Notre Dame defeated NC State 35-14 Saturday to win their second consecutive game over a top 15 opponent. Notre Dame was in trouble early after a blocked punt went for a Wolfpack touchdown. However, the Irish showed resiliency to comeback and eventually wore down NC State in a 21-point victory. While the Irish have won six straight games by 20 points or more, they know there’s plenty of work left to do with four games remaining. Before I give my thoughts on the Playoff rankings, let’s take a look at how the match ups played out last Saturday.
Notre Dame Offense vs. NC State Defense
This matchup was touted as a top 10 rushing offense squaring off against a top 10 rushing defense. As Brian Kelly said in the locker room after the game “Something’s gotta give, and something gave!” The Irish ran all over the Wolfpack for 318 yards, including 202 by Heisman candidate Josh Adams. After some early struggles against Bradley Chubb and company, the Irish offensive line led by McGlinchey, Nelson, and Mustipher created gaping holes for the Irish backs to run through.
Despite throwing for just 104 yards, Brandon Wimbush had one of his better games. He showed great touch on multiple throws including a beautiful 25 yard touchdown pass to Durham Smythe. Kevin Stepherson had another nice game, including an impressive toe tapping touchdown to put the Irish ahead 21-14. Does Wimbush put up eye-popping numbers? No, but he is extremely effective in the red zone. Additionally, Wimbush is careful with the football and has not thrown an interception in five straight games.
The NC State defense had a strong start to the game. They forced two consecutive three and outs, one of which led to a blocked punt touchdown. Bradley Chubb and Kentavius Street both sacked Brandon Wimbush and it looked like this defensive line was legit. I still believe it is a strong line, but they could not stand the eventual onslaught of the Irish run game. Although the pass defense allowed just 104 yards, it could’ve been much worse than that. Brandon Wimbush overthrew a wide-open Kevin Stepherson in the 4th quarter and Miles Boykin was clearly interfered with on what could’ve been another touchdown. Still, I would say the Wolfpack defense played a decent game against an elite offense as they allowed just 28 points.
Notre Dame Grade: A-
NC State Grade: C+
NC State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Similarly to the defense, NC State’s offense had success early in the ball game. Ryan Finley was efficient and accurate as he led the Wolfpack on a 71-yard drive to take 14-7 lead in the 2nd quarter. Finley’s touchdown pass was perfectly placed to Kelvin Harmon, and at the time it seemed the game would be heading toward a shootout. However, things would change dramatically in the 2nd half. Finley threw a pick-six to Julian Love after the Wolfpack offensive line thought Notre Dame had jumped offsides. The interception was Finley’s first since the Miami game last season. NC State would threaten again, but were stopped on 4th down inside the 10. After that drive, the Wolfpack couldn’t do much more on offense. While the loss of Nyheim Hines hurt NC State in this one, I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference as the offensive line struggled to generate a push.
Week after week, the Notre Dame defense continues to surprise me. I thought the Irish would need a strong pass rush to defend the pass well in this game, it wasn’t needed. Notre Dame’s secondary broke up pass after pass led by Julian Love, Drue Tranquill, Shaun Crawford, and Nick Watkins. The pass defense held the usually efficient Finley to just a 45% completion percentage. Additionally, the pick-six by Julian Love was a thing of beauty as he waited for a convoy and coasted his way to the end zone. Along with the secondary, linebacker Te’von Coney had another stellar outing. Coney had 9 tackles, and came up with a huge TFL on 4th down inside the 10 yard line. Since the Temple game, Coney has been incredibly consistent and is major reason why this defense has played so well.
NC State Grade: C-
Notre Dame Grade: A
After the blocked punt for a touchdown early in the first quarter, things started to feel like 2016. Allowing a blocked punt the way the Irish did is just unacceptable for a playoff contending team. While C.J. Sanders did have a 32 yard return, the Irish kickoff coverage unit struggled all afternoon. Following the Julian Love touchdown, the Irish allowed a 58 yard kickoff return. One of these days, that coverage until will haunt Notre Dame.
For the second consecutive year, NC State scored on a blocked punt against Notre Dame. Other than that, special teams didn’t have a huge impact on the game. Carson Wise never attempted a field goal, but was 2/2 on extra points. AJ Cole II had a nice game punting, averaging nearly 45 yards per boot.
Notre Dame Grade: F
NC State Grade: A-
Notre Dame picked up another impressive win over a ranked team. Clearly, the Irish have impressed the College Football Playoff Committee, as they had the Irish 3rd in their initial rankings. Contrary to what some have said, I do not believe Notre Dame controls its own destiny. While they have earned their ranking thus far, other teams will have chances to jump the Irish. Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State are the three strongest one-loss teams behind ND and each of them will be battling to look more impressive than the Irish. One of the first things Irish fans should be rooting for is for NC State to turn around and beat Clemson at home on Saturday. Additionally, an OU loss in Bedlam would knock out the Sooners. While all of this playoff talk is exciting, I should not be getting ahead of myself. Before looking at how other situations play out, Notre Dame needs to be 100% focused on their own performance.
While the Irish have looked absolutely dominant this season, there is plenty of work left to do. Obviously, Notre Dame has to go 4-0 to make the playoff, and they also have to look impressive doing it. Week in and week out there needs to be the same focus and attention to detail that has carried the Irish to this 7-1 start. It starts with Wake Forest, a team that gave Clemson a game earlier in the season and is coming off a win against Louisville. So far, it seems that Notre Dame’s roster is focused, but it may be difficult to match the intensity the Irish showed against USC and NC State. If the Irish can replicate that same mentality and high level of performance, no opponent remaining on the schedule can beat them. Slip up, even by an inch, and any of these four teams could end Notre Dame’s playoff dreams.