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.
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.”
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)
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)
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)