There is no shortage of narratives from the football end of things Saturday when eighth-ranked Notre Dame plays its first road game of the 2018 season at Wake Forest:
- Can the Irish be more aggressive in terms of their offensive attack?
- Can Notre Dame be more proficient as far as scoring touchdowns when those opportunities present themselves?
- What can the Irish do to slow down the up-tempo Wake Forest offense that prides itself on running 100 plays a game and wearing down opposing defenses?
- What will the Demon Deacons do at quarterback with veteran Kendall Hinton coming back from his three-game suspension?
Those are just a sampling of storylines for the week as the 3-0 Irish plan for the 2-1 Demon Deacons.
On a far more personal note — and despite the understated comments from Irish head coach Brian Kelly on the subject — it figures to be an intriguing weekend for Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
A year ago when Wake Forest played at Notre Dame Stadium in Lea’s first season as an Irish assistant, he saw a handful of familiar faces connected with the Wake Forest program.
Yet the focus in that contest (won 48-37 by Notre Dame) ended up more on then-Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who held that same role at Wake Forest from 2014-16.
Now Elko is at Texas A&M and Lea has taken over as Irish defensive coordinator (he continues to coach the Notre Dame linebackers) – and so Lea will be in the middle of the coaching chess match that begins at noon Saturday (ABC Sports has the live coverage).
It’s likely complicated enough for Lea on a personal basis, though he only spent a single season as a Demon Deacon assistant in 2016. He’s bound to see all sorts of people he knows during the course of the weekend – and it will be a strange feeling for him to be on the visitors’ sideline and in the visiting team locker room.
That does not even begin to touch the strategic end – where Lea will call on everything he learned in 2016 about Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson and how he operates and then he’ll apply what he, Elko and Kelly experienced last November when the Deacons played in South Bend. Lea and Clawson also spent the 2012 season together at Bowling Green – with Clawson the head coach and Lea his linebackers coach.
In addition, Notre Dame director of scouting Bill Rees came to South Bend in 2017 after playing the same role in the previous two seasons under Clawson at Wake Forest.
Throw it all together and it makes for quite a subplot.
For Lea, it becomes a matter of adopting almost the same mantra as what the Irish coaches routinely tell their own players – eliminate the distractions and take care of your job.
At the end of the day, Lea will have to forget the friendships for three and a half hours and focus on what he and the Irish need to do to remain unbeaten.
Kelly minimizes the personal aspect:
“This is Dave Clawson’s team. Sometimes we give a little bit too much credit to the assistant coaches. Dave has mandated what goes on there defensively. Certainly each coach has his own personality, but the structure is what Dave Clawson has wanted to run ever since he’s been a head coach.
“So you’re going to see some similarities as long as Dave’s the head coach there defensively in terms of what he’s looking for. But you can see (defensive coordinator) Jay (Sawvel, who was a Notre Dame graduate assistant coach in 1997 and 1998) has some of his own tweaks to it that we didn’t see with Elko or even with Clark in what we do here. But the base is certainly the same because it comes from Dave Clawson.
“Clark could point out some things here and there that we may have questions on a particular stunt or coverage. But I really don’t think there’s much there relative to Clark Lea and Dave relative to what we do. They know from last year — we were up 31-10 and just didn’t execute very well, and they had a really good football team, too.
“I think the pace certainly is something that has to be a bigger concern, and we’re aware of that, and we’ll prepare for it all week. But everybody’s going to have to deal with that. I don’t think it’s just Clark Lea. They pretty much know our system and what to do there. So I don’t think that falls too much on Clark’s shoulders.”
Clawson has his own take on Lea and the Irish defenders:
“On defense, they are excellent. They have yet to give up more than 17 points. We know the defense well. Coach Lea was on my staff at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. He learned this defense from Coach Elko and there are a lot of similarities to what we do. They are executing it at a very high level right now. It is a lot of the same package that Coach Elko ran here.
“It starts with having good players. Every one of their linebackers is a senior, and they play like seniors and they act like seniors. In the secondary, everyone is in their third year in the program. They are playing a lot more man coverage. You can only do that if you feel comfortable with your corners. Up front, they are excellent. They are Notre Dame and get the best of the best. They have all four and five-star guys who look the part.”
Wake Forest center Ryan Anderson is not convinced the familiarity pays dividends:
“It is a defense we are relatively familiar with, with Coach Lea taking over for Coach Elko. But from my experience, every game that you think you know what the defense is going to do turns out to be the exact opposite, so we can’t expect too much.”
As much as the previous Lea-Wake Forest connection is one angle, Kelly is more interested in the fact his staff has been able to digest three 2018 Wake Forest games on video.
Says Kelly, “This is the first team this year that we have film on. We had really no film on Michigan. We weren’t sure what they were doing offensively. We had a pretty good idea of what they were doing defensively — and then we got something totally different.
“But this is the first week where we kind of have a batch of film where we’ve got a pretty good sense of what we’re getting. And we get a lot of communication in our coordinators’ meetings with, ‘Hey, what do you think of this? What are they thinking about that? Why are they doing this?'”
As much as anything, Kelly and his staff remember this is a Wake Forest program that rolled up 587 total yards of offense in South Bend last November. And now the Demon Deacons have gained 500 or more yards in four straight games (including 646 in the 2017 Belk Bowl win over Texas A&M). They set a Wake Forest record with 105 offensive plays last week against Boston College. The Deacons rank sixth nationally in total first downs with 91.
“It’s always a challenge to play on the road against a power-five team, especially one that likes to run 100 plays a game,” says the Irish head coach. “So that’s certainly a challenge with the tempo. We felt it last year with their ability to move the tempo and play really good football against us. We saw how they played the rest of the year with wins against North Carolina State and Texas A & M. They played really good football at the end of the season.
“They’re starting a true freshman quarterback in (Sam) Hartman, but he’s really comfortable with the offense. You can see that (offensive coordinator and quarterback coach) Warren Ruggiero has done a great job of really getting him as a midyear comfortable with the offense. They’re running it at a high level.
“He’s supported with a really good offensive line. In terms of returners, they’ve got all five starters from a year ago. So anytime that you have in front of you five starters as a freshman quarterback, obviously, that’s a great situation.
“And then he’s also supported with an outstanding receiving corps in Greg Dortch (NCAA leader in all-purpose yards at 224.7 per game), who we didn’t see last year because of an injury. He can take over a football game. He’s an electric player with great acceleration, great hands – he makes people miss. All of them catch the football and all of them are great route runners. (Alex) Bachman last year had a career game against us (eight catches for 116 yards). You’ve got just a great collection of wide receivers that can make things happen. And they’ve run the ball really well with (Matt) Colburn and (Cade) Carney (both ran for more than 100 yards against Boston College). This past week against Boston College, 298 yards rushing. So it’s a prolific offense.
“Then defensively, Zeek Rodney is one of the better defensive linemen that we’ll see. He’s very athletic, uses his hands well, tackles for a loss, gets in the backfield. It’s a defense that we’re a bit familiar with.
“And, of course, Greg Dortch impacts the special teams as well (he leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in both punt returns and kickoff returns). So he’ll be somebody that we have to keep an eye on.”
What do the Irish have to do to thwart the Wake Forest tempo and approach?
“Force them to punt is the best way, right?” says Kelly. “Third-down conversions, getting them off the field. But you say that and they were six of seven on fourth-down conversions (against Boston College), too. They’re going to play fast, but playing fast requires you to keep things fairly simple in a sense. There can’t be a lot of changes at the line of scrimmage. Last year they did much more of that. So in some instances you just gotta go play.
“As we look at it, we just have to be really on point fundamentally, and we’ve gotta compete every play. I think if you think about taking a play off, that’s where that drive extends itself. So our focus is really about playing with much more of a sense of urgency in everything that we do in all facets. I think if we play with a sense of urgency against a tempo team like this, that’s your best bet in terms of slowing them down.”
Clawson appreciates the improvement his team needs to make to make that tempo effective:
“In six trips to the red zone (against Boston College), we only scored three touchdowns. For three games, we have had the same issues on offense. In the BC game, it caught up with us. Those issues are we turn the ball over and we don’t score touchdowns in the red zone. We have to convert at a higher level. We have to stop turning the football over. When you turn it over seven times in three games, it is too high of a rate for us to be successful.”
The Irish understand that their own offensive tempo will play a major role Saturday in combating that of Wake Forest.
“We want to run an offense that is balanced, that attacks the defense and scores touchdowns. So when we talk about philosophy of offense, that has never changed, and that won’t change,” says Kelly. “We’ve been fairly balanced. We haven’t attacked at all times, and we haven’t been proficient at scoring touchdowns. So we’ve got some work to do.”
Clawson also knows his Deacons will be challenged in facing Notre Dame’s offense. The Irish have yet to trail in a game in 2018. In Wake Forest’s last three games against Notre Dame (all played in South Bend in 2012, 2015 and 2017), the Deacons trailed by 21, 21 and 31 points, respectively, at halftime.
“Their quarterback, (Brandon) Wimbush, is a freak of an athlete,” Clawson says. “He can make people miss. He could probably be their best tailback if they played him there. He has an ability to escape and break contain. He has a strong arm and can throw the ball down the field. They push the ball down the field and he makes some beautiful throws.
“Their offensive line lost two first-round draft picks and is still one of the best in the country. I thought Boston College’s offensive line was excellent, but this is another step up. They have two excellent running backs and their receivers look like our defensive ends. Their receivers are 6-4 and 230 pounds and they let those guys go up and box people out and get the ball. They certainly did that to us last year. It is Notre Dame, so you know you are going to play against good players.”
This marks the third of five straight home games for Wake Forest (with Rice and Clemson to come).
Here are future meetings between these two programs: 2020 in Charlotte, 2023 in South Bend, 2027 at Wake Forest, 2029 and 2032 in South Bend and 2037 at Wake Forest.
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.