RALEIGH — Saturday’s game at Notre Dame won’t be the most important the NC State football team plays during the 2017 regular season.
That will happen next week when defending national champion Clemson comes to Carter-Finley Stadium for a battle that in all likelihood, will determine the ACC Atlantic Division title.
But it will still be special when the 14th-ranked Wolfpack takes on the ninth-ranked Irish in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome.
NC State at Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind. | Saturday, 3:30 p.m. | NBC
And not just because it’s the next game on the schedule.
“Regardless of the conference,” coach Dave Doeren said. “Beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame, if they’re in the top 10, matters.”
If there’s anyone who knows about the Notre Dame mystique and the significance of playing the Irish in South Bend, it’s Doeren.
He began hearing about it from his earliest days in Shawnee, Kan.
“I grew up in a Catholic home, going to Catholic church and that was part of the Sunday conversation,” the State coach said. “Every week it was the Notre Dame score, so I grew up brainwashed there, probably, with Lou Holtz as their head coach and a lot of great players that I got to watch. I really look forward to playing this game.”
This is the second straight year the Wolfpack has played the Irish, but Doeren said that last season’s game was different because it was played in Raleigh.
In a hurricane, no less, on a submerged field better suited for a swim meet than football.
The conditions and the venue aren’t the only differences between that game — a 10-3 State victory — and Saturday’s rematch. Not only are both teams significantly better than they were in 2016, but Notre Dame has completely reinvented its identity on offense.
Whereas last year’s team relied heavily on the passing of quarterback DeShone Kizer, who went on to become a second-round pick of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, this current Irish team is built around a power running game fueled by a massive line and the ball carrying duo of Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush.
Adams is averaging 138 rushing yards per game and is second in the nation with an average of 9.2 yards per carry. Wimbush, a dual-threat quarterback, is second on the team at 84.7 yards per game with 10 touchdowns, to go along with his eight touchdowns through the air.
Because of the difference in the Irish’s style, Doeren said he hasn’t bothered watching the tape of last year’s game as part of this week’s preparation.
“Coach (Brian) Kelly deserves a lot of credit,” Doeren said. “He made some tough decisions and staff changes and done a great job.
“When we played them last year they couldn’t run the football. They tried to throw it in the rain and all that stuff.”
Notre Dame comes into Saturday’s game ranked sixth nationally in rushing offense at 317.9 yards per game. Conversely, State is ranked No. 6 in rushing defense, allowing an average of just 91.3 yards.
It’s a strength-against-strength clash that has Doeren almost as fired up as he is about having the chance to play at Notre Dame Stadium.
“That’s a great heavyweight battle right there,” Doeren said. “They’ve got four senior offensive linemen, we’ve got four senior defensive linemen. … I’m excited just to watch the line of scrimmage in this game. As a football coach, it’s no secret that I love that part of the game. It’s going to be a great battle within the game.”
As excited as Doeren might be, he knows better than to get too caught up in the moment — or to get caught looking ahead to that potential championship showdown with Clemson next week.
He said the experience he gained with a Northern Illinois team that reeled off 12 straight wins following a season opening loss in 2012 will help him keep his current squad locked in on the task at hand as it tries to pull off a similar accomplishment.
“You kind of get in a groove and you get a feel for the guys,” Doeren said. “You focus on what has brought them the success they’ve had.
“People are chasing you instead of you chasing them, so what you have to focus on is not letting them catching you. You do that by improving weekly. Like I told them, we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to be better. That’s all we have to do.”