Wake Forest’s BB&T Field is not Hard Rock Stadium, and Winston-Salem is not Blacksburg, Va., but this is still Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season, the first since two debacles away from home back in November. Amid talk of a budding quarterback controversy, praise of the Irish likely-yet-to-peak defense and looking ahead to the arrival of Stanford, some time needs to be spent remembering the horrors of road trips past.
Notre Dame remains in the national conversation, despite those close victories against Ball State and Vanderbilt. In fact, it is still in that discussion because of those victories. That all goes out the window if the Irish lose to the Demon Deacons.
Can Notre Dame maintain its already tenuous focus while on the road? If not, that may not lead to a loss this weekend, but it will bode very poorly for the trek to Virginia Tech in two weeks. If Wake Forest manages to put the Irish behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season — a reasonable thought if the Deacons so much as win the opening coin toss — the rhythms of playing at home will not be available to ease Notre Dame back into the flow of the game.
“There’s a little bit of preparation that needs to occur relative to travel,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Then just understanding that when you’re on the road, momentum is going to usually work against you. You have to close out opponents.”
Sometimes that is all the effect a road game needs to have; just because BB&T is a mild venue barely holding 30,000 does not mean the unfamiliar sidelines, locker room and atmosphere would not be enough to compound an early deficit.
To overcome any deficit at all, the Irish would need to find a reliable offense. Who leads such a foreign concept?
This segment of this weekly piece intended to focus on Notre Dame’s receivers. To draw from the notes scribbled across a legal pad, “At some point, WRs need to stop dropping passes. This is a weak D ready to be run upon. ND running will not surprise anyone, averaging 43.33 carries/week (sacks adjusted) already. Could lead to WF stacking the box. Can ND’s receivers finally not drop multiple passes in a week? Claypool, Finke, Davis …”
Before moving on to what has become the week’s topic du jour, let’s emphasis the question at the end of those notes. Can the Irish receiving corps get through a week without dropping multiple passes, including a likely touchdown? Against Ball State, sophomore Avery Davis worried about his next steps before catching a seam route that should have gotten him to the end zone. A week later, senior Chris Finke dropped a crossing route because his head was already turning upfield where he knew he had a clear path to the end zone. Those mistakes are utterly inexcusable, simple as that.
Who will throw the majority of those passes this week?
When various national handicappers begin citing multiple sources within the Notre Dame program saying junior Ian Book will start at quarterback, it is eyebrow-raising. This is not to outright throw doubt on those podcasts and tweets, but their speculation is vague, at best.
Making a change now would not have much to do with senior Brandon Wimbush’s performance against Vanderbilt, finishing 13-of-23 for 122 yards passing with another 84 rushing yards and a score. As mentioned before, a few drops limited his completion percentage. It easily could have (should have) been 16-of-23 for 160 or 170 yards. That may not jump off the page, but it is also hard to find fault in it.
Then why might this shift be afoot now? First of all, let’s again tap the brakes on thinking Book will start. Fully expect Wimbush to start, but perhaps Book gets more action than he has to date, a full series even, if not multiple. Why now?
Two reasons: Looking ahead at the coming fortnight, Notre Dame needs to know exactly what it has at all points of the roster before welcoming Stanford and then traveling to Virginia Tech. That two-week stretch will likely make or break this season.
Secondly, this is the Saturday to experiment with the passing game. The Deacons defense is off to a torrid start. Facing the murderers’ row of Tulane, FCS-level Towson and Boston College, Wake Forest has allowed 310 passing yards per game, ranking No. 120 of 130 FBS teams. Those three threw 10 touchdown passes without any interceptions.
If there was ever a week to look at as a passing exhibition, it was not against Ball State (No. 65 nationally with 205.3 passing yards allowed per game, including 297 against the Irish). It is against the Deacons.
That can reveal itself both in moments of Wimbush intentionally struggling through his progressions and in Book getting extended playing time to pick apart Wake Forest in a scheme that may be ripe for his skill set, an afternoon where his higher floor is more necessary than Wimbush’s higher ceiling.
Somewhere here requisite praise of Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch will show up, right? Of course. He is part of why Book may be called upon, actually. As terrible as Wake Forest’s defense has been, its offense has played just as well. Dortch has played spectacularly. He averages 224.67 all-purpose yards per game, most in the country, including an average of 112 receiving yards per game.
Notre Dame’s secondary is a strength this season, odd as that may sound. Dortch’s 12 yards per catch will test junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride. Looking far ahead, how they handle Dortch will give an idea of how they match up with USC freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, currently averaging 16.9 yards per reception with 304 yards on the season. He has played three games to date — give him another eight of experience and St. Brown should prove to be quite the hassle to defend, a la Dortch already.
How well has the Deacons’ offense played? It should be the first to break 17 points against the Irish this season. In its last 16 games, Wake Forest has averaged 35.25 points, including 36 per game this year. The last team to hold the Deacons to 17 or fewer points was some program called Clemson last October. Wake Forest is averaging 542 yards per game this year while Notre Dame has given up a respectable 358.7.
Something will have to give.
It’s an early game. What should an Irish fan do after the noon kickoff concludes? Stay on ABC. Stanford heads up to Oregon at 8 p.m. ET. It should be both entertaining and an educational opportunity anticipating the Cardinal’s challenge in a week.