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Notre Dame insider Laken Litman recaps the Irish’s win over the Wolfpack.
Laken Litman/IndyStar

SOUTH BEND – If you thought Notre Dame was going to win a close game on Saturday, you probably weren’t the only one.

It looked that way to begin. North Carolina State blocked a Notre Dame punt for a touchdown early in the first quarter, giving Fighting Irish déjà vu after an eerily similar play clinched a victory for the Wolfpack in 2016. It was a one-score game at halftime.

But the 10th-ranked Irish showed why they belong in the College Football Playoff discussion, crushing the No. 15 Wolfpack 35-14. It was the second-consecutive top 15 opponent Notre Dame has completely dismantled in as many weeks, and the third win over a program potentially contending for a Power 5 conference championship.

Here are three reasons why Notre Dame won:

Josh Adams, again

Running back Adams has successfully inserted himself further into the Heisman Trophy discussion after rushing for 202 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries — against the nation’s sixth-best rushing defense. He was the first opponent to run for 100 yards against the Wolfpack all season. The previous best individual performance came from Marshall’s Keion Davis and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who both ran for 73 yards. He also became the quickest back in Notre Dame history to reach 1,000 yards in a season, clinching the mark Saturday on his 110th carry of the season: a 35-yard rush that set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

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Adams ran for 202 yards and a touchdown.
Laken Litman/IndyStar

His explosive 77-yarder late in the third quarter was his seventh play for 60 yards or more this season and fourth for 70 yards or more.

Adams’ Heisman hype may have been premature before this week. Sure he was the nation’s sixth-best back, averaging 138.1 yards per game on 9.21 yards per carry. But he was unable to run the ball successfully against the best defensive lines Notre Dame had faced up to this point: Adams ran for 53 yards against Georgia (No. 4 rushing defense) and 56 yards against Michigan State (No. 8). He proved worthy of being in the conversation with his performance against N.C. State — which has several potential first-round NFL draft picks, like Bradley Chubb, in its defensive front.

Notre Dame finished with 318 rushing yards against a defense previously holding opponents to 91.2 rushing yards per game.

Progress in passing game

Earlier this week, Brandon Wimbush was informed that he had tied the school rushing touchdown record for a quarterback (10 scores). Seemingly unimpressed with himself, the quarterback asked, “Who has the most passing? I want to go for that one.”

Wimbush is still pretty far away from reaching that goal, but he threw some beautiful balls against the Wolfpack that were indicative of the progress he’s made in the passing game.

There might be no better example than the eight-play, 60-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter that put the Irish up 21-14 — and for good.

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The Irish knocked off the Wolfpack 35-14 Saturday.
Laken Litman/IndyStar

On the first play, Wimbush looked 60 yards deep for No. 1 receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, but he didn’t catch it after cornerback Jonathan Alston interfered. Wimbush fed Adams to move down the field, but it was his final two plays of the drive that impressed. The first was an 11-yarder to Durham Smythe, who did his best ballerina impersonation to make the catch on his tippy toes to keep both feet in bounds and move the chains. Then Wimbush found Kevin Stepherson — who made a one-handed, one-footed grab — for 11 yards in the back right corner of the end zone to put the Irish up by seven before halftime.

Wimbush finished 10-of-19 for 104 yards and two touchdowns, including 21 yards rushing and another score with his legs. He’ll likely still be frustrated by his passing numbers — and he still has growing to do — but the improvement is showing.

Defense doesn’t break

Heading into this matchup, N.C. State had only turned the ball over four times this season, the least in the country. That stat changed early in the third quarter. Center Garrett Bradbury snapped the ball early to try and catch Notre Dame’s defensive line offside — but they weren’t — and the entire Wolfpack line froze in place. Quarterback Ryan Finley rolled out and looked for receiver Jalan McClendon, but was intercepted by Julian Love, who returned the ball 69 yards for a touchdown. It was his second interception returned for a touchdown this season after doing the same thing against Michigan State.

Notre Dame has now scored 101 points off 18 turnovers this season. The Irish had 14 turnovers in 12 games last year.

Love also had three pass break-ups — one on a Hail Mary to end the first half — and now has 11 this season.

As a unit, the defense held the Wolfpack to seven points — the other seven came on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the first quarter. This stacks up right for a group that came into Saturday as the No. 12 scoring defense, holding opponents to 16.6 points per game.

The turning point for Mike Elko’s crew came early in the third quarter after Notre Dame extended its lead to 28-14. Finley drove the Wolfpack 35 yards into the red zone — but Notre Dame is ranked sixth nationally in red zone touchdown percentage efficiency, allowing opponents to score touchdowns only 39 percent of the time.  

With top running back Nyheim Hines out with an ankle injury, N.C. State needed someone else to step up here. A Finley fumble put the Wolfpack in a third-and-17 situation and Drue Tranquill broke up a 16-yard pass intended for Kelvin Harman. Then Te’von Coney — who currently leads the Irish with 59 tackles — and freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa combined to stuff Reggie Gallaspy for a 1-yard loss.

Notre Dame held N.C. State to 260 total yards, 50 rushing and 5-of-15 on third down. The Wolfpack were only able to average 4.3 yards per play — compared to the Irish’s 6.0 ypp — which is below their average of 6.3.

More: Josh Adams runs over N.C. State, into Heisman Trophy conversation

Doyel: Notre Dame football punishes N.C. State, surges toward College Football Playoff conversation

 

Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Laken Litman on Twitter and Instagram: @lakenlitman.