NOTRE DAME, Ind. — As far as debuts go, Brandon Wimbush’s will suffice. He had said all he wanted to do was sing the Alma Mater after a victory. The junior quarterback got to enjoy that.
A few minutes later, Wimbush said that moment with his teammates was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Presumably Wimbush meant as much figuratively because Notre Dame is scheduled to play six more home games this season and each one of those is another theoretical opportunity to stand in front of the student section singing that song.
The slippage of phrasing was not Wimbush’s first mistake of the day, though. He mixed those in with his successes. The latter set — the 290 combined yards and three touchdowns, the long run of 24 yards and the long pass of 34 — will gain more notoriety moving forward. Deservedly so, such are the riches that come with victory.
“When you assess the quarterback position at the end of the day, they are going to assess him on wins and losses and today was a good day for the quarterback at Notre Dame because we are 1-0,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Notre Dame’s 49-16 win over Temple on Saturday. “… For a guy starting for the first time, he provided some excitement and energy to the offense.”
Wimbush also provided some lost breaths and furrowed, concerned eyebrows. Such are the perils that come with a young, dual-threat quarterback.
“There will be things that we’ve got to clean up there, certainly,” Kelly said. For example, Wimbush threw a pass toward junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown in the fourth quarter. Possibly from the moment Wimbush took the snap, he intended to throw to St. Brown. He did not try well enough to hide that plan from the Owls secondary, particularly from cornerback Mike Jones, who Wimbush admitted to not seeing. (The grammatical error in the usage of who is intentional in this one instance.)
“The interception, he’s got to key the corner. The corner came off, lagged,” Kelly said. “But [Wimbush is] telling me on the way back, ‘I’ve got to keep my eyes on the corner.’ He ends the conversation pretty quickly with me.
“I love that about him. Very coachable and we’ll get better and he’ll be better next week.”
A better Wimbush could spell trouble for coming opponents. Temple coach Geoff Collins said he thought they were ready for whatever the Irish quarterback would bring to the table. For the most part, the Owls defense stuck to its assignments, but Wimbush found a way around them.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Notre Dame and first-time starter junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush felt any nerves in Saturday’s season opener, a brilliantly-quick start eased them in the 49-16 victory over Temple. The Irish found the end zone three times in the first quarter alone, a feat matched only twice a year ago (the second quarter vs. Nevada and the first quarter vs. Army). By the end of the first half, the lead was a comfortable 28-10, the closest the Owls would get the rest of the afternoon.
Immediately following the game in an on-field interview broadcast on the new video board, Wimbush admitted he spent most of the day trying to stay calm for his debut.
“Before the game, I had a lot of nerves.”
Those nerves didn’t show on the very first play from scrimmage, when Wimbush followed a play-action fake with a 33-yard completion to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.
“That was good. That was great, actually,” Wimbush said. “It helped a lot, just to get my nerves, and then [St. Brown] made it easy, ran a great route for me. … The first play was huge for my confidence.”
A play later, junior running back Josh Adams broke through the left side of the line — in no small part thanks to a block from senior center Sam Mustipher — to score from 37 yards out. Only 33 seconds into the game, Notre Dame was leading and had twice shown big play capabilities.
“As an offense, we play fast, we want to dominate the line of scrimmage, we want to be aggressive coming out,” Adams said. “That’s what we want to do as an offensive unit, score fast and get points on the board as fast as we can so the defense can get the ball back and give it to us.”
Adams finished the day with 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Wimbush added 106 yards and a touchdown on the ground to complement his 184 yards and two touchdowns through the air, including a five-yard pass to St. Brown, part of his four-catch, 80-yard afternoon. Junior Dexter Williams took 12 carries for 106 yards and a score. Sophomore running back Tony Jones also found the end zone on a seven-yard rush.
Adams, Williams and Wimbush are, as far as anyone in the Notre Dame Stadium press box could determine, the first Irish trio to each run for at least 100 yards in a game since 1954, if not even longer ago than that.
PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
The opening two-play sequence, three plays if counting the near-miss of a kickoff return immediately preceding them, may have been a simple sequence, but the definitive start set Saturday’s tone and showed what the offense was going to do the rest of the afternoon.
Obviously the follow-up question will be if the offense can continue to do it against a stouter defense a week from now, but only time will reveal that answer.
The combination provided a tangible example of much of what Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long looks to do with the offense. St. Brown was tackled out of bounds and immediately got up running to hand the ball to an official to expedite getting the line set. Notre Dame’s tempo was not lightning quick — there was time for a full replay from NBC, but only barely — but it was notable, nonetheless.
Long used the threat of a run to set up the pass to St. Brown, and then he relied on the strength of the left side of the offensive line to open a hole for the dynamic Adams. From there, Adams showed exactly what he has shown for the past two seasons and made a play.
This version of the offense will be tough for any defense to stop. By showing itself literally at the outset, nerves were eased and a rout was commenced.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Very clearly, Adams’ stats stand out. His performance caught the attention of Temple head coach Geoff Collins, too.
“[Adams] will probably go down as one of the great running backs of this school and that’s probably saying a lot,” Collins said.
Adams indeed received the game ball from Irish coach Brian Kelly, but his intentions for it show where the “Player of the Game” nod should really go. Adams said the game ball went to the entire offensive unit and would remain in the offensive line room.
That is not to say the five-man (actually, six-man, but we’ll get to that later tonight or maybe tomorrow) offensive line unit deserves the nod. It is to say the entire running game deserves it.
“It wasn’t just one individual,” Adams said. “It was everybody who contributed to a game like that.”
Notre Dame finished with 429 rushing yards on only 42 carries, an average of 10.2 yards per attempt. (As always in this space, sacks and yardage lost to them have been removed from the rushing statistics.) The Irish gained 16 first downs on the ground, including the five touchdowns.
If Long had decided to give Wimbush an abundance of experience and insisted on throwing the ball all of the second half, the Notre Dame day on the ground would still have been impressive, having gained 207 yards in the first half alone. Only twice last season did the Irish top that figure in an entire game. Fittingly, the two games are the same two mentioned earlier in terms of scoring three touchdowns in one quarter, Nevada (239 rushing yards) and Army (261).
STAT OF THE GAME
This is a simple one: Notre Dame went six-for-six for six touchdowns when it entered the red zone Saturday.
“[It’s] just our mentality when we get down there,” Wimbush said. “[Long is] hard on smelling the end zone while we’re down there. … To be six-for-six, that’s a great stat. I didn’t know that. We’ve been harping on that for the past eight months.”
QUOTE OF THE EVENING
It was an offseason of criticism, questions and perhaps even doubt. Come Saturday morning, though, Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian reminded Notre Dame whom and what fall weekends are for.
“We had a full-team special teams meeting this morning,” graduate student senior left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “Coach Polian addressed us and said the winter belonged to [strength and conditioning coordinator Matt] Balis, and the spring and the summer belonged to coach Balis. The fall camp belongs to the coaches.
“Saturdays in the fall belong to the players. We’re excited about that opportunity.”
LAUGH OF THE EVENING
Adams was asked how he thought next week’s opponent, Georgia, would react to now seeing Notre Dame has a strong running attack.
“On offense you can either run or pass, so it’s one or the other,” Adams responded. “I don’t know much about that.”
WHO? Notre Dame vs. Temple. The Irish finished 4-8 last season while the Owls went 10-4 to win the American Athletic Conference.
WHAT? The season opener for both teams will either allow Notre Dame a chance to finally move past the 2016 debacle or give Temple great reason to believe it can repeat as conference champions in coach Geoff Collins’ debut season.
WHEN? 3:30 p.m. ET. For those students already studying abroad in London, that will be 8:30 p.m. Admittedly, kickoff will be a little bit after the mid-hour chime. Estimate that delay at 12 minutes.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you are not among that crowd, tune in to NBC. If not near a television, head to http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/. Oh, you’re not going to be at a computer, then try the NBC Sports App on your handy mobile device.
WHY? An idealist would tell you this is what is done in the United States on fall Saturdays, especially when the temperature is in the low-70s and the sun is shining, as is expected at Notre Dame today. A cynic would quote two definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” —
ACADEME, n. An ancient school were morality and philosophy were taught. ACADEMY, n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.
A Notre Dame fan would tell you it has been 280 days since the Irish played and 294 days since they won a game.
My father has only a passing interest in sports. He proudly boasts an accomplished high school basketball coach once told him, “You have the sports IQ of a rock.” My father did not realize his acumen deserved so much praise.
In my namesake’s defense, he has made it to 29 MLB parks, including three alone occupied by the Minnesota Twins. (My count remains at 23, but I am crafting a plan to notch both Camden Yards and Nationals Park in 10 months.) This past January, he joined me in a hotel room to watch the Australian Open men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While the action unfolded in Melbourne, Australia, we were in Melbourne, Fla., where the sun had not yet even considered rising. He understood what he was watching, though he needed me to offer some context as to why I would wake up to watch tennis. (I was actually getting some National Signing Day prep out of the way before that Sunday’s wedding festivities began.)
My father is aware enough to realize he does not know sports. He is not one to offer analysis out of turn. He does not lecture about the way things were, at least not in this aspect of the world. He has never offered a prediction my ears have heard.
However, his definition of a potent offense could not be simpler, and I have long felt it holds up. “If you want to or need to gain one yard, you gain that one yard, every time.”
His definition of a strong defense runs expectedly contrary to that. “If you need to stop them from gaining one yard, you stop them from gaining that one yard, every time.”
To put those thoughts into pertinent context, Notre Dame had a strong defense against Stanford in 2012 even though the Cardinal gained 171 rushing yards on 36 carries (having already removed sacks from these statistics, per usual in this space). The Irish defense may have given up 4.75 yards per rush, but when it needed to stop Stanford, it did, in no small part thanks to defensive tackle Louis Nix.
A couple years earlier, running back Robert Hughes provided a potent offense in the 2010 victory over USC despite rushing for only 69 yards. When Notre Dame absolutely needed to score, Hughes rushed for 36 of the final 40 yards on the game-winning touchdown drive with only two-plus minutes remaining.
Statistics hardly tell the story of a game. They might shed some light later on in looking back at a game never watched, but they will still miss what actually happened. Context is too big a factor. Even my father recognizes that. (more…)
‘The best-prepared team’ Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly has had in a long time
The week started with questions about the eligibility of certain Notre Dame players heading into Saturday’s season opener against Temple, and it ended with the same. With or without those individuals, though, Irish coach Brian Kelly feels a comfort level with this current team he has not enjoyed in a while.
For one thing, Notre Dame seems to be healthy entering the season. If nothing else, preseason practice did not contribute any injuries beyond junior tight end Alizé Mack needing to rest his hamstring for a few days and sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn spraining his neck during a fluke mishap in a tackling drill. (Senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage remains out for this year, and possibly for his career, due to the lingering effects of concussions and junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor has not yet fully recovered from a Lisfranc fracture suffered in spring practice.)
“I hate to even talk about it, but the preparation has been as good as I’ve had as a head coach in all facets,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s why I’m excited and really looking forward to watching this group play.”
Kelly then described the Irish as “the best-prepared team that I’ve had in a long time.”
Some of that preparation comes from the redesigned strength and conditioning program Notre Dame implemented this offseason. Those changes were not simply alterations to the weightlifting schedule. Rather, they included more-specific lifts, GPS tracking during practice and mental performance training.
Kelly also credited a change in practice focuses.
“Splitting the technical with the tactical. In other words, there’s a time to work on technique and there’s a time to work on game planning,” he said. “We’ve done a really good job of parceling those out so our players know when we’re working on game plan and when we’re working on technique.”
Now then, eligibility …
Notre Dame has appealed the NCAA’s denial of immediate eligibility for sophomore safety Alohi Gilman following his transfer from Navy. Kelly did not have an exact timeline for the appeal.
“They gave us a sense of how they put the committee together,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to be something that would take a long time.”
It does not appear sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson will likely see action Saturday either, though he will at least be in uniform on the sideline. When asked specifically if Stepherson is suspended, Kelly did not explicitly answer.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our players relative to what my expectation are,” he said. “They have to meet expectations, and everybody is under the same guidelines. He’s working at it and he’s getting better.”
Freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer will also not be in the mix this weekend, but he should be by the end of September. Previously, the Irish coaching staff had planned on Doerer handling kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicks.
“[Doerer] hit the wall a little bit. He’s just tired right now,” Kelly said. “He will eventually take that duty over. He’s got a big leg, but he’s a little tired. So we’re going to hold off the grand opening of Jonathan until maybe a week or two from today.”
At some point or another, Kelly will not be surprised to see every freshman playing notable minutes grow wearier than his teammates. With seven other freshmen in the two-deep roster, they would seem the most likely candidates for that fatigue.
“We can’t rely on a freshman to have such a substantial role that we’re not prepared that there’s going to be a time when we have to help them out,” Kelly said. “It’s foolish to think their volume is going to be able to sustain a heavy workload. We’re prepared for that.”
Offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Josh Lugg, defensive linemen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, safety Isaiah Robertson, and receivers Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong are all listed as top backups.
Kelly indicated freshman Jordan Genmark Heath will see special teams action, if not also some time at safety, while classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will plan to preserve a year of eligibility while he learns the rover position.
Kelly’s advice to Wimbush
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has not seen action in a competitive game since his high school finale. Some rust, some jitters, some poor decisions may be made, and all would be logical and expected. Kelly certainly expects them.
“You’re not going to be perfect,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. But move on from them.
“He’s going to learn from them, but understand that perfection is not what we’re after. We’re out for excellence, and with that comes some mistakes.”
Shamrocks on practice helmets only
In some of the University-distributed practice highlights, certain players have been spotted sporting shamrock stickers on their helmets. Kelly made it clear those are intended only for the practice helmets.
If those decorated helmets are ever to be seen in Notre Dame Stadium, it would possibly be in another “New & Blue” Game during next year’s preseason practice. Kelly found such value in the public scrimmage in the Stadium nearly two weeks ago, he would encourage the Irish to make it a habit. If nothing else, it will always serve to acclimatize the freshmen to some of the game day experience.