7-6 and 7-6. Nonetheless, he has a contract through 2019.

Dave Doeren (Getty Images)

This year’s Wolfpack presents Doeren his best chance yet to break into the Clemson and Florida State controlled upper-ranks of the division, let alone of the conference. Louisville also remains just below those two powers, however above NC State in recent years.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
For a team known for its defense, the Wolfpack still presents a dynamic offense. In theory, it should only improve on last year’s 27.0 points per game, now entering offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz’s second season. Drinkwitz came from Boise State, where he held the same role, and now-junior quarterback Ryan Finley followed him in the move. Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes last season, throwing 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Ryan Finley (Getty Images)

Though Finley loses his most-productive offensive weapon in Dayes, he does return his top-four pass-catchers, with two of them also filling in for Dayes in the backfield. Junior Jaylen Samuels led NC State with 55 receptions last year, taking them for 565 yards and seven touchdowns while also adding 189 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a 5.7 average per carry.

At 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, Samuel will be a bruising back defenses have to fear in all aspects of the game. While keeping an eye on him, they may struggle not to lose senior running back Nyheim Hines, all 5-foot-9, 197 pounds of him. Hines caught 43 passes for 525 yards last season, and will be as much a preferred target of Finley’s as he will be a ballcarrier, if not more so.

Senior receiver Stephen Louis used his deep-threat abilities (19.4 yards per catch) to lead the Wolfpack in receiving yards, totaling 678, while sophomore Kelvin Harmon will line up opposite Louis, fresh off a debut campaign complete with 27 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

With all of these weapons, Finley will have one more luxury: time. The NC State offensive line allowed only 17 sacks last year and returns four starters to continue that trend.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
It is the Wolfpack defensive line that remains the entire team’s greatest strength. Four seniors start, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb. In 2016, Chubb managed 10.5 sacks and 11.5 more tackles for loss. If trying to run away from him, opposing offenses find Kentavious Street, who totaled 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. Street may be a preferable choice, but he is not exactly an ideal one.

Bradley Chubb (Getty Images)

On the interior, tackle Justin Jones recorded 43 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss while 6-foot-4, 315-pound BJ Hill fills the middle.

Hill absorbs blockers, freeing the linebackers, primarily senior inside linebacker Jerod Fernandez. He was second on the team in tackles in 2016 with 88. Classmate Airius Moore finished third with 86, not to mention 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, yet Moore may not even start this year with the return of senior Germaine Pratt from a shoulder injury. Pratt offers more of a coverage set of skills than Moore’s physical game. In some respects, that physicality becomes an expendable luxury thanks to the dominant defensive line.

Some coverage help may be needed thanks to losing both Jones and Tocha. If the secondary does hold up, the Wolfpack could lower an already-impressive average of 22.8 points allowed per game from a year ago. During Doren’s tenure in Raleigh, along with defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, that average has fallen every season. Their first year saw a mark of 30.2 before improving to 27.0 in 2014 and 25.8 in 2015.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Being competitive will not be enough for NC State this year. Defensive front sevens like this group are rare commodities not to be wasted on psychological breakthroughs. The Wolfpack needs to win in 2017, even if the over/under win total is only at 7.5.

That number is low because of the division. NC State’s schedule includes a trip to Florida State and visits from both Louisville and Clemson, as well as North Carolina at the end of the season. If adding in the trip to Notre Dame to that listing of games, the Wolfpack may realistically think of winning three of the five, and a 10-2 record could be enough to land in a top-tier bowl game. Managing only two losses in conference play might also position NC State to be the beneficiary of the division cannibalizing itself.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tomorrow: Wake Forest
Thursday: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)