We were fortunate enough this week to be joined by Pat Sullivan over at One Foot Down, the excellent Notre Dame blog. He had some very impressive in-depth answers that should educate Wake Forest fans for the game tomorrow. Check out their website for a lot of good stuff as well on the game.
Let’s see what he had to say about the impending Wake Forest-Notre Dame game:
1) What's been the biggest difference between this year's squad and last year's honestly disappointing year for the Irish
The identity of the team has completely changed, thanks to the three biggest hires Brian Kelly has ever made: offensive coordinator Chip Long, defensive coordinator Mike Elko, and strength coach Matt Balis
Long has taken the personnel that Notre Dame has had for a few years (huge, athletic, elite offensive line + stable of capable running backs + super mobile quarterback) and actually used them the correct way, pounding it down opponents' throats and wearing teams down as games go on. He uses more misdirection and creativity than ND fans saw under a Kelly-run offense, and the team has THRIVED. Being 6th in the country in rushing with basically the exact same personnel (Wimbush is a running upgrade over Kizer, but that's basically the only difference in the lineup) as the 2016 offense that was 80th in the country a year ago is downright spectacular, and speaks to Long's ability to call games and to make adjustments to opponents' strategies.
Elko I will talk about more below, but let's just say he took a defense that had trouble tackling (let alone rushing the passer, managing pass coverage assignments, etc.) and turned them into one of the most reliable and efficient defenses in all of college football. He's a freaking wizard.
Balis is a guy who should probably get more credit than he has. Notre Dame teams of the past have often had trouble finishing games strong, and also have had many injury issues. Obviously injuries can be flukes and sometimes teams can just play poorly at the end of games for no real reason at all, but the 2017 team under Balis has just clearly been different in terms of strength and conditioning. These guys are physically annihilating teams deep into games and finishing off huge blowouts instead of letting teams back into it in the 4th quarter. The team has also been very healthy this season (KNOCK ON WOOD), with only a few key players suffering injuries and none of them being season-ending ones (KNOCK ON WOOD AGAIN).
Those three, along with the culture changes in the locker room and the leadership of this year's captains, have made all the difference in taking an underachieving 4-8 team and whipping it into a 7-1, physical juggernaut who earned a #3 ranking in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the year.
2) Do you think that early loss to UGA(regardless of them being number 1 right now) will keep you guys out of the playoff?
It very well could. I think the committee cares much less about how "good" a team's loss is than what Notre Dame fans want to believe. The Irish were 10-1 heading into a game against Stanford two years ago, and most people thought that even beating Stanford wouldn't be enough to get in, despite the one loss at the time coming against Clemson by 2 points on the road. The committee just values big wins over "impressive" losses, which, at the end of the day, are still losses.
That's not to say that it WILL keep them out. Unlike that 2015 ND team, this year's squad already has 3 good wins over NC State, USC, and Michigan State, and won by at least 20 points in all three. Plus, if we're talking ND as a playoff team, that means the Irish also picked up top-25 road wins at Miami and Stanford to close the season. The 2015 team's best win was probably against Temple or Navy, so they really don't compare in terms of resume. And, if it comes down to comparing losses, obviously a 1-point loss to the #1 or #2 team is better than what just about any other team will have as a loss.
Nevertheless, I think Notre Dame's chances at a Playoff spot are more reliant on how things shake out with other teams than people think. Should an 11-1 ND team who's beaten NC State, USC, Michigan State, Miami, and Stanford, and whose only loss is a 1-point defeat to CFP team Georgia, make it in? I think so. But there will be other 11-1 teams who have beaten at least a few decent teams on their way to winning conference championships, which the committee definitely likes to see.
Ultimately, I think an 11-1 ND team will have done enough for the committee to give them a spot, but there are certainly scenarios where the Irish get jumped -- especially if the opponents who gave them their big wins (USC, MSU, NC State) end up falling out of the top 25 and weakening the Irish's case (definitely possible with USC playing Arizona, MSU playing Penn State, and NC State playing Clemson this weekend).
3) What has the hiring of Mike Elko brought to the table
Mike Elko has been a revelation for Notre Dame. The last three seasons saw the Fighting Irish players struggling to learn Brian VanGorder's too-complicated defense as he forced the talent to try to fit his scheme. Elko came in and immediately made things simpler, focusing on explaining concepts to his players and keeping things simple enough where they can go out there and make plays with their talent.
The difference has been night and day. The 2016 ND defense was 46th in the country in defensive efficiency, 44th in total defense (70th in rushing defense), and 62nd in scoring defense. Elko's squad is currently #5 in the country in defensive efficiency, 34th in total defense (16th in rushing defense, including only allowing ONE rushing touchdown this season), and 10th in scoring defense.
All Irish fans expected Elko to turn the defense around, but also expected it to take a couple years to fix what VanGorder had done. Elko came in and did it in an off-season. The ND offense has been superb this year, but if it weren't for the Irish's ability to shut down opponents, Notre Dame would not be blowing people out every week.
4) Is Brian Kelly finally off the hot seat or should I just get to the question?
First of all, incredible reference to Kelly's Georgia post game presser earlier this year.
For now, he's definitely off the hot seat. It's hard to complain about the guy at all considering ND is #3 in the CFP rankings and 4 winnable games away from an 11-1 regular season. However, this is also the 3rd time in 4 years that Notre Dame has entered November in the Top 10. 2014 and 2015 saw the Irish either collapse down the stretch (2014) or lose the only remaining chance at a big win they had left on the schedule (2015, at #9 Stanford). So, you'll have to excuse ND fans if they still are a little cautious to call the Irish "back" and to claim Kelly has fixed everything.
Nevertheless, this time does SEEM different. Brian Kelly made huge changes to the culture of the team in the off-season, worked on his demeanor with the players, and most importantly, is playing more of an overarching program manager role, as opposed to being involved in the weeds of the offense and defense. His fantastic new hires are allowed to call the shots scheme-wise, and unlike most Kelly teams of the past, this squad is lights out on defense AND can run the ball on just about anyone. The only year that comes close to this year's running/defense combination is 2012, and although that ended poorly in the BCS title game, it's definitely a confidence booster heading into the home stretch to know this team compares favorably to that team.
I was one of the biggest Kelly detractors over the past few years, and I regret none of it, because he deserved every bit of criticism he got. But I also give him all the credit and respect in the world, because he took ~30 years of college head coaching experience, tossed it out the window, and admitted he needed to fundamentally change how he does things. It's paying off in a big way, and I love it.
5) Who are the players I should watch on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?
On offense, there are the obvious guys like Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush, so I'm going to give you a couple fun ones you might not be looking out for, specifically. First is LG Quenton Nelson. He's the best offensive lineman in college football, and if you watch him just a handful of times during the game, you're virtually guaranteed to see him drive somebody 5+ yards off the ball and likely pancake them into the dirt. He's being rated as one of the best NFL guard prospects to come out of college football in 30-40 years, and he just plays with this amazing blend of strength and power, agility, and nastiness that is absolutely stunning to watch.
Second on offense, watch out for Kevin Stepherson. He's a sophomore receiver who began this year by being suspended for the first 4 games, but he's back and has made big TD catches in both of the big top-15 wins over USC and NC State. He's a home run threat who also has excellent hands and can run the jet sweep very effectively. Look for him to make some plays this weekend.
On defense, I have a handful of guys to watch. DT Jerry Tillery is a 6'6" behemoth who has been fantastic about getting into the backfield and making plays. DEs Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara are sophomore defensive ends with all the athleticism and speed in the world, and will be coming after Wake Forest QB John Wolford all day long.
At linebacker, the man to watch out for right now is Te'von Coney, who has been nothing short of stellar in the past two games (20 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 2 QBH against USC and NC State). Finally, in the secondary, CB Julian Love is the guy making the most plays (3 PBU and a pick-six against NC State), and 5'9" nickelback Shaun Crawford is an elite athlete with a nose for the ball and coming up with turnovers (2 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR, 5 PBU, 1.5 sacks on the year).
6) Rate Josh Adams Heisman chances?
Good, not great.
I think Josh Adams deserves to be in the conversation just as much as Saquon Barkley, Bryce Love, etc., and if he continues at this pace as ND closes out the year, he will have a great argument for the award. But right now, Barkley impacts the game in more ways (kick returns, receiving) and Love has the better rushing stats, so it's hard to say Adams should/will win Heisman.
Now, if you asked me who I wanted at running back on my team, I'm choosing Adams every day of the week and twice on Saturday. He's the best running back of the three, in my opinion, blending an absurd combination of size, power, and breakaway speed that the other two don't quite have.
But I get the appeal of the other guys and don't think Adams ends up winning the award, however deserving he is, unless he just GOES OFF over the next 4 weeks (which is entirely possible, considering he's been going off for the past 6 weeks now). The season finale at Stanford will be huge, as the stout ND run defense will have a chance to make Love look human while Adams runs all over the mediocre Cardinal defense. Time will tell if things play out that way, though. I'm just excited that ND has a bonafide Heisman candidate.
7) Prediction: Who wins and why?
Notre Dame, by a lot.
If Wake had all their playmakers healthy, I'd predict a closer game considering the Irish are coming off two tough, emotional wins over ranked opponents and could be a little full of themselves after the #3 ranking this week.
But without Dortch and the others missing this weekend, I don't see Wake's offense being able to match the Irish's, and I certainly don't think the Wake Forest defense has enough strength and talent to withstand the ND rushing attack any better than other opponents have. I also think this ND team is locked in and knows that the #3 ranking in early November means absolutely nothing, and they're gonna come out on Saturday and play that way.
I'm saying Notre Dame 44, Wake Forest 17.