The Wake Forest Demon Deacons are on their way to South Bend, Indiana to see an old friend. The Deacs will spend Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium against the Fighting Irish and quarterback Sam Hartman. Back when the date for this game popped up on the schedule, it looked like a compelling match-up. Now Wake Forest is trying to salvage its season against Notre Dame, and the Irish are living in their own modest disappointment.
Hello, Old Friend
Hartman announced last November that he would not be returning to Wake Forest after five seasons there. It was widely anticipated he would be putting his name into the NFL draft, even as scouts suggested other plans. But as the Demon Deacons were beating Missouri in the Gasparilla Bowl, word was quickly matriculating through media circles that Hartman was going to enter the transfer portal.
He wound up at Notre Dame and it took no time for visions of a run at the College Football Playoffs to start dancing in the heads of the Irish faithful. At 7-3, Notre Dame will not get close to the playoffs. They will wind up with a high-value bowl game because Notre Dame in the postseason sells tickets and brings people to TV.
There are areas of Hartman’s game that have been better than when he was in Winston-Salem. And areas that have not been as good. He was a career 59% passer at Wake Forest, with a pension for big plays, big mistakes, and the self-assuredness to bounce back from bad games a week later.
At Notre Dame, he is up to a 63% completion rate, (matching what he did at Wake in 2022). But most of his other stats are in a state of flux in South Bend. His 18 touchdown passes are a little less than half of what they were last year at Wake Forest. His completions are down considerably, but so are his attempts. For all of the ballyhoo that surrounded his arrival, the Notre Dame offense simply does not rely on him as option number one for production.
Not the Solution
That would be running back Audric Estime who will hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark Saturday, (currently at 988 yards) to go with his 13 touchdowns.
Hartman also does not have the high-end wideouts that he had last year at Wake Forest. Chris Tyree is the leading receiver for the Irish and he has yet to even hit 500 yards for the season. Last year with A.T. Perry, Jahmal Banks, Donavon Greene, and others, the Deacs had five receivers each with more than 500 yards. As such, Hartman will finish this season with fewer yards than he did in either of the last two seasons at Wake Forest. Whether the move helped his draft status, as he was told by scouts last December, is very much to be determined.
The familiar part about Hartman’s season has been his struggles with Louisville, (three interceptions in the loss), and his inability to beat Clemson. In any case, Notre Dame is still better off than it would have been with Tyler Buchner (now at Alabama) or Drew Pyne (now at Arizona State).
Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson has his own quarterback storyline this week. Michael Kern is taking over the starting position from Mitch Griffis. “Michael Kern will be the starter going forward unless he gets injured,” Clawson announced earlier this week. It turns out that was the plan going all the way back to the Virginia Tech game in Blacksburg. Kern replaced Griffis in the fourth quarter but then injured his shoulder late in the game. If he had not, he would have been starting the last four games. Clawson said the change is part of his plan to see what the staff will do with the quarterback position down the road.
In limited action this season, Kern is 28 of 48 for 303 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception.
“We hope he plays really well, albeit against a very good defense,” Clawson said. “We need him to manage the offense. And we need him to get us into good football plays. And we need him to protect the football. You know, you’ve got to stop going backwards before you can go forwards.”
Notre Dame Has the Weapons
The task at hand is a very difficult one Saturday. He will be facing a Notre Dame defense that features one of the best defensive backs in the country, Xavier Watts. He is one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in the country. Watts leads the country with seven interceptions.
The job for the Wake defense of trying to get Hartman is also no small chore. The Notre Dame defense is led by tackle Joe Alt, one of the best in the country and a certain first-round draft pick in 2024. At 6-8, and 322 pounds, he is a semi-finalist for the Outland Trophy and a finalist for the Lombardi Award, both of which go to the best offensive lineman in the country.
Kern is also slated to get the start in the Syracuse game, and a bowl game, if there is one. There will be a lot of younger players getting a shot over the next two weeks to make an impression on the staff. “You’ve got to look at, with everything, is it what we’re doing or who we’re doing it with.”
At 4-6 overall, Wake Forest would need the improbable, to win two games to guarantee bowl eligibility. If they win one of the next, the Deacs are in line for a bowl game at 5-7, because there will not be enough six-plus win schools to fill all the bowl spots. So some 5-7 programs with a high Academic Progress Rate, or APR, will get invitations. Wake would be a high probability for that.