Well everybody, we’ve made it through two-thirds of the college football season. It’s really flown by, hasn’t it? Remember just 2 months ago, when a Notre Dame record of 8-4 or 9-3 seemed likely, with 7-5 a distinct possibility?
After 9 weeks of the season, Irish fans have had to continuously raise the bar, as this ND team has been ON A ROLL since that heartbreaking one-point loss they suffered against Georgia in the second week of September.
Having climbed all the way into the #3 spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish begin the final month of their season with a home game against the 5-3 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who are hot off a 42-32 win over reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals.
The Demon Deacons have had an interesting season, starting 4-0 but not having really played anyone of note during that stretch (maybe Boston College — early-season wins over the Eagles are starting to look good for both of these teams), and then dropping 3 straight to Florida State, Clemson, and Georgia Tech before last week’s losing streak-snapper against Louisville.
Just dangerous enough to make ND fans a little nervous but not enough to inspire any fear, this Dave Clawson-coached Demon Deacons team has suffered some major injuries of late, but hope that the “next men in” can step into their respective roles and help pull off a massive upset.
So what are the key matchups, and who are the players to watch in this one? Let’s dig deeper and see if we can’t predict what’s going to happen on Saturday in South Bend.
Wake Forest Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Wake Forest offense has been pretty solid, but not spectacular, this season, as they rank 48th in the country in total offense (44th in passing, 57th in rushing) and 46th in scoring.
The group is led by QB John Wolford, whose numbers are similar to the last QB ND faced, NC State’s Ryan Finley. Wolford completes his passes at a 65.7% clip, and has thrown for 1,660 yards, 15 TDs, and just 2 INT so far this season. He takes care of the ball, and can definitely make you pay if you give him an opportunity to make some throws.
However, Wolford’s favorite target will not be participating in Saturday’s game, as All-ACC-caliber WR Greg Dortch was ruled out for the year with an abdominal injury. Dortch had caught 53 passes for 722 yards and 9 TDs so far this season, and so a HUGE part of the Demon Deacons offense will need to be replaced.
No other Wake Forest receiver has more than 18 receptions, but there is still some solid talent in the remaining receiver depth for Wolford to throw to tomorrow. One of the guys who will be stepping into Dortch’s spot is Tabari Hines, who has 18 catches for 250 yards and a TD this year.
He, Scotty Washington (17 catches, 339 yards, 2 TDs) and TE Cam Serigne (16 catches, 226 yards, 5 TDs) are the guys that the Irish secondary will need to focus on, and although there may be a few nice passes the Deacs are able to complete, it’s very probable that the Irish DBs play similar lockdown defense to what they did against NC State.
That effort starts with sophomore CB Julian Love, who has broken up 11 passes on the season to go along with 2 momentum-swinging pick-sixes against Michigan State and NC State. Love has been lights out recently, and so Wolford will be smart not to test him too often.
Unfortunately for Wolford, he will likely not find much luck no matter what DB he picks on on Saturday afternoon. CB Nick Watkins has been just about as good as Love, breaking up 7 passes and getting an INT of his own against USC. Nickelback Shaun Crawford is another menace for Wolford to worry about as well, as the diminutive DB has been a huge playmaker all season (2 INT, 1 FF, 5 PBU, 1.5 sacks) and has been quiet on the turnover-causing front of late (he’s due).
Wolford’s best opportunity through the air might be in hitting someone like Hines on a deep ball after a double move, hoping that safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott bite and let the receiver get behind them. Both have played pretty well, but are certainly more vulnerable to the pass than the Irish corners.
It will be interesting to see how the Wake Forest offensive line holds up against the ND pass rush as well, as the Demon Deacons only allow 1.63 sacks per game, but the Irish average 2.38 per contest. DEs Daelin Hayes (3 sacks, 5.5 TFL) and Julian Okwara (1.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries) will be bringing it on the edge, and Jerry Tillery will look to continue to be a super-effective pass rusher in the middle (35 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 QB hurries).
Guys like Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, and Andrew Trumbetti (10 TFL, 4 sacks combined) will be able to get some pressure off the edge as well, and so Wolford could be in for a long day, especially if Elko decides to send guys like Drue Tranquill, Nyles Morgan, and Te’von Coney from the linebacker spot, knowing full well that there is no Greg Dortch available to bail Wolford out in a pinch. However, this is a team that only gave up 3 sacks to Clemson’s scary defensive front, so perhaps the Irish will struggle a bit rushing the passer.
Luckily for the Irish, they have been absolutely stout against the run this season, and so they could force Wake Forest into becoming a one-dimensional offense. ND ranks 16th in rush defense in the country, led by the big guys in the middle (Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, and freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa) and those ridiculous athletes at linebacker — Coney (62 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF), Tranquill (48 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF), Morgan (57 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF), and Greer Martini (40 tackles, 2 FF, 1 INT).
On top of ND’s suffocating run defense, the Wake Forest rushing offense will be limited on Saturday, as starting running back Cade Carney (219 yards, 3.9 ypc, 1 TD) is out for the game. In his place will be a pair of solid replacements who have actually out-rushed Carney to-date, as Matt Colburn (317 yards, 4.4 ypc, 2 TDs) will start while Arkeem Byrd (334 yards, 5.6 ypc, 1 TD) spells him at the position.
Wolford himself is a pretty adept runner as well, leading the team in rushing with 341 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, and 6 TDs of his own on the ground (if you’re counting, the guy has 21 combined passing/running TDs to just 2 INT...he’s pretty good at what he does).
The sure tackling of guys like Coney, Tranquill, Morgan, and Martini will be crucial in shutting all these guys down, as they’ve done to opposing runners all season.
Wake’s offense overall has a few weapons and a smart and mobile QB who doesn’t make too many mistakes, but it also lacks firepower without Dortch and without its starting running back.
Look for the Irish defense to smother Wake Forest early and often, and for the offense to struggle to do too much until garbage time, when the Irish’s second unit gives up a little ground.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Wake Forest Defense
On the other side of things, Chip Long’s Notre Dame offense will face a mediocre Wake Forest defense who is certainly missing Mike Elko and Clark Lea, at least a bit.
The Demon Deacons are respectable against the pass (37th in the country) and in points allowed (36th), but are only 55th in total defense due to being 89th in the country in stopping the run. This is obviously bad news against the 6th-best rushing offense in the country, led by Notre Dame’s Heisman hopeful, RB Josh Adams. Adams has 1,169 yards on the season, averaging an absurd 8.9 yards per carry while collecting 9 TDs to-date.
Adams has been electric this year, having busted off 7 runs of 60+ yards, including a run of that length in each of the past four games.
His breakaway speed once he gets a crease is remarkable, and considering he’s running behind All-Americans like LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey, as well as the perpetually-improving other ND linemen — C Sam Mustipher, RG Alex Bars, and RT tandem of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey — those kinds of creases are often readily available.
So, considering that, it will be key for Wake Forest to get penetration and try to take Adams down before he gets going. This is easier said than done, but Wake Forest is a defense built to do just that.
The Demon Deacons are 1st in the country in tackles for loss, averaging over 9 per game. This knack for penetrating into the backfield is directly attributable to the front seven, as 6 different guys have at least 6 TFL on the season.
The leader of that group is certainly DE Duke Ejiofor, who has been an absolute menace in opposing backfields. He’s got 14.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 5 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, and 34 tackles this season.
He’s joined along the front line by some other talented players, including Wendell Dunn (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 FF), Willie Yarbary (21 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks), Zeek Rodney (6.5 TFL, 4 QB hurries), Chris Calhoun, and Elontae Bateman.
Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons linebacking corps is an athletic group who can fly to the ball and make plays, as guys like Grant Dawson (52 tackles, 7.5 TFL), Jaboree Williams (40 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks), Justin Strnad (27 tackles, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks), and Demetrius Kemp (34 tackles, 1 sack) all have made significant contributions both in run and pass support this year.
Whether or not that front seven can shed blockers and tackle Adams, Brandon Wimbush (529 yards, 5.9 ypc, 11 TDs), and the three-headed backup RB monster that is Dexter Williams, Deon McIntosh, and Tony Jones Jr. (690 yards, 10 TDs combined) will likely decide the game, as the Irish will look to wear down the Demon Deacons defense the same way they have just about every other opponent this season.
Plus, if guys like Adams and Williams are able to get to the second level, they have the speed and power to break through DB tackle attempts and go the distance. This is especially true tomorrow, when Wake Forest will be without starting safety Jessie Bates III, whose 63 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, and 1 FF stat line will absolutely be missed against such a potent Irish offense.
In his place will be redshirt freshman Luke Masterson, making his first career start. He will be joined by some strong DBs that have made that unit 37th in the country against the pass, though, including safety Cameron Glenn (48 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PBU) and corners Amari Henderson (41 tackles, 8 PBU, 1 INT) and Essang Bassey (37 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 3.5 TFL).
That group shouldn’t have TOO much trouble against an Irish offense that does not pass very often, but if they cheat too much forward in defense of the run, look for QB Brandon Wimbush to put some throws over their heads to guys like Equanimeous St. Brown (long overdue for a big game — 20 catches, 253 yards, 3 TD on the year), Kevin Stepherson (6 catches, 79 yards, 2 TDs since returning from suspension), and Chase Claypool (15 catches, 174 yards, 1 TD).
Everyone knows Wimbush has not been lethal throwing the football (the Irish are 119th in the country in passing offense), but his stat line of 1,007 yards, 10 TDs, and 2 INTs is efficient enough — not super efficient, considering his 51.5% completion rate — to give Irish fans confidence that he will be able to thread in a few key passes, as he has done in the last two games against USC and NC State.
Look for him to target the aforementioned trio of vertical threats, but also to find bigger targets on intermediate routes, like Durham Smythe (10 catches, 182 yards, 1 TD) and Miles Boykin (4 catches, 84 yards, 1 TD).
TE Alizé Mack (17 catches, 154 yards) will be out for this game with a concussion, but otherwise Wimbush should be expected to complete his usual handful of key passes when the Fighting Irish need to move the ball through the air and stretch the defense a bit.
Guys like Ejiofor, Yarbary, Dunn, and Strnad may be able to get some good pressure, but for the most part I expect Wimbush to be able to escape those guys and extend plays enough to move the chains, either with his arm or his legs.
At the end of the day, I don’t expect the Irish offense to have too much trouble with this Wake Forest defense. There may be some plays where guys like Ejiofor get into the backfield and stuff Adams or get a hit on Wimbush, but overall I see the ND offensive line continuing to bully the opposition, the ND backfield continuing to rack up yardage, and Wimbush continuing to make enough plays with his feet, and even his arm, to make the Wake Forest defense look silly.
Notre Dame is 22nd in the country in total offense, 6th in rushing, and 11th in scoring. Wake Forest’s defense is no Georgia Bulldogs defense, nor is it a Michigan State Spartans or NC State Wolfpack defense. I expect the Irish to put up a lot of points tomorrow, and to not struggle too much in doing so, especially once things really get going in the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
Notre Dame is a better team across the board, and Wake Forest is missing a few key guys — especially Greg Dortch, who would have been one of the best receivers ND’s DBs faced this season.
I don’t think the Wake Forest defense’s ability to get into the backfield will be nearly as effective against the likes of Nelson and McGlinchey as it has been against lesser offensive lines, and I think between the offense’s ability to run all over people/put up points and the defense’s ability to shut offenses down once Elko has figured them out, ND wins this one going away and gives the backups plenty of second half minutes to develop their game.