From the moment they ran through the tunnel to the singing of the alma mater, the Irish seniors shined, leading Notre Dame to a near-perfect 38-0 victory over Wake Forest and its first undefeated home season since 1998.
The win, coupled with losses by No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon, pushed Notre Dame to No. 1 in the BCS standings for the first time in program history.
The Irish dominated all facets of the game from start to finish, maintaining an explosive offensive attack and an unwavering defense for all four quarters, Irish coach Brian Kelly said.
“We have a paradigm for winning,” Kelly said. “It’s something we talk about actually in our locker room. It’s called four quarters of winning.
“I think that came together in this football game more than any game we’ve played this year.”
Saturday’s complete-game victory was particularly special for the Irish seniors as the 38-0 shutout victory over Wake Forest bookends the senior’s home careers that began with a 35-0 shutout win over Nevada in 2009.
“It’s just a relief for us to win in the fashion that we did, you know, just clicking on all cylinders and everybody is playing with a lot of enthusiasm and energy just on all sides of the ball and just getting after it,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said. “That’s a great way to end my career playing here in Notre Dame.”
Unlike many of their previous home games this season, the Irish controlled the game from the very beginning. After shaking its pre-game jitters, Notre Dame converted a third-and-11 from its own eight-yard line with a 24-yard strike from Irish sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to Irish senior running back Theo Riddick. On the very next play, Golson ran the quarterback option and pitched to senior running back Cierre Wood, who took it all the way to the end zone for a 68-yard score.
Then, just 74 seconds later, a big hit from Irish senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese knocked the ball loose from Deacons junior running back Josh Harris. After the recovery by another Irish senior — safety Zeke Motta — Notre Dame drove to the two-yard line before Irish senior tight end Tyler Eifert took over. While Golson’s first attempt to Eifert was off the mark, Eifert rose above his lone defender on third down to pull down his fourth touchdown of the year and put Notre Dame up 14-0 just six minutes into the game.
“That’s our number one goal before every game and that’s to start fast,” Eifert said. “Coach [Kelly] talks about it and I think that was huge to get points on the board early.”
Notre Dame continued this high-energy play through the entire first quarter. After the Irish defense forced Wake Forest to punt on its next possession, Notre Dame needed just six plays to find the end zone again. On first down from the 50-yard line, Golson rolled out to his right, threw the ball deep down the right sideline and connected with graduate student receiver John Goodman.
For Goodman, the play represented a further step in the young quarterback’s development.
“Everett through it out there and trusted in his receivers and the offensive line gave him good blocking,” Goodman said. “It was just another one of those plays that you just have to go up and get the ball, because that’s what we are taught.”
With another touchdown pass to Irish junior receiver T.J. Jones in the second quarter, Golson had a career game against Wake Forest. Despite being pulled midway through the third quarter, the sophomore signal-caller finished the day with 346 yards passing, three touchdowns and only one interception.
Compared to the start of the season, his performance Saturday reflects the incredible progress Golson has made, Irish senior offensive lineman Zack Martin said.
“Everett has grown as much as anyone on the team,” Martin said. “He came into camp very determined and has grown every game. He’s been dominant player when he’s out there. He can run, he can throw and he’s communicating so he’s doing a great job.”
On the other side of the ball, the Notre Dame defense overwhelmed the Wake Forest offense all game, holding the Deacons to just nine first downs and 209 total yards. Heading into Saturday, the Deacons realized they would face a challenge with the Irish defense, Deacons coach Jim Grobe said.
“We knew coming in we were going to have issues with their defense,” Grobe said. “Everybody has. They might be the best defensive football team in the country.
“This was just a day where Notre Dame was too much for us to handle.”
In the third quarter, Eifert caught a 15-yard pass for an Irish first down. The reception pushed Eifert’s career reception total to 129 and the senior tight end past former Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee in the program record books.
“Today we tried to get him the football, and he made incredible plays, as you know, down the field,” Kelly said. “I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.”
Then with 13:27 left in the third quarter, Kelly took a timeout to honor three other players that truly represent Notre Dame football. One by one, Irish senior defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, Motta and Te’o left the field for the last time and received an emotional ovation from 80,000 strong.
“Just magic,” Te’o said, describing the moment. “Like everything’s come full circle, [I’m] just very grateful.”
While Irish were pleased to finish off their home season undefeated, the entire team recognized the need to focus on the upcoming matchup with USC.
“Going undefeated at home is always a big deal, but we now have to get ready for USC and right now that’s the most important thing,” Lewis-Moore said.
The Irish will travel to Los Angeles to face off against the Trojans in the Coliseum next Saturday at 8 p.m.