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November 3, 2011

In the trenches: Notre Dame

Wake Forest (5-3, 4-2 ACC) hosts one of college football's most storied program's Saturday in Notre Dame (5-3).

The Fighting Irish boast 11 national championships, but have not won the title since 1988 when Lou Holtz was head coach. Brian Kelly aims for a return to glory, and to awake the echoes of greatness in South Bend.

This is the first-ever meeting between the two programs, but both teams are playing for bowl eligibility.


1) What is this week's injury report for Notre Dame, and how significantly does it impact the Fighting Irish?


"The biggest injury remains Ethan Johnson, who's missed the last three games with a sprained ankle. There's a good chance he'll play against Wake Forest if the Irish need him, but he'll be limited regardless.

Johnson is Notre Dame's most experienced defensive lineman and starter the past three-plus seasons. If Johnson still can't go it means Notre Dame will probably rely on freshmen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch again. Tuitt has played well the past couple weeks relative to his age, although Lynch hasn't shown up as much as earlier in the year. I'd expect both to play well Saturday night against a more conventional offense that doesn't have an NFL first round pick at tackle a la USC.

Quarterback Tommy Rees suffered a hyper extended knee against USC that's dogged him since high school. It's one of those injuries that's chronic and could show up at any time. Manti Te'o suffered an ankle sprain in early October but hasn't missed any game time. He has been held out of a few practices but appears back to full speed. He played one of his best games last weekend against Navy.

Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore is out too with a MCL injury. He's done for the year. It means Notre Dame will likely start two freshman defensive ends in Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch."


2) After an 0-2 start the Irish have won five of their last six. What has changed to bring about such a great turnaround?


"Limiting turnovers. Pretty simple. It's not even that Notre Dame has been outstanding in the turnover department in their five wins, they've just avoided the catastrophic mistake. Notre Dame had a fumble returned for a touchdown against USF and was minus-five in that game, just like Florida State at Wake Forest. The Irish turned it over five times at Michigan.

Against USC it was three turnovers in the final quarter-plus, including a fumbled snap at the goal line that got returned for a touchdown. The Irish were a yard away from tying the game at 17-17, then they were down 24-10.

Stability at quarterback has helped, sticking with Tommy Rees after benching Dayne Crist at halftime of the opener. The run game has been consistently good, even when Brian Kelly gets away from it as a play caller. And the defense has really just had two bad quarters all year."


3) The program appears to be turning the corner in Brian Kelly's second season. Are the Irish faithful and the higher-ups within the school's athletic department and booster committee supportive of him and his staff, and the direction the program is heading? Or does he not have much room for error?


"Tough to say how much room for error he has, but he still has some. Notre Dame has been so volatile in the coaching department the past decade that whomever they hired was going to get a longer leash, or at least deserved one, than the previous coaches. Recruiting has been good, Notre Dame beat USC last year, the program seems trending upward even if it's not rising as quickly as some would like.

The biggest issues with Notre Dame right now are players getting on board with Kelly and the head coach finding the right quarterback. Notre Dame had an internal blowout the week after the USC game that still seems to be smoldering. Kelly drew a line between his recruits and those he inherited, which upset a lot of older players. The quarterback situation probably won't get appreciably better this season because Tommy Rees isn't suddenly going to get more mobile. Kelly has been up front that he needs a mobile quarterback to run his offense effectively. Right now he doesn't have one that he can trust.

As long as Notre Dame finishes up the regular season 8-4 and plays well in the postseason, I think you'll see the support for Kelly remain strong. Some around South Bend think this should have been a BCS season and Kelly would agree. That didn't happen, but the program seems to be figuring out how to solve some lingering problems, getting a run game going, recruiting well defensively, etc. I think people see that even if the record hasn't exceeded expectations."


4) Aside from the household names on this team who are key players Wake Forest needs to be on the lookout for, and why?


"Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o are the household names, but there are a lot of guys playing well right now. I'd start with senior cornerback Robert Blanton, a North Carolina kid, who'll match up with Chris Givens plenty on Saturday. Blanton has elite anticipation skills, good speed, great toughness. He and Gary Gray form a solid cornerback combination.

Jonas Gray is another guy to watch. He's Notre Dame's power back, averaging eight yards per carry and has really come on this season. If the Irish ground game grinds up the Wake Forest defense, odds are Gray will do the grinding. Center Braxston Cave isn't somebody a lot of fans will be watching, but he's part of Notre Dame's improved offensive line that's probably going to try to wear down the Wake Forest defense.

Kickoff returner George Atkinson III is worth a look too on special teams. He's returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season. The last Notre Dame freshman to do that was Rocket Ismail."


5) What matchup(s) is Kelly and his staff most concerned about?


"Notre Dame's nickel back against Wake Forest's three receivers is where I'd attack if I'm Jim Grobe. The Irish have tried a couple different nickel combinations this season, going with three corners or three safeties depending on the game. It's been a mixed bag, probably less productive than most people around Notre Dame would have anticipated.

Safety Zeke Motta (No. 17) and cornerback Lo Wood (No. 23) are Notre Dame's fifth and sixth defensive backs. I'll be curious to see how Wake Forest will work that matchup."


6) What must the Demon Deacons do above all else to defeat this ever-improving Notre Dame team?


"Turn Notre Dame over. To me, that's the only way Wake Forest wins this game. Notre Dame has 13 turnovers in its three losses. In Notre Dame's five wins it just has seven turnovers. Even that winning figure isn't that great, but it goes to show how the Irish just need to not implode to survive turnovers. I think Wake Forest probably needs to be plus-two in turnovers at a minimum to win."






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