Pregame Twelve Pack: Big Apple edition

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It’s Friday, so that means another Pregame Twelve Pack, this one a special Yankee Stadium edition. Here’s twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Army at Yankee Stadium in primetime on NBC.

1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the New York Times just spotted us eight thousand.

I’m a sucker for history, so if you are too, head over to the New York Times‘ website for a great photo gallery from the historic clashes between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium.

While we mentioned the 1946 Game of the Century earlier in the week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the wonderful column that ESPN‘s Ivan Maisel wrote about the Army vs. Notre Dame games of the 1930s and 40s. Maisel writes that the Army/Notre Dame rivalry had become so heated after the 1946 game that the Army had to call off the game to save the military’s reputation.

Here’s a snippet, describing why Army walked away from its biggest rival:

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

“West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people,” wrote longtime Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik in “You Have To Pay The Price,” his 1960 autobiography. “We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium.”

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel…

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

“The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army,” Blaik wrote. “The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy.”

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn’t want to play the Yankees anymore.

“The decision was wildly unpopular,” Blaik said. “The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift.”

While many people are talking about the (potentially unsafe) transformation of Wrigley Field for Northwestern vs. Illinois this weekend, the 50th meeting of these two proud schools adds an element that not many rivalries can touch.

2. The primetime game will have the attention of some of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits.

A primetime stage in one of sports most revered venues offers Brian Kelly and his coaching staff the opportunity to impress quite a few potential recruits. They’ll do that on Saturday night with three top targets in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

No recruit draws the adoration of Irish fans quite like Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, a freakish athlete that has the size and speed to be a terror off the edge in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. While rumors have been flying of a potential commitment from Williams to the Irish, they’ve been refuted by those close to the star defender. Still, the Irish are in great shape, hanging in the race for the nation recruit far longer than many thought possible, and Williams will be there watching the Irish battle Army.

Also in attendance is Jersey City’s Savon Huggins, who would be a great addition to the running back depth chart with the loss of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Brian Kelly came out and watched Huggins play while the Irish were in town to play Navy and Huggins is returning the favor this weekend in the Bronx.

IrishSportsDaily.com also reports that Miles Shuler will be at the game. Shuler isn’t a name that Irish fans have talked a lot about recently, but he’s got offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Stanford, and has the Irish in his top seven schools. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco recruits New Jersey, where Shuler is from, and I’m guessing Shuler could look really good out on an island in coverage or using his elite speed on the edge of the offense as well.

3. What’s the difference between Army and Navy? Well, their schedules for one thing.

Only one win separates seven win Navy from six win Army. Both have a top ten rushing attack with Navy rushing for just over 300 yards a game and the Black Knights putting up 280 a game. But a closer look at the way Army got to their bowl eligibility shows were the two teams likely separate.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today’s statistical guru ranks Army’s schedule as the 118th toughest in college football, virtually the bottom of the barrel. The most impressive win on the Army schedule came during week four when they beat Duke 35-21. The Knights hung with Hawaii, Temple, and Rutgers, but lost big to Air Force before recovering to route Sagarin’s 121st ranked team, Kent State.

Take nothing away from Rich Ellerson’s Army team, which is transitioning to the option attack and ahead of schedule on its way back to respectability, but Army hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If Army can win their last two games against Notre Dame and then Navy, Ellerson’s name should be up for every national coaching award (not to mention on a few big college’s short list).

4. Notre Dame vs. Army, it all began on a baseball diamond.

While there isn’t any dirt left on the diamond thanks to a miraculous transformation, the rivalry between the Irish and the Black Knights began on a baseball field back in 1913. I’ll let Jim Lefebvre of Forever Irish take over.

It is ironic, yet fitting, that this great football spectacle was for so long contested in the crown jewel of the nation’s baseball parks, Yankee Stadium. That’s because it was baseball that first brought the two schools together. In January, 1913, Army agreed to host Notre Dame during ND’s spring trip. On May 24 at West Point, Army defeated Notre Dame, 3-0, and a rivalry began.

Also that spring, the leaders of athletics at West Point were scrambling to fill an opening on their football schedule. Army sent numerous letters of inquiry to schools in the East and eventually the Midwest. It initially offered Notre Dame $600 to cover expenses for the trip, and after some haggling, upped the offer to $1,000.

That was barely enough to send 18 players and two coaches via railroad from South Bend to New York. It was said the team brought sandwiches made on the Notre Dame campus, and traveled with just 14 pairs of cleats.

At West Point on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1913, the 3,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the parade of the Corps of Cadets and then filled the Cullum Field Hall bleachers, were looking forward to a match of power football. Notre Dame had romped through its first three opponent by a combined score of 169-7. Army was also undefeated.

Knute Rockne, the Irish end and captain, is limping late in the first quarter. But on the next play, he streaks downfield, and quarterback Gus Dorais lofts a long pass over the heads of the defenders. Rockne catches it in stride and races to the end zone. Before the afternoon was done, the Irish completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards – numbers unheard of at at the time. The final: Notre Dame 35, Army 13.

Witnesses marvel at the display. “I’ve always believed such playing possible under the new rules,” said Bill Roper, the Princeton coach and the game’s umpire. “But never have I seen the forward pass used to such perfection.”

There’s plenty of rich historical tidbits at Lefebvre’s website, and it’s worth reading more at Forever Irish.

5. The Irish running backs are all battling it out.

The Irish are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season, but Jonas Gray is pushing for a chance to be the first one to get there, breaking out for 44 yards on just three carries after battling back from some injuries. Running backs coach Tim Hinton thinks that Gray will see more of the field this weekend.

“I’m sure he’ll get more reps this week,” Hinton said earlier this week. “We’ve wanted to get him in the game all year, but to be honest with you, he just wasn’t back up to speed. Until he got back up to speed, we didn’t want to put him in. It was nice to see him get an explosive run. He actually had two very good runs. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to put him in the lineup and go.”

Battling Gray is senior Robert Hughes who could be a gigantic matchup problem for the undersized Army defense as well the Irish’s #1 running back, sophomore (or redshirt freshman) Cierre Wood, who head coach Brian Kelly has been pleased with as he continues to mature.

“He’s getting so much better. Just his ability to go out there and compete every snap,” Kelly said. “It requires a concentration level he’s never had to have before. He’s been sitting there watching or just taking some reps, now he’s in there and got to be locked in, and that matures somebody.”

Kelly’s aware that the offense hasn’t put up a 100 yard rusher yet, and if the Irish offensive line can build off the game they played last week, that could change on Saturday night.

“I’m pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do it on a more consistent basis.”

6. With big opponents on the horizon, Notre Dame isn’t the only team looking at a trap game.
With tomorrow night’s game giving the Irish a chance to be bowl eligible, it’s unlikely the Irish will overlook a more-than-able Army squad. But still, it’s hard not to think ahead to next weekend’s showdown with USC as a true check of how the Irish have developed under Kelly and his coaching staff in year one.
But surprisingly enough, Irish fans aren’t the only people worried that their squad may be overlooking this weekend’s opponent to begin prepping for their next opponent. Army coach Rich Ellerson was asked whether the Black Knights are potentially looking past the Irish to get prepped for arch-rival Navy.
“No. The guys will be excited to play,” Ellerson said about the Irish. “We’ll have all kinds of challenges on Saturday and that won’t be one of them. I think having that sixth win on the shelf and in place, we’re done patting ourselves on the back. That’s nice to have, we’ve turned a corner but we’re not looking back at the corner we just turned. We’re looking ahead at the next opportunity, the next challenge. Our guys won’t have a hard time with that. They’re looking forward to it.”
I never thought this could be a storyline, but perhaps the Irish will catch Army sleeping on Saturday night.
7. A closer look at bowl game match-ups stresses the importance of winning out.
It’s kind of an obvious point, but winning games is awfully important for the Irish as they push toward the postseason. Winning one game is mandatory, but it doesn’t necessarily open up all that many opportunities for the Irish.
Double-dipping at both the Bleacher Report and his blog We Never Graduate, Matt Mattare took a look at the five most intriguing bowl matchups for Notre Dame this postseason, with one option not so red hot for the Irish:
5. Notre Dame vs. Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl — Dec. 22, Las Vegas, NV
4. Notre Dame vs. MAC Champ in Little Caesar’s Bowl — Dec. 26, Detroit, MI
3. Notre Dame vs. Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Jan 9, San Francisco, CA
2. Notre Dame vs. Boise State/TCU (Kraft/Vegas)
1. Notre Dame vs. ACC No. 2 in Champs Sports Bowl — Dec. 28, Orlando, FL
Matt did a good job of breaking down the likelihood of these match-ups, so if you’re one of those football fans that love guessing what bowl game your favorite team might end up in instead of waiting a few weeks, this article will be right up your alley.
8. Robby Toma: From forgotten man to starting wide receiver.
It’s quite amazing to consider that a wide receiver largely considered a throw-in to the Manti Te’o scholarship offer is now starting at Z wide receiver, one of the most important positions in Brian Kelly’s offense. But Robby Toma is hardly your average wide receiver.
Thanks to some injuries and the transfer of Shaq Evans, Toma finds himself in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, with TJ Jones still not 100 percent after getting banged up in practice last week.
“TJ practiced again today, but he’s not going with the first unit,” Kelly said. “Robby is still going with the first unit and my expectations are that’s how it would end up on Saturday, that Robby would continue to start at the Z and TJ would back him up.”
I think if you took a poll among diehard Irish fans and asked them who leads Notre Dame in yards per catch, not many would pick the 5-foot-9 (and that’s a gift) Hawaiian that weighs 175-pounds. But there’s Toma and his 13.6 yard average sitting atop the stat-sheet for the Irish. Prediction: Toma scores his first touchdown for the Irish tomorrow.
9. How the Irish handle the option will determine if whether or not Notre Dame wins the game.
With Army’s ability to run the football and Kelly admitting that Notre Dame isn’t able to win a football game with their offense, possessions are going to be at a premium and stops by the defense will be extremely important. The only way the Irish can get a stop is to get a grasp on the triple-option, something they couldn’t do against Navy.
The coaching staff was incredibly quiet on the strategy they’d take to stop the option, but if you listened carefully, Kelly gave the closest thing to intel away with a quick comment:
“They have to defend the arc and they’ve got to be able to play QB-to-pitch for most points, unless you move the point and change things up, which obviously we’re going to do a lot of,” Kelly said of his edge defenders. “When you really break it down, it’s their ability to defend. Take on a block, shed it and ether get to dive, QB or pitch.”
For those of you reading closely, I think this means we won’t see Manti Te’o chasing the quarterback down the line like you saw against Navy. Diaco’s gameplan against the Midshipmen seemed intent on protecting the outside linebackers, a strategy that obviously backfired.
I’m on the record for how I think the Irish will play the option, but if Kelly just gave us a hint, expect to hear from guys like Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and possibly Steve Filer.
10. The Class of 2007… What could’ve been.
The guys at One Foot Down examined the 2007 recruiting class, a group headlined by Jimmy Clausen that was supposed to be one of the best in the country. Instead, the 2007 class is looking at an ugly distinction, going down as one of the losing-est in Irish football history.
Let’s take a bullet-point look at the class and see how they ended up.
Armando Allen — Multi-year starter. Injuries hampered his ceiling.
Jimmy Clausen — Left after three years. Would’ve walked out ND’s leading passer.
Taylor Dever — Starting tackle, has another year of eligibility remaining.
Gary Gray — Playing his best football. Sat out season for personal reasons, returning for 5th year.
Robert Hughes — Bruising back not a great fit in Kelly offense.
Duval Kamara — Started strong, before losing time to Floyd and Tate.
Kerry Neal — System changes hurt development. Average season as starting OLB.
Aaron Nagel — Transferred to Northwestern. Now a fullback.
Andrew Nuss — Playing behind Chris Stewart at guard.
Emeka Nwankwo — Forgotten man finding time in a thin DE rotation.
Steve Paskorz — Linebacker turned fullback and back again is injured and likely done at ND.
Mike Ragone — Between injuries and self-inflicted mistakes, Ragone hasn’t hit potential.
Matt Romine — Highly touted tackle that didn’t live up to hype.
Brian Smith — A roller coaster career could go out on a high.
Harrison Smith — Jerked between OLB and FS, finally developing at proper position.
Golden Tate — Left early after winning Biletnikoff. One of best players in college football.
Brandon Walker — Kicker who battled injuries and couldn’t get off bench.
Ian Williams — Played for four season on the interior of the defense.
OFD answers the question “What went wrong with this class?” His take:
1) Terrible depth provided by Ty. 2) Terrible development by CW. 3) No veteran leadership.
All in all, good insight. This class would look much different if Weis used redshirts better and a Golden and Jimmy decided to stay.
11) Notre Dame and Army competed for the same recruit. (Kinda…)
You wouldn’t think that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Brian Kelly see each other too often on the recruiting trail. But Ellerson tells the story of a battle between the Black Knights and the Irish were Army came out on top for a player.
“We have a guy in this class, that’s a freshman right now, who we think is going to be a really good player, it was us and Notre Dame,” Ellerson said earlier this week. “The deal was, could he walk-on at Notre Dame? If he could walk-on at Notre Dame, he was going to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a spot for him in the 105 and we got him, and we think he’s going to be wonderful. That’s still the pecking order in the recruiting world.”
Ellerson has had his fair share of run-ins with the Irish recruiting, and they certainly all didn’t end this way.
“Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and we were a top-five team,” Ellerson said. “We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting – all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”

People will mistakenly interpret this as meaning Notre Dame’s walk-ons should be able to beat Army, but that’s just not the way college football is anymore. Still, it gives you an idea of the type of player that Ellerson and the other service academy coaches look for when they’re out on the recruiting trail.

12. For all those Irish fans that are yearning for a jumbotron, enjoy the evening.
While I’ll forever push to remove the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium and put in field-turf, I’m still anti-Jumbotron. But tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, Irish fans will be treated to instant replay, moving images, and the ability to play a semi-home game with a working video board.

The Jumbotron won’t be the only thing that makes this Saturday a little different from the rest. While Notre Dame has plenty of hallowed monuments around campus, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park will be open from 4:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m. Saturday night, from the opening of the stadium until kickoff for those that want to take in a piece of Yankee history while watching some football.

It’s an incredible weekend that gets started with plenty of pageantry in the Big Apple, before the focus turns to football. While the same was true last week, there’s no game more important for the Irish than the one in front of them. What Notre Dame team shows up? We’ll have to find out Saturday night at 7 p.m.

Brian Kelly refuses to tip Notre Dame’s hand amid QB rumors

Associated Press
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Brandon Wimbush will play. Ian Book will play. That much is clear, and it is not a change from the season’s first three weeks.

Which will start? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not divulge that Thursday, though that was probably more an inclination to stick to inane modern coaching standards than it was actual indecision.

“We need them both to win,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks. “They are both ready.”

The questions arose out of speculation from national media personalities the Irish may turn to the backup Book more at Wake Forest, if not even start the junior. Book has seen less than a handful of snaps in each game thus far this season, usually within yards of the goal line.

Notre Dame turned to Book in those spots as they fit his aptitude in read-option packages beginning under center. That does not mean Book was not ready to play no matter the field position.

“He was prepared to play anywhere,” Kelly said. “That’s just where he played in those games.”

Once asked, there was no situation in which Kelly was going to say more than that. Given the Irish have already made it a point to include Book in each game plan, downgrading that status to insist Wimbush is the starter would serve no function but internal confusion. If Book’s role is going to increase, then Kelly gains nothing by warning the Demon Deacons.

RELATED READING: Things To Learn — Will Notre Dame’s offense show up on its first road trip?

He did make one unexpected acknowledgement, though. Throughout Kelly’s tenure, the backup quarterback has taken about 40 percent of the reps in practice. That was true with Book during the preseason, but the ratio has apparently since skewed.

“They’ve been pretty close,” Kelly said. “… This has been pretty close to 50/50. We’ve been managing it that way.”

The one quarterback not in the mix is freshman Phil Jurkovec, working primarily with the scout team. Kelly would like to get Jurkovec some playing time in line with the new NCAA rule allowing up to four games of action without jeopardizing a year of eligibility. Any playing time for Jurkovec would come in the specific scenario of a blowout, naturally.

“If we got an opportunity, we would love to get him some playing time, as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in some close, hard-fought games.

“… It’s hard when you’re running someone else’s offense each week. We bring him up [to practice with the offense] and he’s working off a card. What we like most about him is his leadership presence, just the way he handles himself, but I couldn’t really tell you whether he could go in there and run the offense. He hasn’t had that much work.”

Other freshmen are on the verge of contributing in competitive moments, some perhaps not in more than four games. Kelly noted cornerback Tariq Bracy and linebacker Shayne Simon, having appeared in three games and the latter two contests, respectively, as well as cornerback Noah Boykin and receiver Joe Wilkins, neither of which has taken the field yet.

“There’s probably half a dozen guys that we’re seeing that, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to see two or three or maybe four games on some of these guys,’” Kelly said. “I don’t want to say this in a negative way, there’s a list that are moving from suspects to prospects relative to playing time now.”

Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy is not among that grouping at the current moment as he recovers from a concussion, per Kelly. Lenzy was not in uniform last weekend and will not travel to Wake Forest.

ON NOTRE DAME’S NICKEL BACK PACKAGES
Against the Deacons and junior receiver Greg Dortch, the Irish will rely on sets with more defensive backs than the usual base will. Without senior Shaun Crawford (torn ACL), Notre Dame lacks an established nickel back. The luxury of junior cornerback Donte Vaughn allows star junior cornerback Julian Love to spend more time across from the slot and therefore probably Dortch.

“Julian has that flexibility to move inside,” Kelly said. “We taught him the nickel, (he) had known it. It puts three veteran players on the field for us [at cornerback].”

RELATED READING: Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?

ON DARNELL EWELL
The sophomore defensive tackle shall now be described as a sophomore offensive guard.

“We felt as we looked at the depth of certain positions, that was an area that we had some issues,” Kelly said. “We felt like in particular this year he could make some strides there.

“He has. He’s really strong. He uses his lower body very well. He can move people off the point. Early indications are that might be a good fit for him.”

At guard, Bars is in the mix with sophomores Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg and freshman John Dirksen.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame’s offense show up on its first road trip?

Associated Press
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Wake Forest’s BB&T Field is not Hard Rock Stadium, and Winston-Salem is not Blacksburg, Va., but this is still Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season, the first since two debacles away from home back in November. Amid talk of a budding quarterback controversy, praise of the Irish likely-yet-to-peak defense and looking ahead to the arrival of Stanford, some time needs to be spent remembering the horrors of road trips past.

Notre Dame remains in the national conversation, despite those close victories against Ball State and Vanderbilt. In fact, it is still in that discussion because of those victories. That all goes out the window if the Irish lose to the Demon Deacons.

Can Notre Dame maintain its already tenuous focus while on the road? If not, that may not lead to a loss this weekend, but it will bode very poorly for the trek to Virginia Tech in two weeks. If Wake Forest manages to put the Irish behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season — a reasonable thought if the Deacons so much as win the opening coin toss — the rhythms of playing at home will not be available to ease Notre Dame back into the flow of the game.

“There’s a little bit of preparation that needs to occur relative to travel,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Then just understanding that when you’re on the road, momentum is going to usually work against you. You have to close out opponents.”

Sometimes that is all the effect a road game needs to have; just because BB&T is a mild venue barely holding 30,000 does not mean the unfamiliar sidelines, locker room and atmosphere would not be enough to compound an early deficit.

To overcome any deficit at all, the Irish would need to find a reliable offense. Who leads such a foreign concept?
This segment of this weekly piece intended to focus on Notre Dame’s receivers. To draw from the notes scribbled across a legal pad, “At some point, WRs need to stop dropping passes. This is a weak D ready to be run upon. ND running will not surprise anyone, averaging 43.33 carries/week (sacks adjusted) already. Could lead to WF stacking the box. Can ND’s receivers finally not drop multiple passes in a week? Claypool, Finke, Davis …”

Notre Dame senior receiver Chris Finke began the season well, most notably with a highlight-reel 43-yard touchdown grab, but he has been inconsistent since, just like all the Irish receivers. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Before moving on to what has become the week’s topic du jour, let’s emphasis the question at the end of those notes. Can the Irish receiving corps get through a week without dropping multiple passes, including a likely touchdown? Against Ball State, sophomore Avery Davis worried about his next steps before catching a seam route that should have gotten him to the end zone. A week later, senior Chris Finke dropped a crossing route because his head was already turning upfield where he knew he had a clear path to the end zone. Those mistakes are utterly inexcusable, simple as that.

Who will throw the majority of those passes this week?
When various national handicappers begin citing multiple sources within the Notre Dame program saying junior Ian Book will start at quarterback, it is eyebrow-raising. This is not to outright throw doubt on those podcasts and tweets, but their speculation is vague, at best.

Brandon Wimbush has played well this season, but perhaps not well enough to cement his status as unquestioned starter in the minds of Notre Dame’s coaching staff. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Making a change now would not have much to do with senior Brandon Wimbush’s performance against Vanderbilt, finishing 13-of-23 for 122 yards passing with another 84 rushing yards and a score. As mentioned before, a few drops limited his completion percentage. It easily could have (should have) been 16-of-23 for 160 or 170 yards. That may not jump off the page, but it is also hard to find fault in it.

Then why might this shift be afoot now? First of all, let’s again tap the brakes on thinking Book will start. Fully expect Wimbush to start, but perhaps Book gets more action than he has to date, a full series even, if not multiple. Why now?

Two reasons: Looking ahead at the coming fortnight, Notre Dame needs to know exactly what it has at all points of the roster before welcoming Stanford and then traveling to Virginia Tech. That two-week stretch will likely make or break this season.

Secondly, this is the Saturday to experiment with the passing game. The Deacons defense is off to a torrid start. Facing the murderers’ row of Tulane, FCS-level Towson and Boston College, Wake Forest has allowed 310 passing yards per game, ranking No. 120 of 130 FBS teams. Those three threw 10 touchdown passes without any interceptions.

If there was ever a week to look at as a passing exhibition, it was not against Ball State (No. 65 nationally with 205.3 passing yards allowed per game, including 297 against the Irish). It is against the Deacons.

That can reveal itself both in moments of Wimbush intentionally struggling through his progressions and in Book getting extended playing time to pick apart Wake Forest in a scheme that may be ripe for his skill set, an afternoon where his higher floor is more necessary than Wimbush’s higher ceiling.

Somewhere here requisite praise of Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch will show up, right? Of course. He is part of why Book may be called upon, actually. As terrible as Wake Forest’s defense has been, its offense has played just as well. Dortch has played spectacularly. He averages 224.67 all-purpose yards per game, most in the country, including an average of 112 receiving yards per game.

Notre Dame’s secondary is a strength this season, odd as that may sound. Dortch’s 12 yards per catch will test junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride. Looking far ahead, how they handle Dortch will give an idea of how they match up with USC freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, currently averaging 16.9 yards per reception with 304 yards on the season. He has played three games to date — give him another eight of experience and St. Brown should prove to be quite the hassle to defend, a la Dortch already.

How well has the Deacons’ offense played? It should be the first to break 17 points against the Irish this season. In its last 16 games, Wake Forest has averaged 35.25 points, including 36 per game this year. The last team to hold the Deacons to 17 or fewer points was some program called Clemson last October. Wake Forest is averaging 542 yards per game this year while Notre Dame has given up a respectable 358.7.

Something will have to give.

It’s an early game. What should an Irish fan do after the noon kickoff concludes? Stay on ABC. Stanford heads up to Oregon at 8 p.m. ET. It should be both entertaining and an educational opportunity anticipating the Cardinal’s challenge in a week.

And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Associated Press
28 Comments

As much as a team can struggle to a 3-0 record, that is how Notre Dame has started this season. Wake Forest would jump for that complaint, though, coming off a 41-34 loss to Boston College. That defeat dampens the Demon Deacons’ conference dreams in a year in which the ACC seems to be in flux.

Irish fans remember Wake Forest from last year’s 48-37 victory that seemed to serve as something of a demarcation point in the season. Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal tells us what to expect this time around …

DF: Conor, of all things, I hate to ask you to focus on football this week. You have lived in North Carolina for a few years now, right? Even with that being the case, you cannot be used to hurricanes. How have you and Winston-Salem as a whole endured Hurricane Florence?

CO: Thanks for starting on this note, Douglas.

Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina full-time for almost seven years, and I went to college at Elon, which is about 45 minutes east of Winston-Salem, so I know the region well. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m used to hurricanes.

Winston-Salem was spared from the worst of Florence. It rained for nearly all of Saturday and Sunday, but other than a few downed trees and flooded intersections at low areas, there really wasn’t much of an impact. It was pretty much the best-case scenario, especially when you see much of the eastern part of the state is under water — still.

Obviously, I am still going to ask you to focus on football. If you’ll forgive me … Let’s start with the quarterback situation at Wake Forest. It went from stable in the spring to clouded in the summer when presumptive starter Kendall Hinton was suspended for three games for a violation of team rules. At Notre Dame, that phrasing could mean a litany of things, so I won’t put you on the spot to shed some light with an interpretation. I will, however, ask you, why was he working at receiver in the preseason?

Hinton was working at slot receiver for several reasons, but the main one was that his athleticism is going to have to be used at some position. And since it seems like Sam Hartman has a firm grasp on the position — at least, for now — Hinton wouldn’t be doing Wake any favors by standing on the sideline as a backup quarterback. So while Hartman and sophomore Jamie Newman took the first- and second-team reps in their fall camp battle, Hinton needed to prove he could be valuable to the team and learn to play receiver.

A freshman, Hartman has played well. Maybe not excellently or even well enough to capture the country’s attention, but well. What about him has Hartman in line to face the Irish this weekend?

The best attribute for Hartman right now — and it honestly might be this way for his entire career — is that he’s been through things no 19-year-old should ever have to go through. The main two events I’m talking about there are: 1) His adopted brother, Demitri Allison, committed suicide when Hartman was a sophomore in high school. He won a state championship game three days later. And 2) Hartman suffered from a birth defect that was discovered before his junior season started, and the fluid buildup in his left shoulder nearly led to his death. That happened about a month before the season opener. Hartman came back for that opener, weighing 40-50 pounds less because of surgery and a hospital stay, and threw an 80-yard touchdown on the first play.

The kid has been through some things.

He’s been groomed to be a quarterback by Will Grier’s father, among others, and at the risk of heaping too much hyperbole on here, it almost feels like it was destiny that Hartman is where he is right now.

RELATED READING: Talent, tragedy and triumph: The legend of Sam Hartman
Sam Hartman’s path to Wake Forest’s starting QB has been anything but normal

No matter who the Deacons trot out at quarterback, we all know who his favorite target will be. I don’t mean to sound lazy or come across as the reporter so many of us cannot stand in post-game scrums, but I am afraid if I ask you a question about Greg Dortch, I will fill up any reasonable word count with adjectives. Just this once I am going to use the dreaded two-word command: Talk about junior receiver Greg Dortch.

Oh man, I should’ve looked here before I answered the Hartman question, because I could talk about Dortch for twice as many words.

He’s just everything you want out of a dynamic slot receiver in today’s college offenses. He can separate from coverage, has open-field moves to make defenders miss in a phone booth, has an insane catch-radius — everything. Dortch really is the complete package, and as Deacons head coach Dave Clawson said before the season, everything Wake Forest’s offense does is designed to get Dortch the ball in space.

What separates Dortch is that he genuinely loves football. Watching him in spring practice, when he was finally able to return to the field after recovering from the punctured small intestine that cost him the final five games last season, was like watching a little kid who was just released from a timeout. That continued into fall camp, and with a country-leading 224.7 all-purpose yards per game, his rise has been incredible to watch.

Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch leads the country with 224.67 all-purpose yards per game. For context: The next Power Five player is Purdue receiver Rondale Moore with 190.33 yards per game. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Okay, but seriously, can Notre Dame legitimately hope to stop Dortch or should defensive coordinator Clark Lea simply try to contain the damage he does? It has been a bend-don’t-break defense this year, but Dortch’s bubble screens seem perfectly designed to counter that.

Dortch is almost assuredly going to get the ball – the key is to limit his yards-after-catch and the number of times he gets it. Kicking through the end zone on kickoffs and punting away from him are two of the easiest ways to play keep-away from Dortch.

And if Julian Love can move into the slot, that’s a matchup I’d love to see – no pun intended.

One more offensive question: The beauty of playing last Thursday night was everyone in the country watched. Otherwise I may not have noticed Wake Forest ran 105 plays, many a symptom of an up-tempo offense. Is that the norm? I don’t really remember that being the case last year, but I could be forgetting or it could be dictated by new personnel.

That was pretty much the norm last year, especially in the second half of the season. It has honestly caught me off guard that Hartman has come in and still been able to run 94 (Tulane), 81 (Towson) and 105 plays. I thought there would be a slight drop in pace, just because you’re replacing four-year starter John Wolford with a true freshman. I was wrong.

Switching to defense, it struggles. If looking at only Power-Five opponents, seven of the last eight have gashed the Deacons for at least 30 points. Any hopes of that having been fixed were effectively dashed by Boston College’s 41 points last week. Specifically, the run defense is a problem. Last year the Deacons allowed 186 rushing yards per game, No. 89 in the country, which may seem borderline acceptable, if not for the six-game stretch where that jumped to 256.8 yards per game. What is missing in Wake Forest’s run defense?

Honestly, the run defense has been the strength of the defense so far. Yes, AJ Dillon ran for 185 yards last week. But 88 of those yards came on three carries, leaving the other 97 yards on 30 carries.

The problem last week was that Dillon hit them for a 45-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender, and the pre-game focus on Dillon coupled with a big run on the third play meant play-action worked all night against some creeping-up safeties and linebackers.

Wake Forest’s defense has not been stout of late, despite the best efforts of senior safety Chuck Wade. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

What changed? In a year-plus of the scheme formerly run by Mike Elko, Notre Dame has fared well defending the run. This season it has done such to the point that opponents attempt many more passes than usual, essentially bailing on the ground game. How have the Deacons fallen off so quickly from allowing only 142 rushing yards per game in 2016?

I don’t think Elko’s importance can be overstated. Wake Forest had a hidden gem for three years and obviously it’s hardly a secret anymore that Elko is one of the best coordinators in college football. It helps Notre Dame that Lea was his understudy.

The other major factor in the Deacons’ defense, as Clawson explained this week, is that they lack an alpha communicator in the back-seven. They had one with Ryan Janvion, whose last season was 2016, and to a lesser extent had one last year with Jessie Bates III. Now, it’s on senior safeties Cameron Glenn and Chuck Wade Jr., both captains, to be louder.

I can’t let you skip out of here without offering a vague prediction for Saturday afternoon. And you can’t just say you predict you will be thankful for the early kickoff, because that is a certainty.

Well … I am happy with a noon kick.

I think there’s going to be no shortage of points scored, to begin with. And I think Wake’s defensive struggles are more of a story than Notre Dame’s offensive struggles, so I’d give the edge to the Irish. Something like 30-21 would be a probable score. ​

Notre Dame’s scripts bear more repeating

Associated Press
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Maybe Notre Dame scripts its first possession, or perhaps that is an out-of-date phrase in the days of extensive film study and pre-snap adjustments, but still something of a general concept. What cannot be argued is the No. 8 Irish (3-0) have excelled offensively to start each of their first three games and then they have ground to a halt.

Against Michigan, Notre Dame scored with a 7-play, 75-yard drive executed in fewer than 90 seconds to open the game. A week later, five plays and 74 yards took fewer than two minutes. Against Vanderbilt, nearly four minutes elapsed as the Irish drove 74 yards in 10 plays, finishing with a field goal in part due to a false start by a reserve offensive lineman in a jumbo package. If once is chance and twice is a coincidence, this is very much a trend: Notre Dame’s offense is at its most efficient immediately after the opening kickoff.

It makes sense. The Irish begin the game aggressively, calling plays with the greatest chances of success, whether it be because of schematic fit or, to take senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s word for it, repetition and subsequent comfort.

“You run those opening nine [plays] three or four times throughout the week,” Wimbush said after Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt. “You do get comfortable with those looks and your progressions throughout those reads.”

Looking through those drives — and including the second Irish possession against the Commodores, in which they scored a touchdown after 15 plays went 94 yards in 5:21 — only a couple plays show up in common, but they are successful plays, relatively speaking.

Notre Dame’s first snap against Ball State ended up Wimbush’s longest completion of the day, a 27-yarder to senior receiver Chris Finke. The Irish appeared to run the same play to the opposite side of the field against Vanderbilt, waiting until the third snap to deploy it. Junior receiver Chase Claypool gained 17 yards.

Wimbush’s progression seems clear: Consider the screen and at the least give it a pump fake. With how often Notre Dame runs such a screen, the secondary leans into the possibility, creating a cushion behind them for Finke and Claypool. To keep the safety occupied, another receiver runs a deep route a lane inside the eventual target. Theoretically, if the safety sagged onto Finke or Claypool, that could result in the deep target becoming the proper read.

Both times Wimbush executes this well, getting the ball to his receiver while within the gap in coverage, a space created in part by the Irish habit of throwing those screens to sub-par success and cemented by Wimbush’s pump-fake.

It is logical to think Wimbush handles the progression and eventual read well because he has worked on this exact play numerous times throughout the week. It does not have to be in a debated script to still be a play Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long likes to call early to get his quarterback comfortable and in a rhythm.

“Just got to keep the same energy,” Wimbush said. “Understand that we’ve run through so many of these plays throughout the week and we have to just execute them.”

Another passing play shows up in common in these opening drives, one the casual observer may use to criticize Wimbush despite the replicated outcome pointing to an intentional thought process.

The second Irish play of the season included pressure from Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. Similarly, a play on Notre Dame’s second drive against Vanderbilt featured pressure from a Commodores defensive end. Both times Wimbush rolled to his right to evade the chase and heaved up a jump ball toward a receiver standing 6-foot-4 or taller.

The first rendition concluded with a contested incompletion intended for Claypool. Senior Miles Boykin nearly caught the second before the ball, again, fell incomplete.

Two incompletions on two drives that still finished with touchdowns — the reward available was a gain of chunk yardage on a play blown up by a pass rush. The risk?

Well, some deference should be offered to Claypool and Boykin. They both get their hands on the off-balance throws, both have a chance to catch the pass. These do not qualify as drops or failings by the receivers in any regard, not that those have been in short supply already this season. Rather, this is to say the physical presences of Claypool and Boykin made it exceedingly-unlikely Wimbush’s passes would be intercepted. Thus, the risk was actually low.

In fact, of Wimbush’s four interceptions this year, only one has been in the vicinity of the big targets, a slant that bounced off Boykin’s hands against Ball State. Another interception that day was also intended for Boykin, but that one came from Wimbush not seeing a defender and misreading the situation, not from a one-on-one opportunity down the sideline.

Despite the pass rush, Wimbush was comfortable looking down the sideline, trusting his biggest receivers to be sure respective defenders would not haul in his jump ball, leaving a chance for an Irish gain on the play. That possibility would not exist if simply throwing the ball into the sidelines. Analytically, the difference in expected gain may be infinite.

Before pounding a keyboard insisting this is a foolish view, watch that clip again. The passes were hardly in true jeopardy of being intercepted, a credit to Claypool and Boykin. They were, however, in play to be caught, especially the second of the two. Thus, expect to see that reflex again from Wimbush, at the least early in the game, but possibly more often than that, as well.

“We just get into a good flow early on and what we probably need to do is be more repeaters of plays,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Go back to plays that have been successful and come back and repeat them.”

ON NICK COLEMAN & HOUSTON GRIFFITH
Senior Nick Coleman did not play against Vanderbilt, leaving freshman Houston Griffith to handle most nickel back duties. There was no underlying reason other than wanting to give Griffith more playing time, per Kelly.

“We’ll need Nick this weekend,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This will be a game that he’ll have to play a considerable amount of football for us.”

That does not mean Griffith will not see action, as well, especially since Wake Forest will be happy to rattle off an absurd number of plays.

“He’s obviously a guy that each and every week when he gets a chance to play, we see more and more from him,” Kelly said. “It’s just a true freshman playing. He’s got a nice skill set, but he’s learning every time he goes out there.”

Griffith finished with four tackles against Vanderbilt.

ON GREG DORTCH
Coleman will be needed for “considerable” contributions because the nickel back is likely to frequently line up opposite Demon Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch. Kelly broke out most cliché pieces of praise for Dortch, though deservedly so.

“He can take over a football game,” Kelly said. “Electric player, great acceleration, great hands, makes people miss as a highlight reel.”

COLE KMET UPDATE
Kelly said Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will remain sidelined at Wake Forest as he recovers from a high ankle sprain, but Kmet should be healthy before the Stanford tilt on Sept. 29.