No. 10 Notre Dame 45, North Carolina State 24 — Rain delay gives Irish coaches time to pick the perfect, explosive next move

Notre Dame v NC State

Notre Dame v NC State

In a chess tournament, when two players adjourn play for a night to resume in the morning, a competitive balance is struck before leaving the table. The next move is decided upon and sealed in an envelope.

For this example, presume white was due to move before the pause. The white player writes down the intended move, seals it, and the two players go their separate ways. The black player can plan ahead, but the unknown of that next move makes every moment of prep a conditional attempt. Similarly, the white player does not know what the response will be to the sealed move. Again, scheme as wanted, but do so knowing it could all be rendered useless within moments of returning to the table the next morning.

When rain struck Raleigh on Saturday, Notre Dame was gifted an adjournment without needing to seal its next move. The No. 10 Irish (3-0) had stumbled through three possessions, kicker Spencer Shrader making the longest field goal in Notre Dame history — 54 yards, breaking Kyle Brindza’s 10-year-old record of 53, which tied Dave Reeve’s mark from 1976 — a moment to be celebrated in retrospect but one that in the moment only stood out as how far away from the end zone the Irish had stalled.

Lightning halted the game just as Notre Dame was set to begin a possession, due to move, if you will. But offensive coordinator Gerad Parker did not need to write down and seal his first-down play call. He could mull it over. The Irish could spend the rain delay knowing the next move on the board, while all the Wolfpack could do was speculate and hope to plan appropriately.

“Coaches were able to come down and talk about things we saw the first two or three drives,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said hours and hours later after the nearly two-hour delay and subsequent 45-24 win. “Then we were able to get with our players and say, ‘Okay, here are the things we’re seeing that we had not planned for.’”

The Irish dug into adjustments based on the first three drives. Given the analysts and graduate assistants on hand on college staffs nowaday, it can safely be assumed what followed bordered on an abridged game prep, one influenced by that first-hand knowledge of the opponent’s game plan.

Notre Dame had some hot dogs and brats to keep fueled, the locker room not prepared for an hour and 45-minute delay. That may have also served to pass the time, quite frankly.

And Irish offensive coordinator Gerad Parker settled on a play call.

He knew his offense had gained just 39 total yards in three possessions, averaging 2.3 yards per play. He knew his biggest gain thus far had come on a designed quarterback draw on a third-and-long, deploying unexpected blockers to pave a path for Sam Hartman when North Carolina State did not anticipate a run at all. And Parker knew a rain-soaked field was not the time to draw up something new, something his offense had not practiced.

But Freeman wanted him to be aggressive.

“All week we’re talking about how aggressive [North Carolina State is] and those things and rightfully so, that’s a good football team we faced,” Freeman said. “But I wanted our guys to have the mentality that we’re going to be just as aggressive as any team we face.”

So Parker called for an unusual offensive line alignment, one pairing preseason All-American left tackle Joe Alt with possible first- or second-round NFL draft pick right tackle Blake Fisher. It was already in the Irish game plan, but it was not something the Wolfpack would be prepping for during the lengthy interlude.

“We planned on using it coming into the game,” Freeman said. “Just giving them something they haven’t seen, see how they adjust to it.”

Junior running back Audric Estimé used those massive blockers to break free for an 80-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career. Parker could not have used the break in the game more productively.

“That was just a result of everyone staying ready, our offensive line doing their job,” Estimé said. “Coach Parker calling the right play, and then we have to stay ready, we didn’t know when we were going to play (after the rain). …

“That’s just a scary look.”

Estimé was not kidding. Its size was scary. Alt met linebacker Payton Wilson, outweighing him by 84 pounds, as Fisher blocked the defensive tackle inward, creating space for sophomore left guard Pat Coogan to pull around the line and crash into linebacker Devon Betty, Coogan winning that tilt of the scales by 71 pounds. With H-back Davis Sherwood picking up the last remaining defender in the box, linebacker Jaylon Scott who, yes, was outweighed by Sherwood by 13 pounds, all Estimé had to do was run.

Sophomore receiver Tobias Merriweather blocked his assigned defensive back so well, he effectively interfered with another’s pursuit of Estimé.

Even if Estimé was not a bit faster these days than last year, Parker’s first move out of the delay would have been a guaranteed nine- or 10-yard gain, if not closer to 20.

“Just to have [Alt and Fisher] on the same side, it gives me a little rush,” Estimé said after finishing with 134 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. “It’s something I hope we keep doing.”

It will never be as effective as when Parker sprung it on the Wolfpack; it rendered much of North Carolina State’s rain-delay, locker-room scheming outdated in the matter of 13 seconds. But it is hard to envision a coherent way for an opposing defense to load up against the Alt-Fisher combination. Even North Carolina State brought a safety up into the box, never able to engage in the play because of the path Fisher created for Alt to then create a seal.

Sam Hartman had not only not turned over the ball in a plain gold helmet, he had not even been sacked through two games. Then the Wolfpack got to him on the third snap from the Irish offense. And the third time he was sacked, Hartman coughed up the football, recovered by North Carolina State only 17 yards from the end zone.

Notre Dame’s defense rallied to the occasion, preserving a 24-17 lead as the third quarter neared its end. The Irish defense has not been pressed into quick-change duty yet this season, but its first foray went perfectly, forcing a three-and-a-missed field goal.

Hartman did not immediately redeem himself with a scoring drive, but by the time Notre Dame had again punted, it had flipped the field position back in its favor thanks to the defense bowing up. To amplify that, senior safety Xavier Watts intercepted a Brennan Armstrong pass to gift Hartman the ball only 33 yards from paydirt.

When Hartman found Sherwood for the first touchdown of Sherwood’s career, the 119th of Hartman’s career and a two-score lead, the Wolfpack would never again get within a possession.

Last season, Estimé’s longest run was just 46 yards against BYU, also his only run of longer than 30 yards. Simply enough, Estimé was not fast enough to run away from defenders. He set to changing that in the summer and now seems to view his bettered speed as merely a reality.

When he logged a 50-yard run last week, Estimé decided to aim for 60 yards this week.

“Let’s add 10 on that,” he said.

He added 30.

follow @d_farmer

Leave a Comment