Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 7

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For Notre Dame’s 2015 team, there will be victories that are remembered. And then there will be wins like Notre Dame’s 28-7 victory over Wake Forest.

On Senior Day, an emotional Irish team took the field after 27 seniors hugged mom and dad and came to grips with the fact that this might be the last time they play football in Notre Dame Stadium. Then they went out and won an ugly, never-in-doubt football game against a Demon Deacon team that dominated the time of possession, but couldn’t manage to get in the end zone more than once.

Notre Dame moved to 9-1 on the season, a victory that can’t be called dominant but certainly was never in question. So while talk of “style points” weren’t necessarily answered, Notre Dame managed to hand Wake Forest their second-most lopsided loss of the season—giving up points only after a Deacs drive was kept alive on a phantom roughing the snapper call.

With Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith leading the defense and freshman Josh Adams supplying the biggest play of the game—a 98-yard touchdown run that’s the longest in the history of Notre Dame Stadium—the Irish will  celebrate Senior Day in style.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Wake Forest kept the ball from Notre Dame’s offense and controlled the clock. But they still lost by three scores. 

Notre Dame’s high-powered offense suffered through a power outage on Saturday. The Irish managed just 282 yards of total offense, a number that looks even less potent when you take away Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run.

But Brian VanGorder’s defense stepped up when it mattered most, holding down the fort and even supplying a score of their own to help the cause.

No, the big plays didn’t disappear. Wake Forest made a few in the passing game and had success on the ground as well. But in the red zone the Irish defense held strong, holding the Demon Deacons to just one score on four attempts, turning the game on its head with a critical 4th-and-goal stop that turned into a game-changing score just two plays later.

Dave Clawson’s gameplan worked to perfection, keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands and holding them to a season-low 49 plays. But Wake Forest could get points out of their possessions, and staying clean in the turnover column helped turn a white-knuckle offensive performance into a comfortable victory.

 

Romeo Okwara is emerging as the pass rusher Notre Dame desperately needs. 

Romeo Okwara’s recent run has given Notre Dame an unexpected edge rusher. The senior added three sacks to his season total, jumping to nine on the year as he disrupted Wake Forest’s passing attack almost single-handedly. That’s the type of season-long production Notre Dame fans could only hope for, and Okwara has done it with three games still to play.

With Daniel Cage unable to go on Saturday, the Irish defense shifted Isaac Rochell inside to play tackle and mixed and matched the best they could. That forced Okwara to play more snaps, with Andrew Trumbetti opposite Okwara along with seldom-used reserves Doug Randolph and Grant Blankenship.

The rushing defense seemed to suffer—we saw Trumbetti crash hard and miss his assignment on a big zone-read gainer, with other run fits slightly off. But the pass rush never slowed, Okwara picking up the slack with a hat trick a week after notching two sacks. (He nearly had his hands on a fourth sack, but committed a facemask penalty that was mistakenly called on sophomore Jonathan Bonner.)

Okwara seems to be turning into the football player many expected when he hit campus as a 17-year old freshman, all raw tools and still figuring out the game. While roster deficiencies at defensive end and outside linebacker made it impossible for Okwara to redshirt, Brian VanGorder is getting the type of play he desperately needs in this scheme, taking some pressure off Sheldon Day as well.

“It’s one of those things where he came onto campus as a 17-year-old that just really was a raw player,” Kelly said. “He’s grown in a very short period of time this year into the kind of football player that I think has a huge growth potential in front of him. We’re just seeing that maturation process kind of come together.”

 

He’s still a freshman, but Josh Adams is another big play weapon for Notre Dame. 

Backed up next to their goal line and needing a DeShone Kizer sneak just for breathing room, Josh Adams broke the game open. The true freshman burst off the right side, high-stepped out of a tackle and unleashed a stiff arm Earl Campbell would’ve been proud off, setting a stadium record and essentially winning the game as he pushed the Irish lead to three scores before halftime.

What was amazing about Adams’ 98-yard run was  that it could’ve easily been 140 yards—he was running away from everybody, his blockers included, as the freshman showed the type of top-end speed that has the Irish coaching staff believing they have their next great game-breaker at the position.

Both Adams and Prosise have broken 90+ yard touchdown runs this season. While the senior sat out for precautionary measures, Adams ran for 141 yards on 17 carries, his long run buoying a yardage total that didn’t tell the story of how tough the sledding was inside the tackles.

Setting aside the struggles Notre Dame’s offensive line had, it’s worth marveling at how different the Irish backfield looks. Not just from what was expected this year—Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, with Prosise getting a chance to contribute—but compared to the personnel that was here when Brian Kelly showed up.

In 2010, Cierre Wood broke a 39-yard run against Western Michigan. It was Notre Dame’s longest run since Robert Hughes went 46-yards in 2007. Since then, the Irish have made incremental progress.

Jonas Gray supplied a big play in his 79-yard score against Pitt in 2011, and George Atkinson had home run potential. But the biggest difference between this backfield and any in the last decade is the pure potential to go the distance on every touch.

Prosise has showed that by making big play after big play. Adams helped keep that going, his 141 yards keeping him at an astonishing 7.8 yards per carry.

 

James Onwualu may have suffered a significant knee injury. How Greer Martini and the Irish defense fill that hole remains to be seen. 

Junior linebacker James Onwualu suffered a significant knee injury early in the game, with an MRI coming tomorrow to determine the severity of it. The third starter in a linebacking corps that usually only mentions Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, Onwualu is still a key cog to the defense, especially with a nickel grouping still figuring itself out.

Filling in capably was Greer Martini. Martini made four tackles and also filled Onwualu’s role stretched out to the hashmark, forced to play in a cover scheme that doesn’t necessarily play to the 245-pounder’s skillset.

While Boston College is a perfect game to play with a jumbo-sized SAM linebacker, Onwualu serves as a Swiss-Army backer, capable in coverage and getting better each week in the trenches. He had an early TFL in his only stop before he knee bent backwards with what Kelly deemed a potential MCL injury.

Notre Dame’s had decent injury luck of late, though the defense looked and played differently without Cage in the middle. We saw how little the margin for error is up front with Cage out. The secondary is already a high-wire act. So digging into the linebacker depth chart this week for answers is the next thing to figure out.

 

 

Seniors leave Notre Dame Stadium a much more dangerous place to play. 

Let’s tip our cap to the seniors. A class not many had high expectations for ended 2015 6-0 in Notre Dame Stadium, the 21st win for the group that matches the record set by the class of 1990 and 1991. (I’m not sure if you were following the Irish back then, but those teams were pretty good.)

That’s probably the best measurement of what this class did. And it was certainly something Brian Kelly appreciated, taking over a program that had become a pretty easy place for opponents to win.

“It’s always great to get a win for your seniors in their last home game,” Kelly said after the game. “They certainly have left a great legacy here at Notre Dame, with 21 wins… no senior class has ever won more games at home.”

The years before Sheldon Day and company got to South Bend, the Irish struggled at home. In 2011, they loss a mind-melting opener to USF. They also laid an egg against USC in their first night game in decades. The 2010 team lost to Michigan, Stanford and Tulsa at home. Charlie Weis faired no better. His final 2009 season saw him lose to USC, Navy and UConn at home. In 2008, they lost to Pitt and a nightmarish game to Syracuse.

But Kelly’s 2012 team went unbeaten at home. In 2013, only No. 14 Oklahoma beat the Irish. Northwestern and Louisville sullied the last month of the 2014 season, but this group rallied to defend their turf, finishing they home record with just three losses and two undefeated seasons in South Bend.

Night games. FieldTurf. Piped-in music. Kelly made it clear he thought all would help the Irish win more. And thanks to this 2015 class, he’s been proven correct.