SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame got one first-place vote in the coaches’ poll last Sunday — head coach Brian Kelly’s.
Against Wake Forest, the Fighting Irish reinforced his faith in his team.
Everett Golson threw three touchdown passes and Cierre Wood scored on a 68-yard run as No. 3 Notre Dame beat Wake Forest 38-0 Saturday to finish the season undefeated at home for the first time since 1998 and keep its national championship hopes alive.
“I told them tonight I’m proud of them,” Kelly said. “I voted them No. 1 for a reason, because I think they’re the best team in the country. I think they played like that tonight.”
Kelly, who saw his 12-0 Cincinnati team left out of the BCS title game in 2009, said he has no doubt his 11-0 team deserves to play for the championship if they win the season finale at Southern California. That’s all he wants his players focused on, he said.
“They cannot do anything else but beat USC,” Kelly said. “The rest is up to other people to decide.”
The reality of that situation is either Oregon or Kansas State — the top two teams in the BCS rankings and, separately, the AP Top 25 — will likely have to lose for Notre Dame to get a place in the championship.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe seemed to think the Irish have as much right as anybody to be there.
“No question about it. But maybe a couple of others should be, too. That’s kind of the deal right now,” Grobe said. “I can’t imagine anybody from what I saw today playing any better than Notre Dame. But I think there are some other really, really good teams. They impressed me today. I think there as good as any team in the country.”
Wood got the Irish moving with his 68-yard burst on the game’s fourth play. Three plays later, Wake tailback Josh Harris caught a 13-yard pass but fumbled after a hard hit by Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese and safety Zeke Motta recovered. Harris, Wake Forest’s leading rusher, didn’t play the rest of the game because of a head injury.
Golson kept the Irish going with his best passing game of the season. He threw three touchdown passes of 50, 34 and 2 yards in the first half.
Fourteen of his 17 first-half completions led to first downs as the Irish opened a 31-0 halftime lead. He finished with 346 yards on 20 of 30 passing with one interception.
Wood rushed for 150 yards on 11 carries and Tyler Eifert had six catches, giving him 130 for his career, breaking the school record of 128 set by Ken MacAfee in 1977.
The Irish improved to 11-0 for the first time since 1989 and need to beat USC to finish a regular season undefeated for the first time since 1988, the last time they won a national championship. The Demon Deacons (5-6) fell to 1-33 all-time against top 5 teams.
The victory virtually assures the Irish of a berth in a BCS game, even if it’s not the title matchup.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, draped in leis after playing his final game at Notre Dame Stadium and handing out candy to anyone within reach, wasn’t ready to make his argument that the Irish deserve to be in the title game.
“If we don’t beat USC, there is no need to say whether you deserve it or not,” he said. “You have to beat USC first. You can ask me that question after.”
The Irish dominated on both sides of the ball, outgaining the Deacons 584 yards to 209. It was the first shutout for the Irish since a 35-0 win over Nevada in the season-opener in 2009 and their first shutout against a major conference team since a 42-0 victory over Rutgers in 2002.
“They jumped on us quick, got momentum, kept momentum rolling, and when the defense can’t stop them, it’s hard for the offense to really play hard,” Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock said.
Tanner Price was 22 of 33 passing for 153 yards for Wake Forest with his longest pass for 16 yards. The Irish held the Demon Deacons to 55 yards rushing as Wake Forest dropped to 1-4 on the road this season.
“They were where they needed to be and they just force you to execute,” Tanner said. “Obviously we weren’t able to do that today.”
After posting a 17-16 record at home the past five seasons, the Irish victory Saturday improved their record at Notre Dame Stadium to 6-0 this year. But this was the first time they made it look easy. The Irish needed overtime to beat Stanford, triple overtime to beat Pittsburgh and won the three other home games by a combined 13 points.
“We put it all together and played a complete game today,” left tackle Zack Martin said.
Many Notre Dame students showed their respect by wearing yellow leis to honor Te’o, who is from Hawaii and who has played a key role in the Irish resurgence. Te’o, senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and senior safety Zeke Motta left to standing ovations with 13 minutes left.
“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense. They have been obviously the rock. They’ve carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively,” Kelly said. “It just seemed to me to be a pretty good gesture to allow us to honor those seniors.”
When Notre Dame went 11-0 in 1989, the Irish were beaten by Miami in the regular season finale and finished the season ranked No. 2 behind the Hurricanes.
The last time the Irish headed to Los Angeles to play Southern Cal undefeated was a year earlier, in 1988, when the squad coached by Lou Holtz beat the second-ranked Trojans 27-10 en route to the school’s last national championship.
Te’o said that’s the only focus now.
“I don’t care about anything else but winning and being part of this team,” he said. “And now we have to work on USC, and beating USC.”
Credit: The Associated Press.