The narrative surrounding the Notre Dame football team changed dramatically Saturday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Irish went from an offensive unit that had struggled in the second half of each game, even in three consecutive victories (averages of 6.3 points and 123.6 total yards in the third and fourth periods versus Michigan, Ball State and Vanderbilt) – to an offense that scored touchdowns on eight of nine possessions against Wake Forest.
And that’s after the first three Notre Dame offensive possessions against the Demon Deacons produced three combined first downs.
Quarterback Ian Book may not be the entire reason for the transformation, but he certainly deserves credit for a proficient day. His 25-of-34 passing efficiency (plus another 43 yards and three rushing TDs on a team-high 10 runs) played a big part in Notre Dame’s victory.
Consider these leftovers from the Irish triumph over Wake Forest Saturday afternoon:
- “Book ’em, Danno!” With apologies to Jack Lord and Hawaii Five-O, media will have a field day with Book’s last name. But, make no mistake, Book can play. The junior from California made an impression a year ago when he started at North Carolina (with Brandon Wimbush hurt) and threw for 146 yards in the 33-10 Irish win. Then he came off the bench in the Citrus Bowl to complete 14 of 19 throws versus LSU, including the ultimate game-winner, a 55-yard toss to Miles Boykin. Saturday at Wake Forest, Book and the Irish gained only 42 net yards on their first three possessions. Then they scored touchdowns on eight of their next nine drives and at one point led 49-13. Book orchestrated Notre Dame TD marches of 75, 80, 75, 74, 71 and 75 yards. That doesn’t happen by accident. The Irish offensive dominance played a role in Wake Forest firing defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel (a former Notre Dame graduate assistant coach) Sunday.
- Sometimes stats mean nothing. Notre Dame gave up 398 total yards Saturday at Wake Forest. The Irish allowed 27 points, 10 more than they had permitted in any other game so far this fall. They gave up 259 rushing yards, 90 more than in any other 2018 outing. Yet none of that mattered for Brian Kelly’s squad. The Irish scored TDs on four consecutive first-half possessions, then did that again on four straight to start the third period. Wake Forest added 154 combined yards on two late scoring drives – but the issue had long since been decided. The Demon Deacons ran 16 more plays than the Irish did – but Notre Dame’s average of 7.4 yards per offensive play (after 5.1 in its first three games combined) trumped that.
- Eliminating the game-changer. The Irish made a conscious decision that they would not let dangerous Wake Forest receiver/kick returner Greg Dortch beat them. And, boy, did that pay dividends. Dortch came in leading the country in all-purpose yards (224.7 per game) and combined kick return yards (224), but he was a nonfactor Saturday. Notre Dame limited him to 109 all-purpose yards – six on one rushing attempt, 56 on six receptions and 47 on three kickoff returns. Maybe his most noteworthy play was an 18-yard reception, a second-period catch on a drive that ended in a missed field goal. The Irish defense rendered him mostly mute. Notre Dame will have another somewhat similar challenge this week when facing Stanford all-purpose running standout Bryce Love.
- Irish play smart. Notre Dame’s offensive team numbers are not off the charts so far in 2018. But Brian Kelly’s squad doesn’t make many mistakes. The Irish rank eighth nationally in fewest penalties per game at 4.0. They stand sixth in the country in fewest fumbles lost with one (this week’s opponent, Stanford, is one of the five teams with zero). Michael Young’s first-period lost fumble versus Wake Forest marked the first of the season by a Notre Dame player. No Irish running back has fumbled so far in four games in 2018 (including 46 carries by Tony Jones Jr. and 47 by Jafar Armstrong).
- The road gets tougher. Notre Dame is 4-0, with a chance against seventh-ranked Stanford to win four home games in the month of September for the first time in Irish football history. The Cardinal and Syracuse (also 4-0) are the only unbeaten foes left on the Irish slate for 2018. The lone other remaining opponent with a winning record is Virginia Tech (at 2-1), and no one has ever suggested Blacksburg, Virginia (where the Irish have never played a game), is an easy place to prosper as a visiting team. Kickoff for Notre Dame’s Oct. 6 game against Virginia Tech will not be determined until results of games on Sept. 29.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.