And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and a very familiar defense

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In the offseason, Wake Forest visiting Notre Dame seemed nothing but a ho-hum November afternoon. Now the game has taken on unexpected importance, with the Irish risking Playoff-contention each and every week. Yet, the Demon Deacons remain largely an unknown in these parts.

To help educate, “Inside the Irish” turned to Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal.

DF: Conor, I appreciate you taking the time to educate some Notre Dame fans. Wake Forest’s season somewhat reminds me of Boston College’s, even though the Deacons cruised past the Eagles 34-10 in week two. Wake Frest notched some wins against a few non-descript opponents before enduring close losses both against Florida State (26-19) and at Clemson (28-14). Then the Deacons finally broke through last week, notching a 42-32 win over Louisville. Was there some version of frustration building around the program before topping the Cardinals?

CO: There was some frustration for Wake Forest in the aftermath of the Florida State and Georgia Tech losses because the Deacons felt like they were positioned to win those games, only to have brief lapses cost them marquee wins. Playing from ahead for the entirety of the Louisville game was a huge step in the right direction and a confidence-booster for them.

How much momentum does that win give Wake Forest? I could envision it being a lot, but I could also understand if it was hardly any, just because Notre Dame awaits so quickly to possibly stem any growing confidence.

Along the same lines, getting a win against Louisville lifts Wake Forest’s confidence level. They are still one of the three teams that has been atop the Atlantic Division in the past three seasons, along with Clemson and Florida State, and the Deacons, along with N.C. State, Syracuse and BC, have to beat those teams to overthrow the established hierarchy of the division. Taking a 5-3 record to South Bend is a much better position than 4-4, and even a possible loss means taking a 5-4 record to Syracuse next weekend, as opposed to a possible 4-5 record after a 4-0 start.

If you’ll allow a quick tangent to chime in on an ongoing debate … You have taken better looks at Florida State and Louisville then anyone around here has. Are their struggles this season more a sign of the ACC’s top-to-bottom strength or are they simply bad teams?

I’ll say this: If you put Florida State’s defense, or maybe even just safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and tackle Derrick Nnadi, on Louisville, they might have one loss. FSU’s defense is the most talented unit I’ve seen outside of Clemson’s defense this season. They’re just missing their quarterback and most of their offensive line. Louisville’s defense is terrible and Lamar Jackson’s surrounding cast is OK, but Jackson is good enough to beat teams by himself. I think the ACC really is a deep league — not as strong at the top as the past couple of years, but just as deep, if not deeper.

John Wolford leads the Deacons offense, finally getting protection for the first time in his career. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Thanks for that. Back to the matter at hand. Senior quarterback John Wolford leads Wake Forest and he does so quite efficiently, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. What makes him so, well, so effective?

Wolford really hasn’t improved much from year-to-year, it’s just that for the first time in his career he has protection and receivers who can get open. He was sacked 103 times in his first three seasons — he’s been sacked 13 times this year, and that number might get dropped to 12 because of a technical issue from last week’s game. Wolford has always had a strong arm, he’s tough as nails and is fiercely competitive. Now he’s reaping the rewards of a developing program.

If discussing the Deacons passing game, here is where we probably pour some out for sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. For those who don’t know, Dortch led Wake Forest with 53 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury this week. Before we get to the ramifications of that, do you care to describe his Saturday against Louisville? Most around here undoubtedly missed it, but I get the sense it still deserves some appreciation and recognition.

Notre Dame should count its blessings it will not need to attempt to check Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Greg Dortch was a huge part of Wolford’s success and Saturday was obviously his best game of a stellar season. They got him the ball in space on screens and he’s got the shiftiness to make moves in small windows. He did that and also burned a safety in one-on-one coverage for his third touchdown. He had a fifth touchdown, a 30-yarder on a screen in which he bounced off two Louisville tacklers without hitting the ground, negated because he fumbled through the end zone reaching for the pylon.

Now without Dortch, what viable options can Wolford turn to? How much will losing the 5-foot-9 speedster diminish the Deacons’ passing attack?

Wake Forest turns to Tabari Hines, who has started in the slot for the past two seasons and was the starter for the first two games this year. He had a minor shoulder injury which allowed Dortch more plays in the second and third games of the season, and Dortch capitalized. Now it’s a matter of whether Hines can step back into that role. It’ll also be a measure of senior tight end Cam Serigne entering the passing attack more often. He was able to be used as a blocker more often because of Dortch’s emergence, so he’ll likely be used more as a receiver — as was the case in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Let’s turn to the defense. Obviously, Notre Dame hired away defensive coordinator Mike Elko. He has been a fundamental and foundational part of the Irish turnaround this season. Is there any feeling at Wake Forest of playing to beat him this weekend? Perhaps it isn’t revenge or even payback, but some less drastic version of those sentiments?

There are not hard feelings for Mike Elko here, at least none that I can tell. He was given a great opportunity and has seemingly seized it from the start. Clawson said he and Elko have texted good luck, good game-type sentiments pretty much every week this season (but that that would stop this week).

How much of Elko’s defensive designs remain there? Did Jay Sawvel, formerly of Minnesota, change most of the concepts?

Sawvel hasn’t changed much, it’s still a 4-2-5 with a “rover” position that’s a hybrid safety-linebacker. The difference is that Elko is more of a tactician, in kind of the same light we see offensive coordinators, whereas Sawvel is more of a hands-on coach. Sawvel works directly with the cornerbacks, and sophomore corners Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey have both taken large strides after coming into the season as really the only question marks of the defense.

Senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor leads Wake Forest’s defense with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss this season. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Sawvel’s defense has given up 183.8 rushing yards per game. Are there legitimate hopes of shutting down Notre Dame’s rather impressive running game?

I wouldn’t use the term “shut down” for what Wake Forest hopes to do against Notre Dame’s rushing attack, but at least slow down. That average is a bit misleading, as the Deacons’ run defense has largely been feast-or-famine. They lead the country with 9.3 tackles for loss per game, but have also been susceptible to giving up big runs. Oftentimes, that happens when their linebackers and safeties fail to fill holes.

Sticking with the coaches, this is head coach Dave Clawson’s fourth season at Wake Forest. He followed two 3-9 campaigns with a 7-6 finish last year. At 5-3 now, the Deacons have at least two more eminently-winnable games remaining to get bowl eligible. What is Clawson’s long-term view? He should still be at Wake Forest in 2018, right?

Barring something crazy like five straight wins to end the season, Clawson certainly should be at Wake Forest next year. He’s maintained he’s building a program and he enjoys coaching and being around the type of players Wake Forest recruits, and he repeatedly praises his working relationship with athletics director Ron Wellman. Wake Forest only starts seven seniors this season, so while some of those are key players (Wolford, Ejiofor, Serigne, both linebackers), next season lines up as one that could see the Deacons make a jump into the eight- or nine-win category.

Personally, I expected the Irish to be favored by much more than two touchdowns, but the spread opened at only 13, and I have seen it thus far rise to 13.5. Perhaps I am putting too much value on beating two top-15 opponents by a combined 56 points in two weeks. Including a possible score prediction, what do you expect to unfold come Saturday?

I think Wake Forest stood a much better chance in this game until the 36 hours after the Louisville win, in which we learned Dortch would be out for the season and safety Jessie Bates III (team-best 64 tackles) and starting running back Cade Carney wouldn’t play this weekend. Those are three players tough to replace. I think Notre Dame wins 30-10.

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And In That Corner … No. 16 BYU offers physical test for Notre Dame in Las Vegas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wyoming at BYU
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For perhaps the first time, Notre Dame’s season-long hopes are lower than its opponents in a Shamrock Series matchup. No. 16 BYU (4-1) can still reach just about every goal in front of it at the start of the season, though perhaps getting into the Playoff may be a bit much. At the very least, the Cougars can finish their final season as an independent in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But they’d most likely have to upset the Irish (2-2). To get an idea of BYU’s mindset heading into Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC), let’s chat with Jared Lloyd of The Daily Herald in central Utah.

DF: BYU remains intriguing from a national perspective, despite perhaps playing with its food a bit against Wyoming and Utah State. Neither game was genuinely in doubt in the second half, so a possible lack of focus certainly did not cost the Cougars. Have you caught a sense of such? Or were those games simply that much more competitive than expected?

JL: ​Both Utah State and Wyoming came in well-prepared and with really nothing to lose, pushing BYU harder than Cougar fans expected. BYU wasn’t exactly quick to make adjustments, but when it did it was able to pull away in the second half of both games. The reality is that this Cougar team hasn’t played at the level I expected to see for the last three weeks, blundering into a number of unforced and undisciplined errors. The BYU coaching staff is working to eliminate those but I think it is too much to expect them to be all gone for this week’s matchup.

My hope for this game in the preseason was that Notre Dame and BYU would enter with no more than two combined losses. The Irish fell short; the Cougars delivered on that front. But let’s focus on that loss, a 41-20 fall at Oregon. The Ducks got out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and a 38-7 cushion by the end of the third quarter. It was a shellacking. Oregon has a strong rushing attack, averaging 6.3 yards per carry outside of that game, but still gaining 212 yards on 44 carries may be a template for Notre Dame to follow. And this was not specific to the Ducks; Utah State gained 204 yards on 49 carries, a 4.16 yards per rush average, distinctly better than its average of 3.56 in its other four games.

Walk me through this dynamic, as I was very much expecting BYU to have a strong defensive front this season, a team excelling in the trenches during its recent years of success. Has that fallen short? Are offenses selling out for the run?

Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State all made adjustments to attack the Cougar run defense instead of relying on things they had done in previous games, with various levels of success. I have noticed that BYU seems to struggle to get off blocks early in games, then starts over-pursuing and missing assignments. That has opened up gaps and the last three opponents have taken advantage of those. I fully expect Notre Dame to follow the same formula, so it will be on the Cougar defensive players and coaches to prove they have come up with solutions. BYU’s secondary has generally played fairly well, so it appears that the main effort needs to be on getting the job done up front.

The Cougars’ offensive line is certainly delivering, ballasting a balanced offense to the tune of 34.4 points per game. The Irish defensive line was gaining momentum in the five quarters before the idle week. Where is BYU weakest up front, if anywhere?

​BYU has enjoyed significant success in past years with an outside zone run scheme, but that hasn’t been the case for much of 2022. Opposing defensive linemen and linebackers have been able to successfully read the plays and slant through, beating the Cougar linemen to the point of attack and hitting BYU running backs behind the line of scrimmage. While the Cougar linemen are big and agile for their size, they simply aren’t quicker than many of the defenders when they are trying to push to the outside. The scheme does set up a lot of other plays that BYU has used, so I don’t expect to see the Cougars abandon it completely. I believe the Notre Dame defenders will be as prepared as other teams have been to stop the basic run and that will be an advantage for the Irish.

Let’s zoom far out from the details of the lines and instead project forward on the Cougars season. They are not eligible for the designated Group of Five slot in the New Year’s Six bowls, but BYU could find itself in the mix for the top 12 and thus still make such an appearance. These next two weeks, vs. Notre Dame and hosting Arkansas, will obviously determine such. Is there any acknowledgment of these bigger-picture possibilities around Provo?

There is no doubt that BYU fans across the country and both local and national reporters acknowledge that a big-time bowl could still be on the table, but I think it is minimized inside the Cougar program. Sure, BYU players and coaches are aware that could be a big prize, but they also know how quickly such dreams will be shattered if they lose. Given the fact that the Cougars have played far below the level they believe they are capable of playing at, I’m certain BYU is focused right now on elevating its own performance far more than thinking about bowl opportunities.

For that matter, how much excitement is there at BYU for finally working its way into the Big 12? This had been a long-wanted goal, at least it seemed so from afar.

It’s an interesting mix of excitement and vindication for many in the Cougar community. On the one hand, many BYU supporters feel that politics — not football tradition or ability — resulted in the Cougars being overlooked in the round of expansion in 2010 that saw Utah and TCU move to Power 5 conferences and BYU go independent. While there are similarities to Notre Dame in the fact that the Cougars are a religious-based institution with a national following, BYU certainly doesn’t have the same cachet as the Irish. Thus, the Cougars certainly needed both the opportunities and resources that joining the Big 12 conference will make possible to continue to be considered an elite college football program (as well as elevate other BYU sports). There is certainly plenty of energy surrounding the scheduled move next year.

I’ve hit some of the game-specific items, some of the 30,000-foot pieces. What have I missed? Including, but not limited to, a current update on the health of a couple Cougars receivers?

​BYU has been banged up but the latest update from the coaching staff is that no one is completely ruled out for Saturday’s game. The Cougars did get to see one of its top returning receivers on the field in the last game, although Gunner Romney certainly wasn’t at 100 percent. Puka Nacua, who has earned the distinction of being the BYU receiver with the most game-breaking potential, appears to also have a good chance of playing. 

Another aspect of the game that I would keep a close eye on is special teams. Although BYU has traditionally done well in that area, missed field goals and poor kick/punt coverage at times have really hurt the Cougars. More BYU miscues in that area could give Notre Dame a momentum boost in Saturday’s contest.

With Notre Dame favored by 3.5 as of Tuesday afternoon, what do you expect to see Saturday evening at Allegiant Stadium? And what part of Las Vegas are you most looking forward to?

​I think I’m one of many who are still trying to figure out exactly what the 2022 Irish are. Notre Dame looked pretty good in the loss at Ohio State and the win over North Carolina, but not that good in the loss to Marshall and the win over Cal. This is also the first long-distance trip for the Irish (almost three times as far as the trip to North Carolina), and that can be a challenge each team has to figure out. That said, this is a Notre Dame team that is coming off a good showing and an idle week, so I expect it to have figured some things out. It’s going to have some success on the ground and give BYU problems with its defense, but the Cougars won’t back down. I expect a close, exciting game that will be decided in the fourth quarter.

What I’m most looking forward to in Las Vegas is seeing the representation of both BYU and Notre Dame fans. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the city, so I’m familiar with the lights and the atmosphere. I’m much more intrigued by the meeting of these two well-known schools and seeing the turnout. My experiences with most of the fans from both institutions have been overwhelmingly positive, so I anticipate a cordial yet competitive environment for the Shamrock Series battle.

Las Vegas trip will offer Notre Dame fewer distractions than most; secondary injury updates

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Las Vegas may distract Notre Dame fans plenty, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman expects no such problem from his roster. For one thing, Notre Dame will arrive in Las Vegas late enough on Friday to cut into any distractions before facing No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC).

The Irish will then take a quick site visit to Allegiant Stadium before calling it a night, and Freeman himself will make sure everyone on the team has called it a night, as he does each Friday before a game.

“They got the head coach that’ll be doing bed coach at 8:30 Pacific Time on Friday night,” Freeman said Monday. “So I’m not real concerned.”

Freeman has often argued games away from home actually elicit fewer distractions than ones at home, something heard often around college coaches. Generally speaking, more family is in attendance at each home game, not to mention friends with typical college parties. On the road, the players arrive in town, perhaps check out the stadium, and then they head to the hotel for the night.

The loss of the comfort of sleeping in your bed is universal; Notre Dame has stayed in a hotel the night before home games for decades.

“The Shamrock Series is what makes Notre Dame unique,” Freeman said. “It’s one of our distinctions. The chance to go play a home game in Las Vegas is an extremely exciting opportunity.”

The Irish will be without senior linebacker JD Bertrand for the first half after a targeting penalty led to his ejection in the second half at North Carolina. Notre Dame appealed Bertrand’s one-half suspension but did not win the appeal.

The Irish should have both junior safety Ramon Henderson and fifth-year safety DJ Brown back in the lineup, after an ankle and a hamstring limited each nine days ago.

“Our head athletic trainer texted me this morning that both of them looked really good today, expect them both to go and practice …,” Freeman said. “I would expect both of those guys to be ready to go.”

Whether they are or not, junior Xavier Watts will be a part of the safety rotation and only the safety rotation. After Avery Davis tore his ACL in the preseason, leaving Notre Dame with just six healthy receivers, including fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno, Watts handled double-duty. The former receiver played both sides of the ball during at least one preseason scrimmage.

But Freeman said Watts is working at only safety these days, despite moving to the position less than a year ago.

“He’s getting better, he has a lot of natural ability we have to continue to coach and mold,” Freeman said. “… He’s all safety now. We just felt his role had more value to our team on defense than to go on offense and really compete to try to get playing time. Defensively, we knew there was already a plan for him to play.”

BUCHNER IN THE BOOTH
Most injured players roam the sidelines on Saturday, but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has been in the coaches’ booth since injuring his shoulder against Marshall on Sept. 10. More than learning the system from above and helping coaches chart plays, Freeman said that was a safety precaution initially.

“We didn’t want him in harm’s way,” Freeman said. “He was fresh, two or three days, out of surgery. We wanted to get him away from anywhere he could be in harm’s way.”

Freeman would not rule out Buchner moving to the sideline yet this season, where he and junior starting quarterback Drew Pyne could talk things through more actively, but for now, Buchner likely will remain up top.

ON THE QUICKENING NATURE OF COACHING CHANGES
After Wisconsin shockingly fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday, a surprise such that it will now be the poster child for early-season firings, Freeman was asked for his thoughts on those pressures and how it could impact his assistants. None of them figure to be in the mix for any of the current job openings (six, in total), but the concept holds enough merit to be discussed.

“We have a job to do, every single week,” Freeman said. “Anything that is going to distract us from getting our job done, we don’t want it, but I’m always going to be in a position where I want to make sure I’m helping every single person I’m surrounded by reach their goals.”

So Freeman would not stand in the way of an assistant coaching talking about an opening sooner than usual. Consider it unlikely right now and too abstract to ponder in the future. Of the six job openings, UAB’s interim coach is being given a valid chance at keeping the job, and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would know better than to pick up the phone if Georgia Tech called, not that this year’s offense has Rees atop many coaching lists.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden presumably needs to succeed at the collegiate level for a few years before landing another head coaching gig, and while running backs coach Deland McCullough has explicitly said that is his goal, he is not established enough to be viewed as a contender for any Power Five job, which five of the six now open are.

That hypothetical aside, Freeman knows well the reality of a coaching firing and the frustrations that come with it. Just about anyone in the coaching industry does, and thus they feel great empathy when discussing such moments.

Freeman felt it in 2016, as the defensive coordinator at Purdue when head coach Darrell Hazell was fired after six games. Current Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker was the Boilermakers’ interim coach for the final six games of the year, going 0-6.

“It’s tough. You feel for the guys in your occupation,” Freeman said. “I’m sure it’s not a lack of effort, but we’re in a results-driven business. That’s a part of the profession we chose. We chose this profession. But you never want to see that.

“People with families — it not only affects the head coach, but it affects all those assistants with them.”

Leftovers & Links: Idle-week thoughts on Notre Dame and its difficulties in the transfer portal

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It has become a common complaint among Notre Dame fans, that the Irish coaching staff failed to capitalize on the transfer portal this offseason. Particularly after Marshall’s influx of Power Five Transfers spurred the Herd to a 26-21 upset at Notre Dame Stadium and junior Drew Pyne was thrown into starting duty after Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the dearth of transfers on Notre Dame’s roster created angst, particularly at quarterback.

Aside from Northwestern import Brandon Joseph at safety, Harvard graduates Chris Smith and Jon Sot at defensive tackle and punter, respectively, and Arkansas State graduate Blake Grupe at kicker, the Irish do not have any contributing transfers this season.

It is not a coincidence three of those players are graduates, and it is not a coincidence three of them came from schools that could be considered academic peers to Notre Dame.

Coincincidences will not explain this dynamic to the masses, though, at least not enough.

“Can you point me to where and how I could read your complete take on [why Notre Dame can’t or won’t participate fully in the transfer portal opportunities]? Maybe this is a topic worthy of a full column given the current problems that the Irish are experiencing at receiver and perhaps other positions due to recruiting failures?”bostonjan two weeks ago.

Knowing Marcus Freeman’s thoughts on this will not satiate the masses, realizing a non-football-related example will not make clear the difficulties, and overlooking the reality that Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth goes well beyond the transfer portal and into losing two veterans for either the season thus far (Joe Wilkins, mid-March Lisfranc injury) or the season entirely (Avery Davis, preseason ACL tear) after most portal thoughts were spoken for … let’s answer that question.

The NCAA requires players remain on track for graduation. “On track” can be an ambiguous phrase, but there are bare minimums attached to it. Thus, any player Notre Dame welcomes as an undergraduate transfer must arrive and remain on track for graduation by those definitions as they apply at Notre Dame.

The University is notoriously challenging in that regard for imports. To break a personal rule and use a first-person pronoun here, one friend of mine — and details will be vague here because they are not necessary for the point and his academic process is not the debate here — who transferred into Notre Dame halfway through his junior year from a rather prestigious Northeast institution. Yet, Notre Dame denied so many of his credits, when he arrived in South Bend, he was now entering the second semester of his sophomore year. As sure as the sun rises in the east, this was coming from a place with a lofty enough academic standing, you would all expect every single one of his credits to transfer. Instead, he was no longer “on track” to graduate by athletics standards, though let it be known, this friend could not less resemble a Division I athlete, no offense intended.

Coming from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph faced a similar issue. If the senior safety were to jump to the NFL after this season, it would almost assuredly be easier for him to return to Evanston to procure his degree than to Notre Dame.

Freeman recognizes this reality, and he also recognizes this is part of the University’s fabric. Holding its own courses in higher esteem than the vast majority of other schools’ will not change, for better or worse.

“Our people here at Notre Dame want us to be in a position to be successful,” Freeman said a couple weeks ago. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we protect the integrity of this education here at our University. Nobody is just going to ‘win’ this. ‘Athletics wins.’ ‘Academics wins.’ No, we have to work together to do what’s best for both parties.”

Having enough credits accepted as a transfer to remain on track for graduation is only the second hurdle. The first hurdle, the one Freeman does intend to change, is the timing of that process.

The Irish chased a few receiver transfers this offseason. Now who knows where those players would have gone if Notre Dame’s transfer admission process was lightning quick, perhaps still not South Bend, but it would have become more plausible. Right now, the transfer transcripts have to be procured, whatever academic school at Notre Dame the player wants to enter has to review those credits and eventually a decision on eligibility is reached.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, that delay may be more costly than the strict admissions standards. Joseph was in the portal for hours before he was considering the Irish and just days before that decision was made. Most transfers do not even visit the campus of the new school they commit to. Freeman has identified that sluggish process as something to improve since he was hired in December.

“It’s a process that we’re in constant communication with,” he said this month. “Our admissions, our faculty here at Notre Dame and with multiple head coaches of athletic programs — it’s not just football. It’s just, right now, a period in college sports where transfers and transfer portals are a big part of roster enhancements.”

Freeman was hired the first week of December. You may remember that was a chaotic stretch around the Irish program. His first priority was keeping together the recruiting class set to sign two weeks later. His second was readying Notre Dame for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

That timeline was never going to allow Freeman a chance to accelerate the transfer admissions process at the University before most transfers were off the market by February. The inability to chase most transfers this past offseason was not a reflection of Freeman and his coaching staff; it was a reality of a large institution’s momentum and of time’s relentlessness. Freight trains take miles to stop and then much time to reverse course, and in many regards, Notre Dame operates like a freight train.

But Freeman is still trying to turn that freight train around.

“It’s a process that we continue to have discussions about and look to continue to enhance it.”

By no means does that assure things will move quicker this coming winter, but if anything is certain, it is that they will not be slower.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack
Things We Learned: ND’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

OUTSIDE READING
Who are college football’s most surprising impact transfers? Marshall RB Khalan Laborn, former Notre Dame OL Quinn Carroll lead list
Don’t call USC overrated after its best — and ugliest — win of the season
Does college football have an attendance problem? Lane Kiffin’s fan gripes bring up fair point
Here’s the funniest opponent each P5 school has never beaten
Isaac Rochell riding unconventional wave of opportunity with Browns this season
Northwestern unveils plan for Ryan Field rebuild

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

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While Notre Dame takes the weekend off, some will take the chance to spend time with their families. Others will go to other games across the country, maybe dabble in an FCS matchup. Most, however, will keep watching the full Saturday slate, and this weekend there are a few notable chances to watch coming Irish foes.

It would be too objective of an exercise to list the below games by order of intrigue, but the first game on that list would not be up for debate: No. 5 Clemson hosts No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC) in a game that could confirm the Tigers’ Playoff aspirations.

No. 19 BYU (3-1): The Cougars had no trouble with up-and-down Wyoming, winning 38-24, led by quarterback Jaren Hall’s 337 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-32 passing. Receiver Puka Nacua caught only three of those passes for just 26 yards, but his return from a battered ankle gives BYU one of its two best receivers back, and the other may play this weekend, Gunner Romney coming back from a lacerated kidney suffered early in preseason practices.

That offense does not need to be at full strength to ease by Utah State (8 ET on Thursday; ESPN), but it may be needed to cover a 24.5-point spread, per PointsBet on Wednesday night. More notably, this will give Hall and Romney a chance to find their rhythm before facing Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Stanford (1-2): Losing to Washington, 40-22, was not too alarming. The Huskies may be back to the form that landed them in an early Playoff. And Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee continued the vague NFL buzz around him with 286 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing. But it was still a bad week for Stanford. Head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that running back E.J. Smith will be out for the rest of the season. In the first two games of the year, Smith took 30 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns, adding 63 more yards and a score through the air. McKee will keep the offense functional, but Smith made it a bona fide two-dimensional offense.

Without him, it is hard to envision the Cardinal upsetting No. 13 Oregon (11 ET; FS1) late Saturday night as 17-point underdogs.

UNLV (3-1): The Rebels are not the scrubs many expected entering the season, including this space. A 34-24 win at even-more-woeful Utah State last weeked confirmed that, but let’s make no mistake: UNLV is still not necessarily good. SP+ ranks the Rebels as the No. 91 team in the country, two notches better than Boston College, but UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame faces this season. With Navy even further down those considerations, the Rebels will not even be the second-worst team playing the Irish this year.

How drastically have things changed for UNLV? Favored by 14.5 against New Mexico (11 ET on Friday; CBSSN) this weekend makes it three straight weeks that the Rebels have been favored. Before that, they were last favored against an FBS team in the second week of 2019, nearly three full seasons ago. They had not been a favorite in consecutive FBS games since late 2017, when they went 0-1-1 against the spread against Hawaii and BYU, losing to the Cougars.

The last time UNLV was favored in three straight games against FBS opponents? It was before 2006.

Syracuse (4-0): The Orange tried to gift Virginia a win on Friday, but it held on 22-20 despite four turnovers. All four of those were within Syracuse’s own 36-yard line, yet they resulted in only seven Cavaliers points.

Syracuse could probably get away with such shenanigans again this week, against FCS-level Wagner (5 ET; ESPN+).

No. 5 Clemson (4-0): The Tigers held off Wake Forest’s upset bid in double overtime. It may have been DJ Uiagalelei’s best career game, even better than his double-overtime showing at Notre Dame in 2020, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns. But those numbers do not do his play justice.

More of that is going to be needed against No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC). Clemson is favored by 6.5 points, and assuming that mark holds up to kickoff, this marks four of the Tigers’ last five games against ACC competition in which they have been favored by just single digits, going 3-1 against the spread in those games, winning all four. The game before those five, Clemson was an underdog to Pittsburgh, so call that five of six games in which the Tigers were favored by no more than nine points against conference opponents. In the previous 34 ACC games, only once was Clemson favored by fewer than 10 points, its trip to Notre Dame in 2020 in Uiagalelei’s first career start.

Navy (1-2): The Midshipmen found a win, and they needed only double overtime to do it, beating East Carolina 23-20. By no means did this reflect significant progress for Navy, still gaining only 2.9 yards per rush.

The Midshipmen will need to find a vintage offensive showing to upset Air Force (12 ET; CBS), entering that Commander-in-Chief game as 14-point underdogs.

Boston College (1-3): The Eagles fell behind 37-0 early in the third quarter at Florida State, and that does not begin to describe how bad things are for Boston College right now. The 44-14 final result was far closer than it should have been. Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec went 15-of-23 for 105 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions after opening the game 5-of-10 for 20 yards and those two picks.

Boston College now hosts Louisville (12 ET; ACCN), and it is foolish to think there is the talent on this roster to lose by as few as the 15.5 points suggested by the spread.

No. 6 USC (4-0): The Trojans found a way to win, and that may be the greatest testament to the change in mindset around that program. When its offense could manage only 17 points, that was still enough at Oregon State, prevailing 17-14.

The reality is, USC’s defense is playing with fire, relying on a steady stream of turnovers that cannot continue, almost literally.

The Trojans should not need such resolve against Arizona State (10:30 ET; ESPN), favored by a meager 25 points against a team lacking a head coach. (Insert reference to 2008 Syracuse here.)

No. 3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin, 52-21, in another instance of the final score not representing how lopsided the game was. Ohio State led 45-7 entering the fourth quarter, completely dominating a team in the top half of the Big Ten.

Not much more time need be spent on the Buckeyes this week, given they now host Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) in a game that will make last week’s look tight.

Marshall (2-2): The Herd fell 16-7 at Troy, a loss that may doom any Marshall hopes of winning the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. Star Herd running back Khalan Laborn still managed 118 yards on 30 rushes, but quarterback Henry Colombi attempted just 13 passes, completing eight of them for 49 yards. Put Laborn’s output into this context: Marshall ended the game with 96 rushing yards (sacks included) and 174 total yards.

Similar problems should not be a worry this week against FCS-level Gardner-Webb (3:30 ET; ESPN+).

Cal (3-1): The Bears ran through Arizona, 49-31, to a literal extent. Freshman running back Jadyn Ott is already putting his name into the record books. (Context: Ott rushed for 33 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame.

More may yet come against Washington State’s average rush defense (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network), ranking No. 64 in the country in EPA allowed per rush, per cfb-graphs.com.

North Carolina (3-1): The Tar Heels will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Virginia Tech (3:30 ET; ACCN), favored by 9 points, a mark that perhaps puts too much faith into the Hokies’ defense replicating Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday, even if they can now benefit from seeing North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye hemmed in on film.

Thursday at 8 ET: Utah State at No. 19 BYU (ESPN)
Friday at 11 ET: New Mexico at UNLV (CBSSN)
Saturday at 12 ET: Navy at Air Force (CBS); Louisville at Boston College (ACCN)
3:30 — Rutgers at No. 3 Ohio State (BTN); Gardner-Webb at Marshall (ESPN+); Virginia Tech at North Carolina (ACCN)
5:00 — Wagner at Syracuse (ESPN+)
5:30 — Cal at Washington State (P12N)
7:30 — No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
10:30 — Arizona State at No. 6 USC (ESPN)
11:00 — Stanford at No. 13 Oregon (FS1)

Favorites: BYU (-24.5) vs. Utah State; UNLV (-14.5) vs. New Mexico; Clemson (-6.5) vs. North Carolina State; USC (-25) vs. Arizona State; Ohio State (-40.5) vs. Rutgers; North Carolina (-9) vs. Virginia Tech
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Oregon; Navy (+14) at Air Force; Boston College (+15.5) vs. Louisville