The curtain calls came early Saturday night in South Bend.
Senior Cierre Wood started Notre Dame's 38-0 win with a long touchdown run.
No. 3 Notre Dame dismantled Wake Forest 38-0 in its final home game of the regular season to reach 11-0 for the first time in 23 years. One minute into the fourth quarter of the game long since decided, Irish coach Brian Kelly called time out to salute the seniors that brought them there.
“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense,” he said. “They have been, obviously, the rock. They've carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively.”
Notre Dame pitched its first shutout since the 2009 season opener against Nevada, the first time senior captains Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o played in an Irish uniform. The goose egg brought Notre Dame’s season average down to 10.1 points against per game, the lowest in the country, but it was the Irish offense that stole the show against Wake Forest (5-6).
Three seniors scored in Notre Dame’s most productive first quarter of the season to sap any drama surrounding its chances to stay unbeaten and in the hunt for a national championship bid. The offense and rookie quarterback Everett Golson took another step forward by showing for the first time an ability to consistently take big leaps down the field.
Senior running back Cierre Wood drew first blood just four plays into the game with a 68-yard touchdown run. Wood took an option pitch from Golson and ran untouched until he reached the goal line on the longest run of the year for Notre Dame. He ended the game with a team-high 150 yards on 11 carries.
“Cierre continues to do the job we ask him to do. He ran North and South, which is the one thing that he's continued to work on as a football player. He's getting better,” Kelly said.
Wood broke a 20-yard run on Notre Dame’s next possession, barreling to within a yard of the end zone to set up a Tyler Eifert touchdown catch. Kelly dialed up two jump ball plays to Eifert in a row and on the second one he bodied the Wake Forest cornerback and hung on to the ball as he fell out of the back of the end zone.
John Goodman continued the senior sendoff with a 50-yard touchdown catch to cap an impressive first quarter. Golson nearly tripped on a play action fake but steadied himself in time to see Goodman breaking free behind the Demon Deacons secondary.
“Everett played the best game of his life and it just shows how much he's grown as a person and as a player,” said Goodman, who has scored three times on six receptions this season.
Golson threw for a career-high 346 yards and completed 20 of his 30 passes before bowing out midway through the third quarter in his best performance to date. His one mistake was an ill-advised pass that was intercepted in the end zone by Wake’s Allen Ramsey. The rookie launched a pass off his back foot to a triple-covered Robby Toma. He admitted after the game that he only threw the ball to try to get Toma, another senior, into the end zone.
Notre Dame’s seniors on defense contributed to the fast start as well. Inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese delivered a ball-jarring blow to Wake Forest running back Josh Harris on the Demon Deacons’ third play of the game. The hit caused a fumble, recovered by fellow senior Zeke Motta, and also knocked Harris out of the game.
Wake Forest struggled to move the ball with its leading rusher on the sideline. They ran for 55 yards against Notre Dame’s tough front seven and never really threatened to score while being outgained 584-209 in total.
“That hurt us,” head coach Jim Grobe said about losing Harris. “I thought one of the things we needed to try to do is hang in there in the first half, and we got too far behind and that certainly didn't help.”
Notre Dame took its foot off the gas in the second half — “They took it easy on us,” Grobe said. The Irish went into the locker room with a 31-0 lead after TJ Jones broke wide open on a 34-yard touchdown catch and Kyle Brindza added a 25-yard field goal. Sophomore George Atkinson III added a nine-yard score in the third quarter and both coaches emptied their benches in the fourth.
Notre Dame’s seniors were free to enjoy their last quarter at home from the sidelines. Kelly’s timeout gave his three starters on defense — Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta, a chance to wave goodbye to the Irish crowd one at a time.
“Just magic,” Te’o said describing his farewell. “Like everything’s come full circle.”
Kelly lauded his seniors’ ability to keep the emotions and distractions of Senior Day from affecting their play. The Irish played their most focused game of the year against Wake Forest. The 38-point blowout was a stark contrast from the first five wins in South Bend this season, when Notre Dame squeaked away with a combined margin of victory of 25 points.
“They were loose,” Kelly said. “They were relaxed and excited about the game. We had talked about it all week, playing with enthusiasm and let the emotions happen after the game. You could see the focus in all of our seniors. I had a great sense and feel that they were ready to play, and they were not going to be denied today.”
Now only one game stands between Notre Dame and its first unbeaten season in a quarter century. The 11-0 Irish travel to Los Angeles next week to play archrival USC, who suffered another deflating loss Saturday against UCLA. The potential for a trip to Miami and the national championship game adds juice to an already hyped game and turned the conversation forward quickly following the Irish’s dismantling of Wake Forest.
“Not only is it the last game," Te'o said. "It’s a game where we can actually do something and take this program to a pace it hasn’t been in a long time.”