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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Third-quarter play secures victory

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Heading into halftime Saturday, Wake Forest had done to the Irish exactly what USC did two weeks ago: Run the ball down Notre Dame's throat.

The Demon Deacons needed 22 carries to gain 90 yards, but along with the hard-nosed football came a 17-10 lead.

"I just think they executed very well," Irish coach Brian Kelly said following his team's eventual 24-17 victory. "They attacked some things and we had to make some adjustments to it."

By adjustments, Kelly meant continue a season-long trend of Notre Dame third-quarter dominance. The Irish have now outscored their opponents 63-13 in the 15 minutes following halftime, and seven of the points given up came on a USC defensive touchdown.

"We have a game plan coming in, and we execute that the first half," Irish senior captain and safety Harrison Smith said. "Judging on what they do, our coaches make adjustments. That's really where it starts — our coaches make great adjustments at halftime."

This week's adjustments led to Notre Dame holding Wake Forest to 20 rushing yards on 15 second-half carries. Meanwhile, the two-headed Irish rushing attack of junior Cierre Wood and senior Jonas Gray led the way for 105 second-half yards on 22 carries, including runs on Notre

Dame's last 11 non-victory formation offensive snaps.

"It's who we are and this football team obviously takes on an identity," Kelly said of the second half's physical nature. "When you're on the road and you're playing good competition, you have to close the game out and we did a great job closing it out running the ball."

Gray's and Wood's stats jumped thanks to Notre Dame's lead in the fourth quarter, and Wake Forest's rushing stats declined for the same reason. Yet the Deacons still ran the ball 15 times in the second half, for a disappointing 1.33 yards per carry.

Oddly enough, an adjustment geared toward slowing the Wake Forest passing attack led to the shutdown of the running game as well. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco substituted senior safety Jamoris Slaughter for sophomore linebacker Prince Shembo in an attempt to stop Deacons' sophomore quarterback Tanner Price from finding such good luck with short routes.

"We played a nickel defense pretty much the whole second half — Jamoris Slaughter went in for Prince Shembo and did a great job," Kelly said. "I thought that really helped us close down some of the bubble throws, some of the quick throws, which had been hurting us."

Slaughter's appearance as a pseudo-linebacker follows the trend of his career, where he has also started as a safety and spent significant playing time as a cornerback.

"Jamoris is just one of those guys who can kind of do it all," Smith said. "He knows everything that goes on in the defense and he knows how to play any position you put him at … He's not even the biggest safety on the team. That's his mindset. He'll make the impact, instead of be impacted."

With Slaughter slowing the pass, suddenly Notre Dame's defensive line — consisting of two freshmen and a sophomore — had time to pressure Price, and the Irish were set from there on out, according to Kelly.

"We kept the ball in front of us and didn't give up the big play," Kelly said. "We made it very difficult for Wake Frost to run, and then it became, for us, the ability to get after the quarterback, because we knew the ball was going to be thrown."

These factors — the adjustments, Slaughter and the increased presence of Gray and Wood — led to Notre Dame doing to Wake Forest in the third quarter just what the Deacons had done to the Irish in the first half: running the ball down their throats to the tune of two touchdowns.