Notre Dame’s most friendly new ACC brethren is back on the schedule once again. The Irish face Wake Forest for the 5th time in 8 years after previously spending over 100 years never having faced the Demon Deacons. Due to weird scheduling quirks this will break up 3 straight games in the series that took place in South Bend.

Notre Dame (-7) at Wake Forest

BB&T Field
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Date: Saturday, September 22, 2018
Time: 12:00 PM ET
Series: 4-0-0 Notre Dame

Dave Clawson is attempting to continue building Wake Forest’s program after a promising past 2 seasons that saw the Demon Deacons win 15 games and a pair of bowl games. He’s also made Wake a lot more competitive having lost their last 7 games by an average of only 10.1 points. It’s a solidly worthwhile ACC opponent!

3 Pre-Game Topics

A Blistering Pace

Wake’s productive offense wasn’t particularly slow last year, logging 963 plays on the season and 74.0 per game. This season, despite starting a true freshman quarterback, the Demon Deacons have shifted into tempo overdrive. So far through 3 games they are averaging a shocking 93.3 plays per game and just totaled an incredible 105 plays against Boston College.

Although there’s little precedent for facing this many snaps–despite Notre Dame dealing with a school-record 97 snaps 2 weeks ago–the recent history is actually pretty positive. When facing at least 80 snaps from an opponent, Notre Dame has won its last 6 games.

Speed at a Cost?

Last year’s Wake Forest offense was one of their most prolific in modern school history finishing 22nd in S&P+ while averaging 35.3 points per game and 6.3 yards per play. They had nice balance too, with almost 3,600 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards. This…is unlikely to continue for 2018.

Wake has returned quite a bit of production from last season although they dealt with the 3-game suspension to likely starting quarterback Kendall Hinton (he returns this week as a backup) which thrust freshman Sam Hartman into the spotlight. The increase in plays has Hartman throwing for 12 yards more per game than the departed John Wolford but that’s with 10 more attempts in each contest. In comparison, Hartman has been solid in his first career games but most of Wake’s passing game has declined across the board–including 1 fewer interceptions from Hartman (5 already) than Wolford all of last year on 251 fewer pass attempts.

In the Zone

Poor red zone conversions have reared their ugly head once again. The Irish did score touchdowns on 4 out of their first 5 red zone opportunities to begin the season. Problems popped up last week when only 2 out of the 5 red zone opportunities landed touchdowns for Notre Dame.

As much as converting is important perhaps the 5 chances last week signal an improvement. With just 10 red zone opportunities through 3 games, the Irish are well behind last year’s pace that saw the team total 15 red zone trips. With so much focus on the quarterbacks converting (whomever it may be) being able to move the ball that far on numerous occasions could be important if overall touchdowns remain a struggle.

2 Key Opponents

WR Greg Dortch

Here’s one of the best athletes Notre Dame will face this year, likely an All-Opponent team member for sure. The redshirt sophomore blew up last year with 722 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns in just 8 games before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. That injury came right before facing Notre Dame so he’ll get his first shot on Saturday. Dortch is also one of the premier return men in the game with 334 yards and a couple punt return touchdowns so far this year and 1,964 all-purpose yardage in 11 career games.

DT Willie Yarbary

Wake was super disruptive last year on defense (106 TFL, 7th nationally) although the Irish completely stymied them and limited the Deacons to just 4 tackles for loss in last fall’s meeting in South Bend. They’ve lost a lot of senior leadership up front and turn to 5th-year senior Willie Yarbary to cause problems on the interior. He’s totaled 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks since the start of 2017.

1 Prediction

Will this road game finally break Notre Dame free from its close, white-knuckling home games that we’ve witnessed to start 2018? According to Vegas, don’t bet on it!

Perhaps it was the road game factor, or people mixing up the colors with Vanderbilt, or the belief that John Wolford was returning, or maybe Dave Clawson’s recent track record in the ACC that led some to think this weekend’s game would be a tougher test than last week. I have a very hard time believing that.

Most signs are pointing to significant regression for the Deacons who have dropped to 57th in S&P+ 20 spots lower than their 2017 finish. That’s 22 spots lower than the team Notre Dame just faced last weekend.

The big rumors began Thursday that Ian Book will be starting at quarterback against Wake Forest. I’m surprised but if you read my Vanderbilt review and subsequent comment section it’s hardly shocking.

I am a little shocked at how glossed over Brandon Wimbush’s passing struggles have been in conjunction with an offense that has really been struggling. From 2010-17 Kelly’s offenses at Notre Dame have averaged just under 22nd nationally by S&P+ with 2016 (35th), 2013 (27th), and 2010 (27th) coming in as the worst of the bunch.

The Irish are ranked 67th ranked right now. Sixty-seventh!!!

Looking at it through this lens forcing a change makes sense. The staff asked Wimbush to stand in the pocket, torch Ball State as a senior with experience, and it couldn’t be done. Everyone looked better on offense against Vanderbilt and yet with 19 attempts through 3 quarters Wimbush still couldn’t break 70 passing yards.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the play-calling–some of it justifiable some of it not–I just don’t think enough people realize how difficult it is for coaches to gameplan and adjust on the fly when your quarterback isn’t accurate. The offense is already super run-heavy (63.2% through 3 games a percentage I couldn’t even imagine would be possible a couple years ago) and there’s not a lot of wiggle room to get even more conservative and take the air out of the ball.

Maybe Chip Long should cater more to Wimbush’s strengths? I’ve heard this a lot but never the second part of how to actually do that. How do you cater to a quarterback who struggles mightily with the game’s easiest short throws? How do you cater to a quarterback who isn’t surrounded by tremendous deep threats and struggles making the right read if a wideout is open down field?

Of course, we could be getting ahead of ourselves. Even if Book starts it doesn’t mean he’ll find success or even play more than Wimbush overall. Still, this feels like we’re entering the quarterback controversy territory that will be difficult to get out of this year. In that light, I understand the reluctance to want to pull Wimbush (to whatever degree) and just keep hoping it works out and the team overcomes his weaknesses.

On the other hand, it would only seem natural that many on the team (particularly the pass-catchers) are sick and tired of playing with a hand tied behind their back. The trouble is that, as we’ve seen in Book’s limited action, he’s not going to be afforded the same amount of mistakes from fans as Wimbush is gifted due to perceived ceilings and general play-making ability. This is why I’m curious to know if this road-opener was always on the table as the time to make a switch if it needed to happen–Book won’t have hissing and booing after the first 3 & out.

If we see this, it’s definitely a ballsy move from Kelly & Co. but something I’ve argued was necessary to at least significantly increase Book’s playing time and recognize things need to improve. I hate juggling two quarterbacks as much as anybody but this situation is different than simply not making a decision before the season begins. At 3-0 it doesn’t feel like desperate times and yet being proactive and seeking something better than the offensive version of Brian VanGorder’s defense could be really smart.

Hopefully, it shouldn’t matter this weekend either way. I’m expecting Notre Dame’s defense (5th in S&P+ behind only Iowa, Utah, Washington, and Stanford) to feast on a Wake Forest offense moving a little too fast for its own good. A couple early ugly picks by Hartman set up a tough day for the Deacons.

Notre Dame 32

Wake Forest 16