On Saturday, as it has all year, Notre Dame’s 35-14 win came down to the run game. Josh Adams was Josh Adams, and the Irish’s run defense stifled NC State all afternoon, eliminating any balance from the Wolfpack’s offense and dominating the game’s second half.
Nothing about any of this should come as much of a surprise. It’s exactly what Notre Dame has done all year, but as the second half unfolds, it’s coming against better and better opponents. Adams rushing for 202 yards, as he did Saturday, is pretty par for the course—he racked up 229 yards against Boston College in September and 191 against USC last week. And Notre Dame’s defense limiting NC State on the ground wasn’t anything close to novel, either, considering the unit held USC to just 76 yards rushing last week and came into the game giving up 126.1 rushing yards per game.
But for the Irish, this season has looked like a tale of two halves since day one. Before its bye, Notre Dame’s only notable opponent was Georgia, which it lost to by one point. After it stood several surefire ranked opponents: USC, Miami, Stanford with NC State joining those ranks after a strong start. Now, two games into the Irish’s grueling second half, Notre Dame is 7-1, having dispatched two ranked opponents in the past two weeks thanks in large part to Adams and that physical run defense.
On the day, Adams racked up more than 200 yards while barely playing in the fourth quarter. He averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored a touchdown on a 77-yard breakaway run in the third quarter. His performance Saturday pushed him above 1,000 yards on the season—he now has 1,169 through eight games—and the touchdown was his ninth of the year. Though Adams still trails Stanford’s Bryce Love in most offensive categories, he mounts a more and more convincing Heisman candidacy with every game as his performance anchors Notre Dame’s offense.
On the other side of the ball, coach Dave Doeren’s team entered the game averaging a perfectly respectable 177.4 yards per game on the ground. It’s nothing flashy, but the Wolfpack had prided themselves on a balanced offense through their six-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s game. Against the Irish, NC State eked out just 50 yards on the ground—averaging 2.1 yards per carry—as its offense stalled completely in the second half and was held scoreless.
At the end of the game’s first quarter, it was a different story. The Wolfpack were outgaining the Irish, 118 yards to 81, and Notre Dame had failed to complete a third down in three tries. But Brian Kelly and company were able to adjust, scoring four unanswered touchdowns beginning with just under 10 minutes to go in the first half.
Things won’t get any easier for the Irish, whose second-half break comes next week against a Wake Forest team that beat Louisville Saturday and has enough talent to play spoiler. From there it’s off to Miami, then a game at home against Navy and finally a trip to Stanford to close out the season. We’re a long way from an 11-1 Irish team—but that outcome is becoming more and more realistic by the day. And if it does, the playoff committee will have its first independent team to contend with in Notre Dame, a team that by then will certainly have played enough talent to deserve a shot at the national title.