Pregame six pack: November Wake up call

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In a season where the Irish have stumbled on themselves more than by the work of their opponents, some comments made by head coach Brian Kelly last week had the chance to trip up an Irish team already well practiced in the art.

Given the option of imploding against a Navy team desperate for a season-turning win, it didn’t take long last Saturday to realize that wouldn’t be happening — with the Irish putting their collective foot on the throat of the Midshipmen as they rolled over Navy in a victory that eliminated a very bad taste from Notre Dame’s mouth.

Now the Irish will be tasked with a more difficult opponent — heading to Winston-Salem for the first ever game between Wake Forest and Notre Dame. While the rivalry doesn’t have eight decades of tradition like the annual tilt with Navy, it’s safe to say this isn’t just another game for the Demon Deacons.

“To be honest, my family and friends have been talking about this game since before the season started,” Wake Forest defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock said this week. “Everybody wants to see Notre Dame. It’s sold out, they’re bringing in extra stands. There’s definitely an aura around the game, an electricity that is different from every other game we played this year.”

As the Irish head to Tobacco Road, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame battles Wake Forest in primetime at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night.

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LSU vs. Alabama might be No. 1 vs. No. 2 on the field. But the Irish and Demon Deacons are No. 1 and No. 2 in the classroom.

Sure, there might be 600 or so press credentials requested for the LSU-Alabama game. But while Notre Dame and Wake Forest understandably won’t get first-billing Saturday evening, they’re doing something just as impressive when it comes to the most important tenant of being a student-athlete.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the real Game of the Century might be between two 5-3 teams, as Notre Dame and Wake Forest — the No. 1 and No. 2 schools in the country when it comes to Graduation Success Rate (GSR) — will be battling on Saturday night.

Notre Dame is the No. 1 school in the country when it comes to GSR, with 18 of the 22 varsity teams on campus accomplishing a perfect GSR score (meaning 18 teams have graduated 100% of their student athletes). Wake Forest comes in second with 11 of their 14 teams putting together perfect rankings.

When it comes to football, the Irish are again No. 1 in the country, with the football team clocking a 97%  GSR score. Wake Forest is tied for 16th in football with 81%.

Sure, there might be a more compelling football game on Saturday night. But if you feel like getting all high and mighty with your friends, you’ve got some pretty decent ammo supplied by both teams’ student-athletes.

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After a dominating October, the Irish offensive line should continue that trend this weekend.

Brian Kelly has been asked more than a few times this week to explain the resounding success of his offensive line this season. The unit — which didn’t allow a sack in October — is one of only five teams in the country to rank in the top 10 of sacks allowed a game (0.63 sacks a game — good for 6th in the FBS) while also ranking in the top ten in rushing average (5.7 yards per carry, good for 9th.)

Kelly doesn’t claim to have a magic formula.

“Well, they’re good players first of all,” Kelly said. “You start with five good players. You’ve got to really good offensive line coach in Ed Warinner. Then you have backs that are committed to blocking. Because this doesn’t work without Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood. Then Tommy Rees gets the ball out of his hands really, really quick. So you got a number of things coming together there.

“I think the strength in the offensive line lies in that each one of them works well together. Secondly, there’s been a consistency in games played together. This group now has played all their games together. When you develop this consistency and are able to put starts together, you build obviously more than just five guys.”

The Irish have another good match-up along the front line, with the Wake Forest defensive line averaging only 247 pounds across their three-man front — roughly sixty pounds less than what the Irish line measures weighs in at.

If the Irish can effectively run the ball, the passing game should succeed as well, as the Deacs shouldn’t have any chance to get to Tommy Rees, with the Wake Forest defense ranking a paltry 105th in sacks.

He may be undersized, but keep your eyes on Nikita Whitlock.

I know I just talked about him in the IBG, but if there’s one difference maker on the defensive side of the ball, it’s Nikita Whitlock. Whitlock’s story is a great one and a testament to Jim Grobe and his staff uncovering a hidden gem late in the recruiting game.

Whitlock didn’t have a single FBS scholarship offer before Wake Forest came to the table super late in the game. At 5-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Whilock profiled as a run-stuffing middle linebacker, that was plenty motivated when he committed to the Demon Deacons.

“I was too small for some, or too slow for others,” Whilock told DeaconsIllustrated.com. “I’m going to play in college with a huge chip on my shoulder. I think I should have been recruited by a lot more colleges, but that’s their loss. Wake took a chance on me and I’m not going to let them down.”

It’s pretty safe to say he’s lived up to his promise. After redshirting his freshman season, Whitlock was a Freshman All-American after starting all 12 games along the defensive line last year. He’s only done more in his second season in the starting lineup.

While he might not bring the same ability to play at the point of attack like a guy Louis Nix‘s size, Brian Kelly certainly knows his offense needs to always know where Whitlock will be.

“He’s not going to stay blocked,” Kelly said. “He can’t. At his size, he’s not going to lockout and throw linemen around. He’s just always moving; he’s always on an edge.”

Whitlock is part of what’s great about college football. Keep your eye on No. 50 Saturday night.

With a running game already short-handed, Wake Forest might be looking for a freshman spark.

After averaging 5.7 yards a carry last year as a freshman, Josh Harris has been derailed by a hamstring injury, suffered just after breaking lose against Florida State. Harris managed only three carries before pulling himself against North Carolina, unable to come back even after two weeks of treatment and rest.

Senior Brandon Pendergrass has done a nice job trying to fill Harris’ void, but the country’s 104th ranked rushing attack — averaging just 3.04 yards a carry — might look to take the redshirt off Orville Reynolds, hoping the diminutive freshman sparks the offense.

“”Unfortunately Josh has had problems, and we just can’t get him over that hamstring,” head coach Jim Grobe told the Winston-Salem Journal. “With the situation we’re in right now, we’ve got four really tough games left on our schedule, and I don’t think we can go through with one running back.”

With that one back being a 200-pound bowling ball, Grobe is looking to Reynolds, one of the smallest players on the team at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds.

“I said ‘Orville, what would you think about playing Saturday night? Do you want to play?’ ” Grobe told the Journal. “He said, ‘Coach I’ll do whatever you all want me to do.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t ask you that. I said what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to play.’ If he had hesitated one bit, we wouldn’t even think about it.

“Now I don’t know that we’re doing it. We’re just going to try to get him ready and just see where we go from here.”

Reynolds was a below-the-radar prospect, with limited offers from programs like Colorado State, Marshall, and Utah State. But again, Grobe has made a career out of making underutilized players work for him, so don’t be surprised if Reynolds gets a chance.

***

With only 32,000 fans filling up the stadium, there’s no place like Wake Forest’s home.

When the Irish take to BB&T Field, they’ll be doing it in front of more than 32,000 people — a number that Wake Forest could push a school record, thanks to temporary bleachers and overflow crowding.

Of course, the Irish will also call the crowd a record, with Notre Dame not playing in front of a crowd this small since 1945, when the Irish lost 39-7 against the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal digs out an interesting tidbit on Great Lakes before you go retroactively calling for then Irish head coach Hugh Devore‘s head.

Great Lakes would have been awesome in horseshoes because it had more than its share of ringers. As some of the more venerable readers obviously know, it was common practice back in the day for one to go to college for a few years and then enter the military. As such, Great Lakes ended up trotting out such Hall-of-Famers as George Halas, Johnny Lujack and Otto Graham. And the Bluejackets didn’t have Chuck Mills coaching them either. Among those drawing up game plans were Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank and Leahy himself.

You could hardly blame left halfback Elmer Angsman and quarterback Frank Dancewicz for not coming to play that final Saturday. No word on whether or not Devore called out some of Frank Leahy‘s recruits on his weekly radio show, but I’m guessing the guys didn’t go to Twitter to complain about it.

***

Even with a November track record of success, the Irish need to be ready for Wake Forest’s best shot.

There might be an unprecedented amount of good will between the two schools, ever since 30-year Notre Dame vet Nathan Hatch became Wake Forest’s president and scheduled a three-game series with the Irish. But if you think the mutual admiration will do much for the Irish on the field, think again.

“It’s exciting to be able to prove yourself against five stars and big guys like that,” Whitlock said when asked about playing Notre Dame. “We’re little Wake Forest. But don’t expect us not to come out and try to punch them in their mouth. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

Even with the Irish a 14-point favorite and having great success last November, any lackadaisical attitude marching onto the field Saturday night will spell doom for Notre Dame. To the team’s credit, the players understand the importance of the season’s final month.

“The way that we prepare in the offseason, really is, we build up to this point,” Harrison Smith said. “We don’t try to peak summer or peak right as the season starts. We want to peak in November.”

While the BCS looks incredibly far away, stranger things have happened in college football. With a Top 25 littered with teams that either don’t pass the smell test or have a prohibitive schedule in front of them, the Irish need to start winning — and winning with style — this weekend, and roll their way through three ACC opponents that they’ll be heavily favored over. Not one of those games will be more difficult than tomorrow’s.

With all the time in the world to worry about BCS rankings, bowl possibilities and upset strategies for Palo Alto, the Irish can’t get close to claiming a successful season if they can’t make it through Saturday night’s road test.