Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest: 5 Things We Learned from Irish Win vs. Deacons
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish played just well enough to grab the win over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Frankly, the Irish looked like they didn’t want to be there.
Maybe they heard that BB&T Stadium was the smallest venue to host a Notre Dame football game in over 60 years; maybe they were reveling in a false sense of security after pummelling Navy last week.
Who knows why, but Notre Dame clearly didn’t play up to its capability.
A positive-minded observer might take heart in the fact that the Irish were able to win without their best stuff, but for Brian Kelly, just winning can’t be enough.
For a coach trying to rebuild a football program, the process is just as important as the results.
Notre Dame Needs to Find a New Quarterback
Generally, Tommy Rees played well against Wake Forest, but on more than a few occasions, it was apparent that his physical capability has hit its ceiling. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, that ability is not all that impressive.
Rees underthrew multiple deep balls and still hasn’t shaken the tendency to stare down receivers. He’s fine when he can make one read and get the ball out quickly, but he’s limited in situations that require him to work through his progressions or push the ball downfield.
There are a few throws (namely, the deep out) that Tommy Rees just can’t make.
Michael Floyd had a nice game because he's exceptionally skilled at making his quarterback look good, but Rees can’t continue to rely on his receivers to make plays on poorly thrown passes.
Notre Dame has a complete offense with two outstanding running backs and a corps of very talented pass-catchers, but at quarterback, the Irish are average, at best.
In the long term, the Irish aren’t going anywhere until Brian Kelly finds a great quarterback.
Unfortunately, Tommy Rees isn’t it.
The Offensive Line Is Notre Dame's Best Unit
On a night filled with middling efforts and maddening inconsistency, the Notre Dame offensive line was a model of professionalism and dominance.
Irish blockers bulldozed Wake Forest’s front all game long, opening running lanes for Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, and keeping Tommy Rees’ jersey squeaky clean.
In fact, even as much as the Irish runners excelled (Notre Dame racked up 175 yards on the ground), there were a couple of plays in which Wood and Gray missed gaping holes in the Wake Forest defense.
There was genuine reason for concern when Braxston Cave went out, but Mike Golic Jr. subbed in and performed admirably.
Given the turnover—both regular and unexpected—it’s incredible how well the Irish line played as one. There are no singular superstars on this line, yet as a unit, it is among the best in the country.
Jonas Gray Runs HARD
Michael Floyd is the best NFL prospect at Notre Dame, but right now, Jonas Gray might be their best offensive player.
Right from the opening kickoff, Gray was the only Notre Dame player whose head actually seemed to be in the game. While the rest of the team was sleepwalking, Gray was a battering ram.
He seemed overanxious at times, and he did miss a couple of holes, but I’ll forgive a little bit of misdirected enthusiasm from a guy who plays that hard.
His touchdown was a perfect illustration of the attitude that Gray has carried through the entire season.
Rather than strolling into the end zone early in the third quarter, Gray hammered his way through open air like it was a blitzing linebacker.
The Irish Defense Must Attack
The Irish defense sat back on its heels throughout the first half and Wake Forest ran up 17 points with relative ease.
Bob Diaco made some nice adjustments after halftime, namely playing all three of his safeties (Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter) at the same time, but even then, Notre Dame often looked sluggish.
On a reverse early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had Chris Givens bottled up, but failed to make the tackle. All of the Irish defenders in the area realized Givens had nowhere to go, but no one stepped up to actually finish the play.
Notre Dame’s inside linebackers struggled do find the correct depth in their zones throughout the game. Manti Te’o and Dan Fox were alternately burned on shallow drag routes, as well as deep seam routes. Te’o, one of the most instinctive linebackers in the nation, looked completely lost.
Further, Notre Dame looked like it was trying to take a “read and react” approach, but against a spread attack, the Irish don’t have enough speed in the defensive backfield to chase plays down. Bob Diaco’s unit needs to dictate; it needs to attack.
That approach showed up more often in the second half and, consequently, Wake Forest scored exactly zero points.
Prince Shembo Should Move to DE
Notre Dame’s defensive front has been devastated by the injuries to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson.
Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch have been terrific as fill-ins, but very few freshmen have the physical capability to move into a full time starting role along the D-line.
Lack of depth along the defensive line is going to be a problem all season, but the Notre Dame coaching staff found something against Wake Forest that could go a long way to help mitigate the problem.
In obvious passing situations, Bob Diaco prioritized the pass rush, playing Tuitt, Lynch, Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo in a four-man defensive front. That unit was able to penetrate upfield and wreak havoc in the Wake Forest backfield.
While those four can’t play every down, Prince Shembo should be moved to the D-line full time.
The Demon Deacons did a great job of forcing Shembo to play in space in the first half, and he did not respond well. Shembo was flat-footed and slow as an outside linebacker—uncomfortable in open space and incapable of making plays in the passing game.
On the line, however, Shembo was a terror. In the fourth quarter, he lined up at DE as part of a three-man front and fought through a double-team to register a huge sack. Shembo doesn’t have the prototypical size for the position, but it plays to his strengths.
For the good of Prince Shembo—and the rest of the Notre Dame defense—Diaco needs to give him a permanent home on the end of the line.