After an ugly first half, Notre Dame settled in on defense, overcame some injuries and brought home a victory against a tougher-than-you-think Wake Forest team.
Both teams scored on their first two possessions, but the Irish were shut out the rest of the way while the Demon Deacons tacked on a touchdown to take a 17-10 halftime lead.
However, Notre Dame made great adjustments after the break, came out and scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, and promptly shut out Wake Forest the entire second half.
It wasn't pretty, but the Irish limited Wake Forest to just 90 second half yards on 5 possessions and were able to run out the clock with the run game to bring home the victory.
A memorable game it was not, but at 6-3 Notre Dame now faces what could be the two easiest games of the season before a showdown in Palo Alto with Stanford ends the regular season.
Unit ranking coming after the jump.
Offensive Line: B+
Obviously the bar has been set very high with this unit's performance this season. Once again, no sacks given up (what's the team record for games without given up a sack anyway?) and Rees had all day to throw on most of his passing attempts.
The run blocking could have been better in spots, but it was solid enough to mostly carry the offense and salt away Wake Forest late in the game.
Big tip of the cap to Mike Golic for coming in at center after the injury to Braxston Cave. Center is a very important position for this spread offense and things could have been disastrous with Golic in there, but credit to him for being sharp with his snaps and more than adequate in his blocking.
Tight End: B
It was just another solid day from Tyler Eifert who caught a 38-yard touchdown pass and also hauled in two more on the evening. This is still an underutilized unit, but they are playing well right now.
Wide Receiver: C+
It's not really their fault because of a conservative gameplan and inconsistent quarterback play, but 89 yards on 10 receptions from all the receivers can't get a high grade.
For the third or fourth time this season, Michael Floyd disappeared for a big stretch of the game, but he did catch a crucial game-winning touchdown in the third quarter.
The rest of the receiving corps continues to be underwhelming, and consider some of these facts:
*Notre Dame has not had one receiver outside of Floyd catch at least 10 balls in one game. This also includes the tight end position.
*No one (again, including the tight ends) has put up a 100-yard receiving game besides Floyd.
*Notre Dame's fourth leading receiver (John Goodman) is on pace for a 7-catch season.
*Theo Riddick---a player many thought would have a big season as a multi-threat weapon---has a grand total of 21 yards rushing this season.
*Riddick is on pace for a 49 catch, 522 yard, 4 touchdown season.
*TJ Jones is on pace for a 41 catch, 427 yard, 4 touchdown season.
Running Game: B+
Jonas Gray had another great touchdown run (that was called back), but I thought this was just an okay game from the big runner. I've seen a lot of praise for Gray's performance against Wake, yet he seemed to look like his pre-2011 self with lots of stutter stepping and failed attempts to kick it outside for a bigger gain. Still, 92 yards on 19 carries is a pretty good day.
Cierre Wood quietly had the better day pitching in 87 yards on just 14 carries while also adding a 17-yard reception as well. Certainly Gray deserved to get the bulk of the carries over the past couple games, but if it were up to me Wood would still be the starter.
I'm not sure how much more needs to be said that hasn't already been mentioned by dozens of fans. This was a very sub-par game by Rees with just enough good play to keep it from a dreadful performance.
Let't talk about some things that this game kept making me think about:
1. The offense is still on training wheels---because of the QB. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lack of tempo. It seems to have been totally forgotten about, but tempo was supposed to be a huge part of the offense and since Rees took over last year it has been reduced.
In fact, it's all but been removed from the playbook, and what can that mean other than that Rees still isn't ready to handle the entire offense? Crist was tasked with running the up-tempo offense straight out of the gate last year, and now Rees with over 450 passing attempts, still isn't ready?
2. Here's roughly what Rees is going to end this season with as far as stats:
3,020 yards, 24 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, with 65% accuracy.
Taken within a vacuum of a sophomore quarterback, those stats are decent. But with the best Irish line in more than a decade, All-Americans at wide receiver and tight end, with the most efficient running game in a long time---those numbers are below average at best.
Some will point to the accuracy, but I can't keep stressing this enough: 65% accuracy should be expected from anyone in this spread offense. In a spread offense, you should get about a 5 to 7% spike in accuracy---and living off the short passing game like Rees is---he should get another 5 to 7% boost.
So while you'll hear somebody say "Rees has a great completion percentage" and it will end up one of the best in school history, you have to take into account the offense and what he is being asked to do.
3. There's a belief that Rees is still young and that he will improve a lot next year.
I'm not sure I believe it---or at least much of a big improvement.
Even if we assume that Rees will improve his decision making and all of those aspects that come with more experience, will it be enough next year without Michael Floyd, with a possibly less effective offensive line and running game?
In other words, starting next year a larger portion of the offense is going to be placed on Rees or whomever starts at quarterback. Is Rees going to suddenly make that leap---which really isn't that far away from today?
Look at this way for those who keep telling us how young Rees still is: Going into next year he will have thrown just 135 fewer balls than Matt Barkely did going into their junior seasons---that's not a huge difference. In the world of college football, Tommy Rees is already very experienced.
While it's true that Barkley didn't have great stats through two seasons, he showed glimpses of his large talent and was able to carry his team from time to time. Going into this year he was already a top NFL prospect and it's not that surprising how well he's playing.
I'll be very surprised if Rees makes anything close to that leap. He's never running, he'll never stretch the field vertically, and I think what we've seen so far is what we'll get, more or less.
He can finish this season as the starter, but I will not be surprised if Hendrix or Golson are starting in Ireland in 2012.
Some think that's foolish to start a new quarterback with little to no experience, but Notre Dame just is not that far along with Rees under center, where it would be much of a step back to play the young guys. Starting the year off against Navy and Purdue will help the transition anyway.
Defensive Line: A-
What a gutsy performance by the defensive line with Kappy and Ethan Johnson out. They struggled early and looked pretty bad on the first couple of series, but boy did they turn it around.
What more can you say about freshmen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch? Tuitt came up with a huge sack late in the game, and Lynch (showing his grittiness coming back after two injuries) opened the half with a big sack of his own.
It wasn't a great day all-around for the defense, but the stats will back up how well the defensive line played: 110 yards rushing for Wake Forest, but just 22 yards on 15 attempts in the second half.
Fleming was quite disruptive at times, and caused the fumble deep in Notre Dame territory too. Prince Shembo even came up with a big sack after (I believe) getting a snap at the Cat position.
Outside of a couple plays from those players the linebackers as a whole had a very regrettable day.
Manti Te'o re-injured his ankle again and had a very quiet day for his standards. Does the coaching staff think about sitting him next weekend, or no?
Perhaps we should be thankful that the ability to stop the run has improved from this unit compared to a couple years ago, but they are still a liability in the pass game (and that includes Te'o).
This defense has played better than last year, but the linebackers continue to disappoint. Here's hoping that Williams, Niklas, Councell, Rabasa, Grace and future recruits can make an impact next year.
This was a very solid game from the secondary by keeping a dangerous Wake Forest passing game under 200 yards. Credit the defensive line for getting pressure but both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray put together very strong performances.
Blanton in particular brought his A-game with 10 tackles, including 2 for loss.
Harrison Smith also played well with a team-leading 11 tackles, including 1 for loss.
Zeke Motta, ugh.
He's a virtual starter because Slaughter has to play nickel and Motta finished with 1 tackle. On the season through 9 games he has 24 tackles with 1 interception.
Special Teams: B
Ben Turk has ironed out his inconsistency so that's a good thing---while Ruffer nailed his only attempt of the game.
Brindza's kickoffs were all very short---not really sure what's going on there.
We don't need to speak of the punt return game anymore, but the coverage on defense was good. The coverage on kickoffs left a lot to be desired, but that was balanced out by some good returns from Atkinson and Collinsworth.
After Notre Dame tied up the game, I was never in fear of losing this one. Even when Wake took a lead into halftime I was sure the Irish would assert themselves in the second half and beat a Demon Deacon team that has struggled after the first two quarters this year.
I was very proud of the way the defense played and it was obvious that moving to more nickel coverage was a huge advantage in the second half. The linebackers are not even serviceable covering slot receivers at this point and getting Slaughter out there as much as possible has to be a priority.
Offensively, it's amazing how well certain aspects of this side of this side of the ball can play, and still only 24 points are put up on the board and 341 yards. A lot of the problems are centered around the quarterback position and that's something we are going to have to live with this year.
Yet, 6-3 on the season with some momentum heading into the last quarter of the season is a good place to be right now. Going 3-1 down the stretch would be a one-game improvement over last year, which is almost hard to believe with how bad this season started out.
Next up, Maryland at FedEx Field.