Wake Forest (5-5, 3-5 ACC) will face its greatest challenge since its meeting with then No. 4 Florida State when it travels to South Bend for a date with No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) Saturday.
Deacons Illustrated discussed the game with IrishIllustrated.com editor Pete Sampson.
Everett Golson has grown up before our very eyes. What do you think has enabled him to be so successful as a freshman, and what can Wake Forest do to slow him down? "The biggest improvement with Everett Golson this year has been the run game, the sophomore adding speed option, zone reads and quarterback draws into the mix. It's stopped teams from doing what they did last year against Tommy Rees, when the opposition could drop eight into coverage and know Notre Dame didn't have a threat at quarterback to tuck the ball and run. If you look at Golson's first four starts, he ran 21 times for negative 11 yards."
"The last five starts he's rushed 58 times for 269 yards. Golson just has a better handle on the offense now than in September, which shows in getting the Irish into the right play and setting the right protection. I'm not sure what the best counter for Golson is from Wake Forest, aside from making him go long drives that go double-digit plays, essentially, force the quarterback to make a bunch of good decisions instead of letting him hit the big play. Of course against Boston College, Notre Dame had touchdown drives of 13 plays, 16 plays and nine plays. Still, Notre Dame has struggled in the red zone this year, so Wake Forest probably needs to bank on slowing down the Irish inside the 20-yard line because that's where the offense has bogged down."
The Fighting Irish defense appears to be getting most of the attention and rightfully so, but the offense is obviously doing enough things right. What are the strengths on the offensive side of the ball for ND? "The run game has been outstanding by Notre Dame standards and entering the Boston College game the Irish were on their best five-game rushing streak in 12 years. The offensive line has been outstanding, particularly left tackle Zack Martin."
"Running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have both been very good, with George Atkinson III more of a home run threat."
"Tyler Eifert at tight end is an All-American and Notre Dame's only true big-play receiving threat now that receiver DaVaris Daniels has gone down with a broken collar bone."
Manti Te'o is the catalyst for this team and may be in the running for the Heisman. Can you think of anything a team(s) has done in the past to keep him from being as effective? "Pittsburgh did a good job of running some misdirection that got Te'o off his game, but that involved Ray Graham, an outstanding running back. That's really been about it, having an elite running back, then using him as a decoy. Not a lot of programs can do that. That being said, Pittsburgh and Boston College were Te'o's least effective games of the year. Maybe that's Te'o just being off or maybe that's teams blocking him differently, probably a little bit of both. But last week Te'o was limited by Boston College, yet Notre Dame's outside linebacker Prince Shembo had three sacks. Point being, just taking Te'o out of the game doesn't mean you're going to have offensive success."
We know the household names like Eifert, Te'o and Wood for Notre Dame, but who else should Wake be on the lookout for and why? "Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix on the defensive line are two guys to watch. Tuitt is a former five-star recruit who's playing like it. He leads all sophomores nationally in sacks with 10 and there are only seven players in any class with more sacks than him. What's remarkable about Tuitt is that pass rushing isn't something the coaching staff at Notre Dame asks him to do as a specialty."
"The 3-4 scheme doesn't call for defensive ends to win a lot of one-on-one battles and get to the quarterback, but that's what Tuitt has been doing all season. If you haven't seen his fumble return against Navy, google that. You're looking at a 300-pound defensive end running like a tight end or running back. Nix is Notre Dame's nose guard, a 330-pound athlete with quickness at the point of attack. He's been a huge part of keeping linemen off Te'o. His body type looks like a run stuffer exclusively, but Nix can do a lot more than eat space."
Do you think Saturday's meeting could be a potential trap game for the Irish, especially with a season finale match-up against Southern Cal just a week away? "I don't see Notre Dame having a letdown on Saturday, mainly because it's the last home game of the year. I think if this was a game in early November or October and the Irish had already lost a couple games, I could see Notre Dame looking ahead. But the final home game combined with Wake Forest playing Notre Dame tough last season, I don't see the Irish looking ahead to USC too much. The undefeated season probably helps that cause too. Notre Dame can't reach its goals without beating Wake Forest."
What's the injury report for ND, and how significant of an impact is it? "Notre Dame lost starting safety Jamoris Slaughter against Michigan State, which was significant. Matthias Farley, a red-shirt freshman from Charlotte, has filled that role surprisingly well the past couple months. Slaughter was Notre Dame's best defensive back and played a huge role against Wake Forest last year. The other big injury is DaVaris Daniels, who went down last week at Boston College with a broken clavicle. He's Notre Dame's most explosive receiver and takes away a vertical threat from the offense. I'm not sure how much impact that will have on Saturday, but it's an injury that will have some effect."
Brian Kelly has a history of turning a program around by the third year at the helm. What are the expectations moving forward? And do you think Notre Dame is back, or is this just a bump in the road? "I do think Notre Dame is back because this season has more long-term substance to it than Tyrone Willingham's one good season or the two good years of Charlie Weis."
"Notre Dame never paired fundamentally sound football with elite recruiting like it's done under Kelly. Not only is Notre Dame playing great defense right now, it's recruiting great defensive talent and has a sound defensive scheme. In the past Notre Dame football has felt more like a collection of talented parts than a team. Now it feels more and more like a team. I think that goes back to Kelly's coaching. I'm not expecting Notre Dame to go 11-1 every year, but I think you can expect Notre Dame to be consistently good moving forward, where down years are 8-4 opposed to past coaches where down years were more 6-6 or 5-7."