October 29, 2017
By John Heisler
It looked sobering at the start.
Maybe this really was a trap game, coming just seven days after Notre Dame’s more ballyhooed matchup with old rival USC. v Maybe North Carolina State’s rush defense and all-star end Bradley Chubb really were as good as their number-six national ranking–especially after the visitors stuffed Notre Dame on its first two possessions, sacking Brandon Wimbush twice and recovering a blocked punt in the end zone for an early lead.
Maybe Ryan Finley, one of the most proficient passers in the country, really was as good as his start that included a picture-perfect 15-yard throw to Kelvin Harmon on the second play of the second quarter to make it 14-7 for the Wolfpack. By then NC State already had 98 passing yards, and the Irish had every reason to be back on their heels.
But, as the old Mad magazine character Alfred E. Neuman said, “What, me worry?”
The Irish shook off those very early doldrums–and the Wolfpack–like a nettlesome summertime fly as Josh Adams and the rest of the Irish went about taking care of business.
They ran for 318 yards, almost exactly their season average, against an NC State group that had been allowing 91.3 per game.
The Irish shut out the Wolfpack over the final 44:48.
NC State’s fourth-period offensive output? It was five yards.
And Adams did what he seems to do every week now-this time running for 202 yards and punctuating the victory with a 77-yard dash up the middle to end the scoring.
Notre Dame’s 35-14 win over the 14th-rated Wolfpack, in its own way, may have been as impressive as any the Irish (7-1) have accumulated so far in 2017.
Offered Brian Kelly to his squad just prior to kickoff, “You guys are trained to go out and do this today. You have all the skills you need, all the strategies you need–you know what mindset you need. There’s one last thing.
“I want to see you go out and fight today-fight for each other, fight for your brothers. Fight for the guy next to you that was up at five o’clock in the morning. You’ve put in so much work. That’s what this is about. You are going to be able to handle anything that comes your way today.
“Whatever happens today, you’ll focus and refocus. Trust your teaching, I have no doubt about that. But I want to see you fight for the guy next to you today that has been in it all the way with you. When you leave here, it’s the camaraderie with the guy next to you. These are the moments you’ll always remember. That’s about today–we fight for Notre Dame.
“Let’s go play this game the way it’s meant to be played.”
Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston challenged his players with this in the locker room: “When you walk off this field tonight, what’s the headline gonna say?”
Kelly’s part about handling anything that comes your way? Maybe he knew something about the way the game would begin. But maybe the Wolfpack should have heeded Adams’ early message. The Irish junior peeled off a 21-yard run on the game’s first play and that certainly set his tone.
The Irish awoke on their third possession. After a C.J. Sanders 32-yard kickoff return, Adams went for 35 yards on first down and Wimbush followed with a nifty, lofted throw to a wide-open tight end Durham Smythe to tie the game. That 35-yard Adams rush made him the fastest Irish player to reach 1,000 yards (110 carries). Vagas Ferguson (1979) is the only other Irish player to accomplish that in eight games.
After Finley’s TD pass, Notre Dame went to work, using 14 plays (its third-longest scoring drive of the year in terms of plays) to go 72 yards and tie the score. Wimbush ran it in from the three to set the Irish single-season mark for rushing TDs by a quarterback.
After a three and out for NC State, Wimbush connected with Smythe on the Irish sideline for 11 yards as the Notre Dame tight end did a perfect ballerina-style job of keeping his toes inbounds. The next play featured another amazing 11-yard catch, this one by Kevin Stepherson-with review proving he got a foot inbounds in the end zone.
By halftime Adams had 102 yards–the fifth time he had reached the century mark by intermission-and the Irish as a team had rushed for 136 yards against a defense that had never permitted more than 133 in an entire game this fall.
“You’re built for this. The duration of the play is six seconds, not four. Go through the entire play. You’re trained for this,” Kelly said at halftime.
“It’s about focus and concentration. Take one play at a time. We’re not jumping forward, one minute, two minutes, one period. That’s how we built this back. We’re not thinking about anything else other than one play at a time. That’s how we built this. And then we’ll look up at the end and see where we are.
“This isn’t about winning-this is about dominating your opponent. You do that with the mental mindset that you put together. Lock in. Buckle up-and let’s go beat ’em.”
Finley came into the game having not thrown an interception all season. But that streak ended three minutes into the second half when Julian Love stepped in front of Harmon, picked off the throw and ran it 69 yards down the Irish sideline to the end zone. That gave Notre Dame a 101-10 advantage in 2017 in points produced after gaining turnovers.
Later in the period on the second play of an Irish drive from their own 23, Adams did his thing, busting up the gut for those 77 yards. At 35-14 Kelly’s crew had made a statement.
NC State produced only 89 second-half offensive yards. Notre Dame’s defense notched five tackles for loss (Te’von Coney led with nine tackles to earn a game ball along with Smythe) and the Irish secondary excelled with seven pass break-ups (three by Love).
Notre Dame ended the game with an 8:40 possession that featured 12 straight runs to finish the action. It ended in a kneel-down at the Wolfpack four that dented the Notre Dame red-zone success number-yet no one cared.
For the second time in 2017 Adams had 200 yards in a game by the end of the third period.
“I’ve coached a lot of games, been in a lot of game situations, and generally when you have a punt blocked it’s almost deflating,” Kelly told his team.
“This group never flinched. It was amazing. It was like, ‘No big deal, Coach, don’t worry about it.’
“Most teams you would feel the energy come out of the group. I thought I needed to remind everybody that we just had a punt blocked. But that’s the mentality that we have in this room-always attacking, never flinching, getting back after it.
“The things you did today defensively? Incredible effort. Doing what we do, 300 yards rushing, controlling the line of scrimmage. By the way, they said, ‘Here’s the deal. Sixth- ranked rushing defense against one of the best rushing offenses. Something’s gotta give.’ Well, something gave!
“That’s what happens when you have that mindset and get after people and that’s what you did. How bad did you want it? Pretty darn bad. Each and every week we know what’s at stake. We stuck to our process and did all the little things. Let’s keep doing it and take this where it needs to go.”
Kelly suggested to the media it was “one of our best defensive performances in some time.”
On Adams’ explosiveness, he said, “If you misfit a play, it’s a home run.”
Over two straight home Saturdays the Irish have dominated a pair of top-15 teams (for the first time since 1989) by a combined 56 points.
That impressed media observers enough for ESPN to place the Irish third nationally in its power rankings this morning.
November looms-with the four remaining regular-season Notre Dame games comprising the second most difficult slate remaining (that quartet has combined to go 21-7 versus FBS opponents, with only South Carolina scheduled to meet a more accomplished group).
Spend a little time around the Notre Dame camp these days-and the suggestion is the Irish can’t wait.