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Things We Learned: Notre Dame is really good, even when it isn’t

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — How quickly do college football fans forget? Three weeks ago may as well not have happened. Notre Dame was on bye, so one might think Irish fans would have seen some other games, remembered the notable results, memorized scores such as:

Oct. 13: Clemson 24, Syracuse 27.
Oct. 13: Washington State 3, Cal 37.
Oct. 14: Washington 7, Arizona State 13.

There is a distinct and important difference between those trio of tallies and the final from Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday:

Nov. 4: Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 37.

Winning week-in and week-out is hard. Very few teams can do it. This year, just five teams have done so thus far, and only so much praise should be heaped upon Central Florida and Wisconsin for winning every game in their particularly-unimpressive schedules. If winning is hard enough, winning in dominating fashion can be nearly impossible to do for an entire fall.

“We play to win and we play to win hard,” Notre Dame fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said after Saturday’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. “… We’re trying to dominate no matter what the score is, no matter where we are on the field or what the other team is doing. It’s our job to dominate our opponent no matter what the situation is. We’re never going to try to just get out of here with a win.”

Alabama and Nick Saban have proven doing that for three full months is not truly impossible, just similar in appearance. In quite the dichotomy, the Irish showed they are capable of that task even while it remains just beyond their reach.

Notre Dame’s offensive line exceeds all attempts at description.
It has been long-known the Irish road pavers were good. Ripping through the Demon Deacons for 384 yards on 45 rushes with hardly any boost from junior running back Josh Adams, however, is more than good. It was an emphatic confirmation of how far ahead of their competition the Notre Dame offensive linemen are. From freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey to McGlinchey and back to right tackle with sophomore Tommy Kraemer, the six linemen open holes so large two running backs could run through them without touching either defenders or each other.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey (left) and senior left guard Quenton Nelson get the headlines, but the entire Irish offensive line deserves high praise by this point. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The tight ends, all of them included, play a role in that run blocking, as well.

Wake Forest’s rush defense is not exactly stellar, giving up an average of 183.8 yards per game before facing the Irish. Missing leading tackler and junior safety Jessie Bates did not help that cause.

Yet Notre Dame’s more than doubling of that figure underscores how easily the Irish ran Saturday. Notre Dame converted eight of its 16 third-down attempts. Four of those first downs came on only six rushing tries, gaining 11.8 yards per carry Whenever the Deacons thought they had stymied the Irish offense, it turned to the running game. It turned to that offensive line.

“This to me was a different game than we’ve ever had,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “We’ve never had a game that we couldn’t get [the opponent] off the field like that.”

Heisman-hopeful Adams was Notre Dame’s seventh-leading rusher. Even his long-run of 13 yards trailed the high marks of the other six ballcarriers. As strong of a season as Adams is having, the offensive line showed Saturday it is making Adams’ individual highlights possible.

That line can dominate the rest of the schedule at this point. Frankly, a College Football Playoff rematch with top-ranked Georgia is tantalizing not just because it would be a Playoff game and would hold those inherent stakes, but also because it would allow for a definitive measuring stick of the Irish offensive line’s progress. It seems increasingly possible the line could now handle the country’s best front-seven.

But Notre Dame’s defense is human.
With nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the temperature in South Bend was a frisky 45 degrees. Fog was descending upon Notre Dame Stadium. After a day of rain, it was wet, cold and miserable. Hardly anyone wanted to be outside.

The Irish defense lost its focus. An experienced quarterback took advantage of that. The Deacons managed two more touchdowns. These are the results of fallible human nature.

Wake Forest never truly threatened to take control of the game, but the Deacons’ offense did not struggle in Saturday’s second half. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“[Defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s message to me and all the other guys was just when you think this game gets easy, it humbles you really fast,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “It did that tonight for us defensively.”

Not much else needs to be said. Notre Dame misread options, misfit holes, allowed receivers to finish routes. The Irish gave up more than 20 points for the first time this season. Wake Forest’s 587 total yards towers over the 496 gained by Michigan State. Notre Dame forced only one turnover.

None of these are good things. The Irish are aware of as much.

“The great ones are consistent,” Tranquill said. “Defensively we didn’t execute tonight, offensively we did. If we want to be a championship team, we have to play great defense. We have to come back next week and execute better.”

To win the next five games, Notre Dame will need more from its defense, but in giving credit to the Irish offense, Tranquill acknowledged a margin for error. Through the season’s first half, the offensive explosions drew the headlines, but the defense was the real backbone of the team. That became even truer the last two weeks. That offensive firepower, though, allowed Notre Dame to flip that script for an afternoon.

“Even when we had a bad performance defensively, our offense is there to put up 48 points and absolutely crush the opponent.”

Jonathan Doerer can fill his intended freshman role.
Notre Dame recruited the freshman kicker with the explicit intention of him kicking off this season to spare junior Justin Yoon some of the leg work. Instead, Doerer flagged toward the end of preseason practice, leading the Irish coaching staff to keep him sidelined and the kickoff duties on Yoon’s plate. When Doerer did get his chances, he sent them either short or out of bounds.

All six Notre Dame kicks came from Doerer on Saturday, three going for touchbacks. The best Wake Forest kickoff return reached the 30-yard line. Including the touchbacks, the Deacons’ average starting field position off those nine kickoffs was the 25.1-yard line.

There is no need to watch Tuesday’s College Football Playoff poll release.
The Irish will remain No. 3 in the selection committee poll come 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It would be quite a shock if No. 4 Clemson’s 38-31 victory over mutual opponent No. 20 North Carolina State was enough to move the Tigers past Notre Dame after the Irish beat the Wolfpack 35-14 just a week ago.

Similarly, No. 5 Oklahoma barely got past No. 11 Oklahoma State, 62-52. That certainly qualifies as a résumé-building win, but it should not vault the Sooners past Notre Dame.

With Nos. 1 and 2, Georgia and Alabama, both prevailing, as well, the top-five should remain as are.

The Irish may not have left Wake Forest in shambles, but they did not struggle much in the victory, either. This week especially, a win alone will likely be enough in the committee’s eyes. More than a third of the top-25 lost: Nos. 6, 7, 11, 13, 15, 19, 20, 21 and 22.

Football matters only so much.
When Kelly opened his postgame comments with a mention of Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, he voiced what most in the Notre Dame Stadium press box had been thinking for the better part of seven hours. Prister has covered Notre Dame football for more than 30 years, attending more than 300 consecutive games. (That number is actually far closer to 400, but I am not 100 percent certain of the exact figure at the moment.) He suffered a heart attack before Saturday’s game.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” Kelly said. “… Notre Dame football and obviously everybody associated with our program has him and his family in our prayers.

“Tim is a battler, and we’re with him.”

Tim Prister is many things, and a battler is certainly one of them. Many of the other descriptions I might apply are not fit for public consumption, though I have shared each of them with Tim at some point with a smile on my face.

I look forward to doing so again soon. There are few people I respect more.