WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Far removed from the national college football spotlight Saturday night, both in miles and in meaningfulness, Notre Dame quietly reached a milestone of sorts.
If ND’s 24-17 survival at Atlantic Coast Conference upstart Wake Forest ends up taking the Irish somewhere more profound in the coming weeks, it was hidden by a schizophrenic performance. It reminded those who weren’t caught up in the LSU-Alabama showdown in Tuscaloosa, Ala., both how perplexing coach Brian Kelly’s second Irish team can be and what heights might still be within its reach.
The first-ever meeting between the two schools wasn’t too unlike a blind date.
A dominating defensive performance in the second half, that followed bewildering inconsistencies in the opening 30 minutes, helped the Irish (6-3) capsize a Wake Forest upset bid that could have ripped open the locker room tumult that had scabbed over in the past seven days.
“I just think it was all the little things and the toughness our football team showed tonight,” Kelly said. “That’s the stuff that we’re trying to develop.”
Unfortunately, enough of the stuff he’s trying to exorcise showed up in this game too, including two more turnovers for a team that’s been swimming near the bottom of the turnover-margin poll in the national statistics since the opening game of the season.
Still, the fourth-largest crowd in BB&T Field history and scouts from the Champ Sports, Sun and Belk - yes, Belk - bowls looked on as Jonas Gray’s one-yard run on the opening drive of the second half started the reversal. Michael Floyd’s 16-yard pass from Tommy Rees at the 9:04 mark of the third quarter then completed the Irish rally from 17-10 down at half - at least the offensive portion of it.
Two three-and-outs coaxed by the Irish defense set the tone for bigger heroics later in the half.
Irish safety Harrison Smith, who had a game-high 11 tackles, punched the ball out of Wake Forest running back Brandon Pendergrass’ hands to thwart one red-zone opportunity midway through the third quarter. Cornerback Gary Gray fell on the loose ball at the 11.
Then later, Wake had a first-and-goal opportunity at the Irish 10, but freshman Stephon Tuitt sacked Demon Deacons quarterback Tanner Price for an 11-yard loss. Two plays later Wake Forest kicker Jimmy Newman pushed a 42-yard field goal attempt wide right, his first miss after 15 straight field goal conversions.
After the shank, the Irish took possession with 5:24 left and never let go, running the ball 11 straight times to kill the clock and all three of the Deacons’ second-half timeouts.
“We played some pretty good football teams,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose 5-4 team could still crash the BCS party if it beats Clemson and Maryland the next two weeks and then captures the ACC Championship game. “And Notre Dame is another one of those teams.”
Not in the first half. The 106th-ranked rushing team baffled the Irish defense, while ND’s offense sputtered as much as it soared. But in the second half the Irish outgained Wake, 196-100 and outrushed the Demon Deacons, 105-20.
Playing nickel defense was the X’s and O’s adjustment. But there was a heart element as well. The Irish played most of the game without starting center Braxston Cave (ankle) and a hobbled linebacker Manti Te’o and gimpy freshman end Aaron Lynch.
“ I told our team that it’s a trajectory that you want to be on” Kelly said, “and that is when you go on the road, you want to play the kind of football that allows you to win consistently and that is closing games out.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen: