Notre Dame in 2018 for the first time in its football history plays four home games in the month of September. This week the Irish (3-0) travel to Wake Forest (2-1) for the first of their six road trips that also send head coach Brian Kelly’s squad away from home to play Virginia Tech, Navy (in San Diego), Northwestern, Syracuse (in Yankee Stadium) and USC.
Here are some areas to watch when the eighth-ranked Irish visit Winston-Salem, North Carolina:
- Red alert. It’s been more than seven decades since Wake Forest defeated a team rated in the top 10. Now the Demon Deacons have a chance to do that on multiple Saturdays at home (also Oct. 6 vs. Clemson). Wake Forest has not played host to a non-conference team with this sort of ranking since 13th-rated Northwestern came to BB&T Field in 1996. Demon Deacon head coach Dave Clawson has beaten two ranked opponents in his five years at Wake Forest (25th-ranked North Carolina State in 2017 and 23rd-ranked Temple in the 2016 Military Bowl).
- The Irish offense may be its best defense. Notre Dame knows Wake Forest wants to run its quick game, reeling off as many offensive plays as fast as possible (after a Wake Forest record 105 last week in the Deacons’ loss to Boston College). Wake Forest has gained 500-plus total yards in a best-in the-nation four straight games. The Irish may be able to effectively counteract that strategy with their own ball-possession expertise. Playing mistake-free football Saturday will be imperative (as it is most weeks) for Notre Dame — as will taking advantage of scoring opportunities.
- What will the Deacs do at the quarterback spot? True freshman Sam Hartman has been impressive through three games, ranking second in total offense among freshmen nationally at 342.3 total yards per game. He is completing 22.7 passes per game and has thrown for 834 yards. But junior Kendall Hinton is back on the active roster this week after a three-game suspension. He had been expected to be the starter to replace graduated four-year regular John Wolford until the suspension. So the Irish can’t be surprised at anything they see Saturday. Hinton boasts four career starting assignments at quarterback.
- Can the Irish run game take the next step? Notre Dame’s rushing attack through three games doesn’t boast the sort of knock-your-socks-off numbers that Josh Adams, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson helped achieve a year ago. The Irish currently average 164.7 yards per game on the ground. But Brian Kelly’s crew is banking on a maturing offensive line, along with an improving cast of runners – with Tony Jones Jr. (224 yards overall) exploding a week ago for more than 100, sophomore Jafar Armstrong leading the team in touchdowns (three) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush adding 136 rushing yards of his own (and accounting for 10 more run attempts than anyone else on the roster).
- Road dogs. Brian Kelly’s Irish teams historically have taken great pride in how they play on the road. But the last two times Notre Dame played in opposing team facilities (Miami and Stanford in November 2017), it did not end well. The Irish last won a true road game Oct. 7, 2017, at North Carolina. Expect Notre Dame to have something to prove in that regard this week as it continues to craft its 2018 identity.
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.