Five things we learned: Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17

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They don’t ask how. They just ask how many. Good thing for Notre Dame, who pulled an ugly victory out on the road against Wake Forest Saturday night 24-17.

“You gotta win games like this,” Brian Kelly said afterwards. “It was just a gritty tough performance.”

Gritty is in the eye of the beholder. The naysayer would say the Irish played down to their competition, rallying from a sluggish first half and coming from behind for a critical, bowl-clinching victory.The head coach would call it another step towards learning how to win every week.

“To play like a champion you have to play consistently,” Kelly said. “You can’t have spurts. Tonight was a great step in that direction.  Playing on the road, against good competition, being down at halftime and come back a couple of times. That’s resolve. That’s toughness. That’s gritty. We’ve been trying to build this and that’s why I’m proud of my guys tonight.”

Let’s find out what we learned during the Irish’s 24-17 victory Saturday night against Wake Forest.

Here’s to Mike Golic, who did his family proud tonight.

In the last few weeks, Kelly singled out center Braxston Cave for his play this season. Cave’s ability to pull, get his linemates in the proper blocking scheme, and push the tempo for the front five has been a big key to the Irish’s renaissance at the line of scrimmage. It’s also what helped make this evening’s surprising turn of events that much more enjoyable.

Cave came out of the game on the first play of the second quarter with a lower leg injury. We’ll find out how serious it was later in the week, but the injury allowed senior Mike Golic Jr. to finally see the field. Golic has a name that’s long resonated as a proud Irish legacy, while also drawing whispers from fans about whether or not the sons (brother Jake is a fourth-string tight end) of one of ESPN’s most prominent radio personalities deserved a scholarship.

Kelly singled out the seniors performance, while giving him the game ball and letting him lead the team’s singing of the fight song.

“Mike Golic at center, he did a great job,” Kelly said. “Coming in, We lose our center. We close out the ball game running it I don’t know how many consecutive times,” Kelly said.

Up until Saturday evening, Golic’s crowning achievement was initiating Trick Shot Monday, a locker room game that involves throwing a ping pong ball into a solo cup. But when given the chance to step in for an injured Cave, Golic rose to the challenge, anchoring a running attack that didn’t miss a beat when the Irish’s stalwart center went down.

There’s no telling whether or not Golic will be asked back for a fifth year of eligbility. But on a Saturday night when his teammates needed him, the Irish legacy stood strong and led the offensive line — an impressive achievement regardless of the name on the back of his jersey.

The Irish followed the November script.

Notre Dame won’t be judged by their performance on the field this weekend. They can’t be, with just about every pollster spending Saturday night affixed to the LSU-Alabama game, when the Tigers and Crimson Tide turned back the clock to the dark ages of football and quarterback play.

Good thing for the Irish, who used this dress rehearsal to build confidence on the road while also following a familiar November script to get a victory. Just as they did last year, the Irish turned to a rock-solid late game defensive performance and a steady running attack to win Saturday night, cooling off a capacity crowd at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem with a dominating third quarter before holding on for the win.

Not looking for a signature victory, Kelly was simply looking to build November momentum.

“We’ve still got a lot of football left,” Kelly said. “Maryland next week. BC our last home game and hopefully an undefeated Stanford team. We think we are moving to where we want to be in this process.”

While the performance wasn’t perfect, when push came to shove the Irish got after it, with the defense stiffening and the running game doing enough to win. Going into halftime down seven points the Irish rallied with a dominating third quarter, scoring a touchdown on their first drive of the half, forcing a three and out, then scoring again to take a lead that stuck.

It didn’t garner style points, but it was enough for the Irish’s sixth victory.

He didn’t play perfect, but Tommy Rees’ mistakes didn’t hurt the Irish.

It’s tough to get excited about two more turnovers for Tommy Rees, whose play has plateaued a bit the past few weeks. Rees’ 14 for 23 afternoon was the second least accurate Saturday he’s had this season, and his two interceptions push his season total to ten, a number that’s just too high for a guy that’s usually accurate with the football.

But if you’re looking for growth, the evidence is just beneath the surface. Neither of Rees’ mistakes were of the back-breaking variety, and the sophomore quarterback, while still playing a little loose with the football is making progress, even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it.

“We can overcome those things,” Kelly said. “It’s the mistakes that we’ve had in the red zone and fumbling the football. We did not beat ourselves tonight.”

Rees’ first interception, thrown late in the first half on a deep post, is the perfect example of a mistake you can live with. It’s not something you’ll congratulate a quarterback for, but it’s a shot worth taking late in the first half in a scenario when the Irish needed to push the ball down the field.

Same thing for Rees’ second interception, when Rees took a flea-flicker and fired over the top of a well covered Michael Floyd. (Memo to the staff: it might be time to holster that sidearm.) After eight games of getting chastised for underthrowing the Irish’s deep threat, Rees’ overthrow ended up in the arms of Josh Bush, but satisfied those that were convinced Tommy didn’t have the arm strength to throw the deep ball.

Rees did what sophomore quarterbacks do, nothing more, nothing less. His evening was good enough to win, but certainly shaky enough to keep naysayers busy picking apart his many mistakes. While the stats don’t look close to perfect, Rees did enough to lead his team to victory. In a game where style points don’t matter, Rees proved you can be awarded none and still lead your team to a win.

After getting beat on the ground against USC, the Irish pay it forward against the Demon Deacons.

Just two weeks after USC decided to impose their will on the Irish defense, the Irish paid the gesture forward, using Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray to end the football game on the ground.

At Notre Dame Stadium, Curtis McNeal ran the ball ten straight times to ice the Trojans victory against Notre Dame. In BB&T Stadium, the Irish decided to run Wood and Gray seven times, before Rees took a knee and ended the ball game after crossing into Wake Forest’s territory. The effort was far from impressive, but it was exactly what the Irish needed late in the game to ice the victory and goes to show just how far Ed Warinner‘s offensive line has come.

It may feel like years ago, but it was the offensive lines’ inability to get critical third downs that cost the Irish against Michigan early in the season, keeping the Wolverines in the ballgame until they mounted their comeback. Now the Irish front — short center Cave — iced a victory when everybody in the stadium knew the run was coming. (Take that, spread offense haters.)

Cave’s injury adds more than a few question marks to the offensive line. But Mike Golic’s ability to slide in and keep the Irish attack moving shows just how successful Warinner’s troops have been.

“There’s a trajectory you want to be on,” Kelly said. “When you go on the road you want to play the kind of football that allows you to win consistently. That is closing games out.”

Let’s hear it for the boys.

There’s no denying it. It was an ugly victory. But sometimes, that’s just what the doctor ordered. With Manti Te’o hobbled for most of the game and the Irish offense far from hitting on all cylinders, Notre Dame bullied their way to a November victory, something that just didn’t happen under Charlie Weis.

“We’ve got a lot of guys banged up,” Kelly said. Listen, it’s November, there’s gonna be some guys that come to practice Tuestday not full speed. These guys are tough, they’re gritty and they’ll answer the bell.”

Kelly was even combative when challenged about his offense’s modest output.

“Is there a negative to everything? We just won a football game on the road,” Kelly said to a inquisitive reporter. “Really, what kind of question is that? Really, what do you want me to say? What’s the answer. We won 24-17 against a good football team and you want to know what’s wrong with the passing game. You know what’s wrong with it? The coach doesn’t call good plays. How’s that? There’s nothing wrong with it. We’re fine. We just won a good game.”

The Irish won not because of stars like Te’o or Michael Floyd (who did have a nice touchdown catch), but because of underclassmen like Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Danny Fox, who filled in admirably at Mike linebacker. With the Irish down at halftime, the coaching staff made some shrewd adjustments that flipped the game with a 14-0 third quarter, enough for Notre Dame to hang on.

After impressing gambling aficionados and computer polls with their impressive statistical outputs all season, the Irish took a step backwards in the stat ledger while moving a big step forward in the win column. It’s a trade Kelly and the Irish will take every week.