NOTRE DAME, Ind. — We learned Notre Dame Stadium now holds 77,622 people. We learned Irish coach Brian Kelly still prefers to receive the opening kickoff. We learned Saturdays in September are best spent in the sun watching football.
Wait, we already knew that one.
What else did we learn?
This is Chip Long’s offense.
Notre Dame had three rushers gain more than 100 yards and four take at least half a dozen carries, with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush included in both categories. Long relying on the running game could be read as playing to one’s strengths, but it is also in-line with his career elsewhere to date.
Of those rushers, sophomore Tony Jones was the initial backup to junior Josh Adams. Jones took his six rushes for only 19 yards, but he was never taken down in the backfield and did score on a seven-yard touchdown. In his first collegiate action, that qualifies as acceptable.
Junior Dexter Williams excelled when he began to see runs behind Adams. Finishing with 124 yards on only six carries — even if removing his long of 66 yards, Williams averaged 11.6 yards per carry — Williams insured he will have plenty of chances moving forward.
Equally as telling that this is Long’s show, the Irish had the ball for only 26:11 in a game they entirely dominated. Long simply saw no reason to attack Temple slowly when doing so quickly would create more opportunities to continue, well, attacking. All indications are he called the plays throughout, including Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s comments after the 49-16 victory Saturday.
“My conversation with [Long] is pretty constant during the drive,” Kelly said. “I don’t want it to be over-chatter. He’s got to get in the flow and he’s got to be calling the game.
“I’m just keeping him on track relative to fourth down calls, whether we’re in this particular area of the field. He’s got a fourth down in his pocket, so call accordingly on second and third down.”
Notre Dame has more tight ends than realized.
Okay, not literally. A reading of the roster and the ability to count up one hand’s worth of fingers tells anyone the Irish have five tight ends. Yet, the four most-discussed contributed little-to-nothing Saturday.
Graduate student senior Durham Smythe entered the concussion protocol Saturday, and it is conceivable that keeps him out for a week. (That is not to say it will. Updates should come in due time.) Much-hyped junior Alizé Mack managed only two catches for 17 yards. Freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet were offensive non-factors.
Nonetheless, a tight end still impacted Notre Dame’s offense definitively. Senior Nic Weishar pulled in three passes for 20 yards and a touchdown catch in very tight quarters.
“He’s had the best year that anybody can have in terms of his physical commitment to the position itself,” Kelly said. “He does not have the DNA of Alizé and [Weishar] will tell you that, he looks like a dad compared to those four stallions.
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…)