Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest Preview: Irish March Into Winston-Salem for First Time

Notre Dame (-13.5) at Wake Forest

This Saturday night the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will be invading the Tar Heel State and playing Wake Forest for the first time in school history.

Notre Dame is currently 4-3 all-time while playing in the state of North Carolina with wins coming over UNC in 1951, 1953, 1955, and 1975. The Irish have lost to UNC on the road in 1960 and 2008, as well as against Duke in 1961.

The Irish have found a recruiting niche in the Rip Van Winkle State (Blanton, Farley, Moore and Shembo) and should enjoy a road trip to a very like-minded university for a night game on national television.

Before the season began, this looked like an utter snoozefest of a game, but Wake Forest has played much better than expected, making this a competitive matchup.

Unfortunately, it is right in the middle of the LSU-Alabama game which means the ratings for this first-ever Notre Dame-Wake Forest tilt will be pretty dismal.

But we're here to talk football, not TV ratings! On to the breakdown!

How Has Wake Forest Been Doing This Year?

It's been a very productive season so far for the Demon Deacons.

After a very strong three year stretch from 2006 to 2008---including a 28-12 record with a BCS bowl appearance---Wake Forest fell back into the bottom of the ACC with a 5-7 season in 2009 and a 3-9 record last year.

Already in 2011, the Demon Deacons have surprised most prognosticators.

Wake outplayed Syracuse on the road to open the season, but allowed a 29-14 fourth quarter lead slip away---ultimately falling in overtime to the Orange in the Carrier Dome. They ended up out-gaining Syracuse by 107 yards, but Quarterback Tanner Price was injured early in the fourth quarter and the offense stalled the rest of the way during the collapse.

Wake was able to bounce back the next week at home with a 7-point victory over conference foe NC State.

Week three brought a 48-5 slaughter of Gardner-Webb, which included limiting their opponent to just 5 first downs and a mere 139 total yards.

After a bye week, the Demon Deacons traveled to Chestnut Hill, took a 24-9 lead into the fourth quarter, and ended up hanging on for a 8-point win over Boston College. Through four games, Wake Forest had already totaled their wins from last year and were undefeated in conference play.

If that wasn't enough, Wake Forest was +5 in turnovers the following week while hosting Florida State---upsetting the Seminoles 35-30 to win the first 3 ACC games in a season---a new school record.

Since then however, the Demon Deacons have returned to earth.

They were able to sneak by Duke by 1-point a couple weeks ago, but sandwiched that victory in between two losses by a combined score of 87-41 to Virginia Tech and then North Carolina last Saturday.

Wake gave up an average of 517 yards in both losses, and was out-gained in total by 384 yards in both contests.

The Demon Deacons come into this game at respectable 5-3.

Notre Dame Defense vs. Wake Forest Offense

Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe is known for redshirting of almost all freshmen, so it should come as no surprise that the Deacons are fairly experienced (or at least full of upperclassmen) on both sides of the ball.

On offense, 8 starters return from 2010.

Up front, 4 starters return on the line with center Chance Raines being the lone newbie. The whole line is either seniors or fifth year players.

Fifth year senior Cameron Ford is back at tight end after making six starts last year. He seems to be used more as a blocker than a receiver, coming into this game with only 7 receptions.

True junior fullback Tommy Bohanon is also back with some starting experience. He's averaging about 3 touches per game so he will be someone to keep an eye out for.

At receiver Wake Forest relies primarily on three targets in redshirt junior Chris Givens, redshirt senior Danny Dembry, and redshirt sophomore Michael Campanaro. Together, this trio has caught 118 passes for 1,755 yards so far this season, good for 68.6% of all team receptions and 79.5% of all receiving yardage.

Givens---the lone returning starter---is having quite the season with 52 catches, 928 yards, and 8 touchdowns already in 2011. That's 11 fewer receptions than Michael Floyd, but 140 more yards with 3 more touchdowns---so Givens is clearly a big play kind of guy.

At running back the Deacons essentially have co-starters in redshirt sophomore Josh Harris and redshirt senior Brandon Pendergrass.

Harris had a big redshirt freshman season last year (team-leading 720 yards, 5.7 average, with 7 TD---honorable mention All-American) and has outstanding speed. However, Harris only carried the ball 3 times last week and missed the prior two games with a hamstring injury, so he might not be 100% this weekend.

Pendergrass has been an on-again, off-again starter for most of the past three years and is pretty solid, if less explosive than his teammate Harris.

The straw that stirs the Wake Forest offense is true sophomore quarterback Tanner Price.

Price started 9 games as a true freshman last year and has taken a big step forward in 2011 with almost 2,000 yards passing, 61% accuracy, with 14 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions---numbers very similar to Tommy Rees.

He's a little on the skinny side at 6'2" 205 pounds, but he has decent athleticism and a pretty good arm. Most fans might not know anything about Price, but he's one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the country right now.

Wake Forest runs a spread offense that is very similar to Notre Dame's with the passing game being its biggest weapon. The Deacons will play out of shotgun with three or four receivers on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately for Wake Forest, even with two good running backs they have not been able to run the ball that well this year. They have rushed for just 832 yards in 8 games, haven't broke more than 150 yards in any game, while carrying a pretty dismal 3.04 rushing average.

This likely points to a poor offensive line (they've also given up 21 sacks), and that is not good news for the Demon Deacons.

Still, they have been pretty efficient and even explosive in the passing game at times this year, so as long as Wake Forest doesn't get too one-dimensional they should have some success moving the ball.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Wake Forest Defense

The Demon Deacons defense is an odd mixture of size with an almost exclusively upperclassmen lineup. Wake has 4 fifth-year starters, 4 seniors, and 10 upperclassmen in all in this unit. They also have 8 starters back from last year as well.

At defensive end are redshirt senior Tristan Dorty (6'2" 225) and redshirt sophomore Zach Thompson (6'5" 255). Since Wake runs a 3-4 defense, these two are pretty undersized and they have combined for just 39 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and half a sack.

Anchoring the middle is one of the most curious players in the country. Nikita Whitlock is a redshirt sophomore and stands just 5'11" 260 pounds (this is like a jumbo fullback playing nose guard!) but he's been one of the Deacons best players for the past couple years.

Whitlock was a second team freshmen All-American in 2010 finishing with 44 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. This year, he already has 41 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks.

At linebacker Wake Forest has one fifth year senior in Kyle Wilber (6'5 240), and three redshirt juniors in Riley Haynes (6'1" 220), Scott Betros (6'1" 240) and Joey Ehrmann (6'4" 220).

Wilber is the most heralded of the bunch (2nd team All-ACC by Steele) and has 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this year. Betros is currently second on the team with 44 tackles.

At corner stands redshirt junior Kenny Okoro (6'0 190) and redshirt freshman Merrill Noel (5'10" 180). They have combined for a very respectable 21 pass break ups this season.

At safety are fifth year players Josh Bush (5'11" 205) and Cyhl Quarles (6'3" 210) with Bush leading the team in interceptions (3) and Quarles leading the Deacons in tackles with 69.

The entire secondary are returning starters.

Wake Forest's defense is speedy, but they are undersized in the front seven. They run a wacky version of the 3-4 defense which will show a variety of coverages: One snap you'll see three down linemen with an edge rusher linebacker at the line of scrimmage, the next you'll see one down linemen with four players standing at the line of scrimmage.

Wake likes to thrive off of bringing pressure from their linebackers and causing confusion, but they often seem unprepared for the snap because of their constant movement, while they are sometimes over-aggressive and easily blocked for the scheme they are trying to run.

They should pose a minor threat to Notre Dame's offensive line, but expect another outstanding performance from Zach Martin & Company. The Demon Deacons get into the backfield (respectable 52 tackles for loss), but they also have only 10 sacks in 8 games.

This is a game where Notre Dame should gain 5 yards a carry at will, but Rees is going to have to be smart and not turn the ball over or get confused by Wake Forest's pre-and-post snap movement.

Prediction

Before the season started, this was chalked up as an easy win---about as automatic of a win as Notre Dame would find on its 2011 schedule.

Now, Wake Forest has showed some spunk this year and has clearly improved from the past two seasons.

If this was a home game it would be less appealing, but there is some excitement in knowing this will be a night game against a little bit of a resurgent program that Notre Dame has never played before.

This has the potential to be a blowout with Notre Dame's stout run defense going up against a rather deficient Deacon run game, but Wake Forest's passing game is potent enough to keep this a competitive game. They also have the advantage of using a spread offense that will give Notre Dame more problems than a pro-style offense would.

The stats are definitely in Notre Dame's favor---in some cases they are overwhelming---yet the night game atmosphere is sure to help the home team in this matchup.

FEI Rating Notre Dame Wake Forest
OVERALL 20 48
OFFENSE 18 36
DEFENSE 15 59

Football Outsider's F/+ combined stats reveal that this is a matchup between the 11th ranked Irish and the 51st ranked Demon Deacons---so again a pretty sizable advantage for Notre Dame but nothing too overwhelming.

I wouldn't expect a blowout, but a pretty close game into the second half at which point Notre Dame's skill and line play on both sides of the ball will start to take over. Wake Forest has not been a good team in the second half, and in the fourth quarter particularly, so the Irish will start to run away with it late.

Expect Notre Dame to pound the ball on the ground (555 more rushing yards than Wake Forest on 30 less carries) and physically punish the Demon Deacons.

Too close for comfort for a couple quarters, but ultimately a Notre Dame victory---and the cover.

Notre Dame 41

Wake Forest 23

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