The mission of the Notre Dame football team this weekend when it plays Wake Forest is fairly simple: Beat the Demon Deacons, finish the season with an unbeaten home record and stay in the hunt to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
“It’s a point in the season where you know what to expect,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “You know how to prepare (and) how to do the things necessary to get yourself to Saturday.”
The Fighting Irish have got themselves to and come out of 10 Saturdays with victories this season. Kelly said on Thursday at his post-practice media session that he felt as good as he ever has about how his team looked in preparation for a game.
Wake Forest’s mission is fairly clear this weekend as well, but the degree of difficulty is a few notches higher. The Demon Deacons (5-5) are visiting Notre Dame Stadium for the first time as they look to play the role of spoiler to ND’s unblemished campaign.
“I don’t think the role of spoiler is big on the players’ minds, or at least it shouldn’t be,” 12th-year Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said this week. “I think certainly you’d be a spoiler if you got to sneak up there and get a win, but just player Notre Dame is going to have your kids pumped-up.”
Kelly’s approach all year has been for his team to keep the blinders on; stay focused on the process of the opponents and avoid getting too high or too low based on the opponent. Grobe knows his squad has to have that approach as well against the Irish this Saturday.
“One of our things is trying not to be too pumped-up,” Grobe said of his team’s emotions. “I thought that we were against Clemson and started out really slowly – just kind of flying around and not really focusing on our keys. I think it’s important to be pumped-up and excited and it would be fun to play the role of spoiler, but I think more than anything we need to take care of Wake Forest and go play good football.”
That refrain should sound familiar to anyone who has listened to or read Brian Kelly’s thoughts on “the process” and staying consistent from week to week. While the Irish are 10-0, they have not won in completely dominating fashion since a dominating 41-3 smack down of Miami six weeks ago.
With the BCS rankings as tight as they are (Notre Dame sits just .0101 behind Oregon for the coveted second spot this week) the issue of “style points” has come into play after what many consider to be lackluster wins over Pitt and Boston College the last two weeks. However, not only does Kelly not discuss the need to win with style with his team, he also doesn’t broach the subject of cautioning his team against trying to look too good.
“I don’t talk about it,” he said emphatically after Thursday’s practice. “Maybe they get together and they talk about it, but it’s never a conversation that we have, nor do I want to bring it up, because we’re not constructed to even talk about it in those terms. We’ve never had conversations about how we should look. We only talk about how we should prepare.”
That day to day preparation and focus has probably been the difference for the Irish in their close games this season, as well as their 30-13 win over Oklahoma that was still a tie game with 13 minutes to play. Wake Forest does not have the same level of talent as the Irish, but they will look to rely on their own preparation this weekend as well.
“This week we’ve really been stressing about having good practices every day,” Demon Deacon fullback Tommy Bohanon said. “What we need to do to win games is to have crisp practices every day. If we practice full out then I feel like we’ll be ready to go up there (to Notre Dame) and compete with them.”
Bohanon, a senior, is a fullback with soft hands. He is yet to rush the ball this season, but he has 20 receptions for 182 yards and five receiving touchdowns. He has 16 receptions for 126 yards in Wake’s last six games.
The Wake Forest fullback is likely to get up close and personal with Irish linebacker Manti Te’o more than once on Saturday. Te’o, who was named a Bronco Nagurski Award finalist and Lott IMPACT Trophy semifinalist this week, will be playing the last home game of his illustrious career on Saturday and will look to put that emotion aside on game day.
“It’s going to be emotional,” Te’o said this week of his final Notre Dame Stadium experience. “We understand that. For all of us, all the seniors and our families. But we understand that we still have to play the game. Although it’s going to be emotional, we have got to rise together and make sure we take care of business at the end of the day.”
While Te’o and his senor teammates will have to choke back any potential final home game sadness, Wake Forest players must overcome any possible nerves from the “mystique” of playing for the first time at Notre Dame.
“It’s all mental,” Wake Forest safety A.J. Marshall said when asked about avoiding nerves at Notre Dame Stadium. “Once you get that first little bit of contact I feel like we get relaxed. Whether it’s the first catch, first block or first touchdown you really start to get comfortable and get acquainted to the game.”
Bohanan expects his own instincts to take over once the game begins as well, but he is ready for a hostile environment when his team is on offense on Saturday
“(Coach Grobe) knows and he’s told us that it’s going to be a crazy environment,” Bohanon said. “You have to think of the craziest stadium that you’ve played in and it’s going to be something like that. Like going down to Death Valley (Clemson for ACC fans, although LSU is also referred to with the same moniker) or something like that. It’s going to be even more crazy than that and that’ what coach Grobe told us.”
Grobe has Notre Dame Stadium experience. He was an assistant at Air Force from 1984-1994 and visited the old Notre Dame Stadium five times – all Falcon losses.
“It’s an amazing place,” Grobe complimented of one of the most historic venues in all of college football. “It just feels like what football should be. It will be a great experience for our players. That’s why we wanted to play Notre Dame.”
“Now I didn’t know we were going to end up playing them three times. I thought we were going to play them one time in South Bend, but we’re going to get a couple shots in the next three years. It’s a fantastic place to play. Our players will sense that it’s what football is about.”
Notre Dame escaped Wake Forest with a 24-17 win in Winston-Salem last year in front of the fourth-largest crowd in BB&T Field history. The Irish had a pair of turnovers in that game and narrowly outgained the Deacs 341-297 in total offense. Grobe believes playing that game will help his team this year, but he also knows they will see a much improved 2012 Irish squad.
“(We are) playing a much better Notre Dame team than we played last year,” Grobe said of the unbeaten Irish. “(It is) a team that is improved in taking care of the football offensively and the defense is much better; one of the tops in the country. They do a great job on special teams. This is a different Notre Dame team and playing at their place will make it tougher.”
Notre Dame has made it a mission to make their home stadium a tougher place for opponents to visit and they look to finish that mission with an eighth consecutive home win this Saturday.