Chicago Colleges: George Gipp

Banged-up Irish survive at Wake

November, 6, 2011

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Jimmy Newman's 42-yard field goal sailed wide right, and Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood immediately wanted the ball.

Five-minutes, 24 seconds remained. And even though Wake Forest had all three timeouts remaining, there was not a doubt in either back's mind that the Demon Deacons' luck had run out in an eventual 24-17 loss to Notre Dame.

"Definitely, definitely," Gray said. "That was the first mindset we had. The guys were doing a great job blocking on the perimeter and inside. We knew what we had to do was run the clock out, and by doing that we had to run the ball."

Wood got the first two carries, totaling 11 yards. Gray, who made his second straight start, took it from there, rushing it five straight times for 16 yards, the final carry a third-and-1 conversion that sealed the game with 1:40 left.

The Irish had let other hosts stick around in primetime games before, and they had been bitten, most notably when they struggled in short-yardage situations late in a last-second loss at Michigan. But Gray, who has improved as much as anyone during the course of the season, said the team takes on a different mentality now.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJonas Gray had 92 yards on 19 carries with a long run of 25.
"We welcome it," the senior said.

Gray finished with 92 yards on 19 carries -- again, ironically, hurting his yards per rush average in his chase of George Gipp's single-season school record of 8.1.

For that, he can blame a review that followed his 26-yard third-quarter rush into the end zone, as it got marked down at the 1, where he punched it in from two plays later for his ninth touchdown in the last six games.

That score tied things up at 17 after the Irish went into the half down seven, Wake Forest's offense keeping the banged-up defense on its toes with the elusive Tanner Price running the show.

Brian Kelly won his 14th straight November/December regular-season game, and his 20th in his last 22 tries. And he did it the hard way.

When a third-quarter flea-flicker resulted in a 54-yard interception return and eventually first-and-goal for Wake Forest, down seven in the third, Harrison Smith forced a fumble that was recovered by Gary Gray.

The next time the Demon Deacons got so close, Stephon Tuitt recorded a sack, Smith blew up a backfield pass for another loss and Newman missed from 42 yards.

Notre Dame played the majority of the game with Mike Golic Jr. at center instead of Braxston Cave, who left the game after the first play of the second quarter with an undisclosed injury. All-everything linebacker Manti Te'o "was playing on one leg," Kelly said, after the junior left Wake Forest's last drive of the third quarter before returning on the next series.

Defensive end Aaron Lynch had to leave the game on two separate occasions, further depleting an already depleted defensive line, and T.J. Jones somehow made it back after taking a vicious hit on an impressive six-yard grab early in the third quarter.

"We got a lot of guys banged up. A lot of guys banged up," Kelly said. "We'll give you a full report on that when I get a sense of, we got guys that are gonna be -- hey, listen, it's November, too. So there's gonna be some guys that come to practice on Tuesday not full-speed. But these guys are tough, they're gritty and they'll answer the bell."

Earlier, Kelly was less pleased with a question about Notre Dame's passing game. Tommy Rees finished the night 14-of-23 for 166 yards with two touchdowns and two picks.

"I mean is there a negative to everything? Is there a negative?" Kelly said. "We just won a football game, on the road. I mean, what kind of, really, what kind of question, what do you want me to say? What's the answer? We won 24 to 17 against a good football team, and you want to know what's wrong with the passing game. You know what's wrong with it? Um, the coach doesn't call good plays. How's that? There's nothing wrong with it. We're fine. We just won a good game."

It's the best game Notre Dame can win before Nov. 26, as it will face hapless Maryland and Boston College before traveling to what Kelly said will be "hopefully an undefeated Stanford team."

Kelly was later asked if he was looking forward to Stanford, and he made sure to not look ahead with two games left before the regular-season finale.

"No, no, we're on the right track," Kelly said. "We're not too far ahead. The guys know what they're playing for. We're playing for a consistent performance. We have a sign, I don't know if you know this, but we have a sign that says 'Play Like A Champion.' And to play like a champion you have to play consistently. You can't have spurts.

"Tonight was a great step in that direction, of playing on the road, against good competition, down at halftime, come back a couple of times -- that's resolve. That's toughness. That's gritty. We've been trying to build this and it's starting to come and you can see it. And that's why I'm proud of my guys tonight."

Jonas Gray running toward history

November, 2, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Wait until February to ask Tim Hinton how satisfying it is to see Jonas Gray have the kind of farewell season he is having. Right now, there are at least four games left in which the running backs coach would like to see the senior continue to improve.

"You don't have time right now, it's all critical," Hinton said of reflecting. "You feel bad about it sometimes. ... Until the NCAA tells us we can't play another second, then we're gonna improve. That's our job."

Gray has made plenty of strides up to this point, however, scoring eight touchdowns over his past five games and rushing for 502 yards this season. He made his first start of the season (second of his career) Saturday against Navy, and he is averaging 7.97 yards per carry, just shy of George Gipp's single-season Notre Dame record of 8.1.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
Matt Cashore/US PresswireJonas Gray is averaging 7.97 yards per carry this season and has eight touchdowns in his past five games.

"I know a little bit about him, not a whole lot," Gray said of Gipp, laughing. "I know quite a bit. Like, I know that he passed away -- I don't know what it was from exactly. ... And after he passed away one of the legendary coaches we had had a speech: 'Win one for the Gipper.'

"I guess I need to really check up on it."

Gray can be forgiven for mis-remembering one of the many tales of Notre Dame lore. He recognizes, however, just what it would mean to leave with a school record.

"It is crazy," he said. "Especially thinking about where I came from, where I started, and talk about breaking a record of a guy like that is just -- just breaking any type of record at Notre Dame from where I started from is pretty incredible."

In his three previous seasons, Gray had just 75 carries for 309 yards. He had fumbled four times, adding to that total when his third-and-goal carry from the 1 in the Irish's opener was stripped and returned 96 yards for a momentum-turning South Florida touchdown.

Head coach Brian Kelly challenged Gray afterward to make sure that he would be remembered for overcoming a tough start to his senior year, not be defined by it. Gray said Kelly has been in his ear since, from telling the senior before the following game at Michigan that he was pulling for him to demanding him to set the tempo as a starter before Saturday's game against Navy.

Before that contest, it hit Gray that he would have just one more game left at Notre Dame Stadium.

"It's been so much of a journey," he said. "It's had its ups and downs, its negatives and its positives, but I wouldn't change a thing. I love this university; I love everything that it stands for. I'm gonna be upset when it's all over."

But as his position coach will remind him, there's plenty of time left for things to improve or go south in an instant.

For Hinton, seeing Gray complete that journey serves as a form of validation.

"Keep coaching them; that's what our jobs are," the running backs coach said. "It's easy to coach the one who does it naturally. Everybody can do that one, right? Why do [they] need us? It's getting the other guys to get to the level they need to be. That's what coaching's all about. That's what you try to do."