Notre Dame has been solid if not overwhelming in three home games, and now the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish take their first road venture.
“We have a challenge on the road,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We know we have to play at a high level to win on Saturday. … Just understanding when you’re on the road, momentum usually works against you. Those things don’t generally decide the game, it’s still about your execution and your preparation.”
Saturday afternoon’s game against Wake Forest at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C., ought to give Kelly, whose team is 3-0 for the fourth time in the past seven years, another indication of the development of his team.
Notre Dame is one of nine teams nationally with unbeaten records with a schedule exclusively against Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
This could be a chance for the Irish to get their offense cranked up given Wake Forest’s mishaps in pass coverages. The Demon Deacons (2-1) gave up five passing touchdowns last week to Boston College.
“Defensively, right now, we’re not playing well in the secondary,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “It’s just all explosives.”
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush blistered Wake Forest with 280 passing yards and 110 rushing yards in last year’s game in South Bend, Ind.
Yet Wimbush has been mistake-prone at times this season, with four interceptions compared to one touchdown toss in three games.
Part of Wimbush’s issues might come from a youthful receiving corps.
“Growing pains. We’re still growing,” Kelly said of the unit. “We’re all trying to look for that consistency in performance.”
Wake Forest linebacker Justin Strnad said the defense has been hindered by biting on play-action fakes, leaving the secondary vulnerable.
On top of Wake Forest’s woes in giving up big plays, Notre Dame has scored in the first four minutes of games in eight different games covering a two-season span.
Last Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt was the fifth straight victory for Notre Dame in which it held the opposing team to fewer than 20 points.
The biggest clash could come when Wake Forest’s rushing attack meets Notre Dame’s defensive front. Wake Forest has gained 264 yards per game on the ground, while Notre Dame has allowed 107 rushing yards per outing.
Notre Dame’s defense that hasn’t given up a rushing play of 20 or more yards this season.
“A prolific offense,” Kelly said of Wake Forest. “They’re starting a true freshman quarterback in (Sam) Hartman, but he’s really comfortable in the offense. He’s supported with a really good offensive line. … This is the first week where we have batch of film and have a pretty good sense of what we’re getting.”
Wake Forest running back Cade Carney has reached the 100-yard mark the past two games, while Matt Colburn was the team’s leading rusher in the Boston College game with 117 yards (compared to Carney’s 116).
Notre Dame didn’t have to deal with dynamic receiver/punt returner Greg Dortch last year because the Wake Forest standout was injured.
“He can take over a football game, an electric player,” Kelly said of Dortch. “He’s someone we have to keep an eye on as it relates to special teams.”
Wake Forest’s offense had done plenty to get Kelly’s attention. For the first time in school history, the Demon Deacons have racked up 500 or more yards of total offense in four consecutive games.
Yet the Demon Deacons often slumped in the red zone.
“We continue to have red-zone struggles,” Clawson said. “We end up kicking field goals. Anytime you don’t score a touchdown down there, they’re just points you’re leaving off the board.”
That’s underscored by freshman kicker Nick Sciba, who has kicked six field goals — five coming from less than 30 yards away.
Notre Dame is the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to visit Wake Forest since the Demon Deacons pulled a September 1996 shocker by toppling No. 13 Northwestern. There was also a 1979 upset of No. 13 Auburn.
But in large part, Wake Forest hasn’t had much success against rated foes. The Demon Deacons are 23-134-1 against Top 25 opposition, though they defeated No. 25 North Carolina State last November.
This is the fifth meeting in an eight-season stretch between the teams.
Wake Forest is the first of five Atlantic Coast Conference opponents for Notre Dame this season.