November 3, 2017
By John Heisler
It’s November and that means there’s more on the line every week for the Notre Dame football team. This is an Irish program that went from 30th in the preseason poll of coaches (in terms of points received) to third this week in the initial College Football Playoff poll. Notre Dame has won six games in a row, the last two over top-15 opponents. Wake Forest won its first four games, lost three in a row (Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech) and then looked strong last week in a home win over Louisville. This is the third of three consecutive home games for Notre Dame and the sixth of seven overall in Notre Dame Stadium in 2017.
Here are some areas to check out Saturday afternoon in South Bend:
1. Not so strange bedfellows. Coaching changes happen all the time, so it’s strictly coincidence that Irish head coach Brian Kelly hired Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko for that same role in South Bend (along with two more Demon Deacon staffers, linebacker coach Clark Lea and director of scouting Bill Rees) in the same year Wake Forest happens to play at Notre Dame Stadium. That makes for some interesting angles this week. The Irish have more of an intimate take on the Wake Forest personnel, while the Demon Deacons are more than a little familiar with Elko and what he likes to do.
2. The Irish face another big-time quarterback. Last week it was NC State’s Ryan Finley who had not thrown an interception in 2017 (until Notre Dame’s Julian Love picked one off and returned it for a touchdown). This week it’s Wake Forest’s John Wolford who last week threw for 461 yards and five TDs (he ran for a sixth) against Louisville. Wolford rates seventh nationally in passing efficiency and 16th in completion percentage (.657). He’ll be matched against an Irish pass defense that rates 33rd in the country in efficiency.
3. Nobody makes mistakes. These are two of the better programs in the country when it comes to avoiding mistakes. Wake Forest has turned the ball over only five times all year (ranking second nationally), while the Irish have done that seven times (14th in the country). Notre Dame is seventh in turnover margin thanks to the 18 turnovers gained so far in 2017. Wake Forest did not turn the ball over in its games against Boston College, Utah State, Appalachian State and Clemson. Notre Dame did not turn the ball over against either USC or NC State and has not lost a fumble since the third game of the season at Boston College.
4. Both teams are down a receiver. Notre Dame starting tight end Alize Mack (second-leading Irish receiver with 17 catches for 154 yards) will not play Saturday, while Wake Forest’s Greg Dortch (he caught four TD passes last week against Louisville) had surgery after that Louisville game due to an abdominal injury and is out for the season. Dortch has 53 catches (722 yards and nine TDs) in 2017—next on the list for the Demon Deacons is wide receiver Tabari Hines with 18 for 250.
5. Improving Irish. A victory against Wake Forest would mean the Irish already would have doubled their victory total compared to 2016 (from four to eight). The only Notre Dame teams to do better in that category (based on victories compared to the previous season) would be the teams in 1964 (2-7 to 9-1), 1919 (3-1-2 to 9-0), 2002 (5-6 to10-3) and 1957 (2-8 to 7-3).