Even in retrospect, Brian Kelly would not change who he started at quarterback for Notre Dame to begin the season. Irish senior Brandon Wimbush gave Notre Dame its best chance at overcoming Michigan’s defense despite a dearth of offensive experience.
“The whole offseason was focused on getting Brandon ready to beat Michigan,” Kelly said. “… This offense was not mature enough going into the Michigan game. The playmaker on our offense was Brandon Wimbush. It needed to center around him to beat Michigan.”
Let the record show: The Irish beat the Wolverines. Wimbush accounted for 229 yards and a touchdown. Even including sacks, he was Notre Dame’s leading rusher and his 22-yard quarterback draw on a third-and-18 revived an Irish drive when there had been no momentum for far too long, eventually setting up a field goal but also draining the second-half clock.
Wimbush needed to carry the load then, per Kelly, as running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones “were not ready.” Neither was freshman receiver Kevin Austin. Even senior receiver Miles Boykin could claim all of 18 catches in his career before this season, and he was considered the leading pass-catcher.
“The next two weeks, those kids needed to mature,” Kelly said. “Then we needed to make this decision that we did relative to the quarterbacks position.”
That maturing showed itself most notably in Jones rushing for 118 yards and catching two passes for 56 more last week against Vanderbilt. Austin found the field and contributed, Boykin proved steady, and even senior tight end Alizé Mack caught three passes from Wimbush, a connection that never quite developed the expected chemistry. But it was the improved running game that stood out most.
“They just needed reps,” Kelly said. “Real, live reps.
“I tried to go as much live (in practice) as I could, but that’s hard to duplicate even in camp. … They needed game reps, they needed these games to really find themselves. Now they know they can lower their shoulder and run through players …
“We just needed games offensively to find ourselves. That’s why I knew this was the week that we needed to do this. Ian needed that supporting cast that would best suit him.”
And thus led to the change of inserting junior Ian Book as the starting quarterback at Wake Forest this weekend.
Let the record show: Notre Dame won its fourth game in four tries, led by Book’s 325 passing yards and five total touchdowns, completing throws to 10 different targets, buoyed by Armstrong’s 98 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“We were at week three and it didn’t matter what other people thought of this team,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a good team. … We needed to play with a sense of urgency. I felt the pieces were there to have a really good football team. We needed to kick it in gear.”
Kelly said Book may have started to realize something was different as early as Monday when practice reps were split more evenly between the always-a-backup and Wimbush than their usual 40/60 rotation. It started to become quite clear by Thursday.
In Kelly’s mind, and supported by this first week of evidence, turning to Book would do more than give the offensive playmakers greater opportunities. He would also give the Irish defense a break, a breather, a badly-needed rest. By not keeping drives alive — Notre Dame had converted only 16-of-44 third downs entering the weekend, 36.36 percent, compared to 4-of-9 against the Demon Deacons — and by not establishing sizable leads, the offense had left the defense exposed to the demands of both quantity of snaps and their competitive quality.
“The residual effect, it was wearing on our defense,” Kelly said. “I’ll start with the end in mind. The end in mind is we needed to win, but we weren’t winning at a level that was going to allow us to continue to win.”
That end in mind will remain the starting point. On that note, Kelly would not outright commit to Book as his quarterback moving forward, not that such a declaration was expected. Even in a 13-minute session filled with candor unbefitting most college football coaches, Kelly was not going to commit to anything he did not need to. His toeing the line made practical sense both tactically and personnel-wise.
“We saw today that our offense is operated very well with Ian Book, but we also beat a top-10 team in Michigan,” Kelly said. “It would be absolutely foolish of me to sit here in front of you and go, we have one quarterback and one quarterback only.
“We have two really good quarterbacks. I’m going to reserve the right to decide each and every week who is the best guy each week to win.”
Things We Learned: Turning to Book gets Notre Dame’s offense and defense on same page
Ian Book’s final stats do not lie. After he completed 73.53 percent of his passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, with another 47 rushing yards and three scores coming on nine carries, it can be said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly undeniably made the right choice starting the junior quarterback and heretofore backup in Saturday’s 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest.
Part of Kelly’s decision tied to the opponent, recognizing a defensive approach designed to keep plays in front of it, in part because the Irish (4-0) run a similar scheme under defensive coordinator Clark Lea, less than two years removed from his own one-year stint with the Deacons (2-2).
“This is a perfect game for Ian Book,” Kelly said. “It’s quarters coverage. You know what you’re going to get. It’s a perfect game for him.”
It played right into Book’s accurate mid-range game. He completed 17-of-31 in his only other career start (Senior Brandon Wimbush was sidelined with a mild foot injury), a 54.84 percent rate, and 14-of-19 in the Citrus Bowl, 73.68 percent. The pros of playing Book rely on his ability and accuracy in the playbook and scheme, something he may not have fully grasped in 2017.
“Another year in the system has sharpened his progression reads and things of that nature,” Kelly said.
That showed. Wake Forest had no chance of stopping Book’s precision attack. When that sharp, a weapon does not need to explode to be effective. Death by a thousand paper cuts yields the same effect as multiple gashes downfield do. But he does not have the same ability to stretch the field vertically. The addition of a third data point provided enough evidence to tangibly see the differences between Book and Wimbush.
Book’s deep ball is lacking. As part of the design, Notre Dame did not need it since the Deacons gave up crossing routes and bubble screens as their version of bend-don’t-break allows. (But okay, break. Wait, no, shatter.)
Book’s longest throws of the day were both about 29 yards through the air, sideline completions to freshman receiver Kevin Austin and junior receiver Chase Claypool. Book placed his toss to Austin perfectly with a nearly indefensible pass. His connection with Claypool, however, showed the difficulty Book may have with a deep ball. If the pass had more distance on it, Claypool would have strolled into the end zone. Instead, it became an unintentional back-shoulder throw with the defensive back catching up to a slowed-down Claypool just as the ball did.
Book’s only other downfield heave of note was again to Austin, traveling 44 yards past the line of scrimmage and drawing a pass interference penalty. While it still could have been caught, it likely would have been if Book had led Austin rather than negating the stride lead he had on his defender with a slightly under-thrown pass.
This is the trade-off. Wimbush has a much stronger arm, which occasionally allows him to fit a ball into an inadvisable window and other times leads to unexpected deep threats. He is also inaccurate, having exceeded a 50 percent completion rate with a minimum of 20 pass attempts only five times in 15 career starts, 10 of which reached that minimum.
Against the Deacons, “a perfect game” means the Irish paper cuts add up. Credit to Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal for bringing this sequence to the surface: Notre Dame and Wake Forest have met twice in the last nine games. In those two, the Irish have gained 710 and 566 yards of total offense, an average of 638 yards. In the seven games between, Notre Dame averaged 352.71 yards of total offense.
This explosion does not directly tie to the institutional knowledge provided by Lea and previously Mike Elko. It instead speaks to the luxuries of facing Wake Forest. By O’Neill’s math, the Irish average 5.36 yards per play in those seven intervening games, while ripping the Deacons for 7.98 yards per play.
Book played well. As did Notre Dame.
But to some degree, Wake Forest is just a great matchup for the Irish offense. Usually this space abides by the belief that once is an incidence, twice is a coincidence and three times marks a trend, but the numbers against the Deacons are so disparate, the pattern needed only two games to be apparent. (If curious, the two next meet again in 2020.)
Notre Dame will not make 56 points a habit, no matter who is at quarterback. Book will not routinely throw for three bucks and a quarter while padding the stats of 10 different targets. He may, given a proper sample size, routinely complete 60 or even 70 percent of his passes, a direct symptom of taking what the defense gives rather than testing high-risk/high-reward jump balls.
That passing accuracy led to offensive effectiveness which, in turn, led to the Irish defense getting some genuine breaks.
That was part of why Kelly made the change. Facing one of the country’s fastest-paced offenses, repeatedly and frequently exposing Lea’s defense to Wake Forest’s tempo would have spelled undeniable exhaustion for Notre Dame’s primary defenders.
“We played 97 snaps against Ball State,” Kelly said. “It was going to break. It needed to get fixed now. … We were putting too much stress on the other parts of the operation, in particular the defense.”
The Irish ran 72 plays against the Cardinals and 76 against the Deacons. Similarly, Ball State ran 97 plays while Wake Forest managed 92.
The difference? Seven of Notre Dame’s 15 possessions two weeks ago lasted six plays or fewer without ending with a score, not including kneeling out the clock at the end of the game. This weekend, only five out of 15 possessions struggled such. Two weeks ago, just a pair of Irish drives lasted longer than three minutes. Three did so Saturday.
That may not seem an exorbitant increase, but the rewards are exponential. Furthermore, every touchdown scored equals a few more real-world minutes spent on an extra point attempt and elongated commercial breaks, sandwiched around a kickoff.
Those starters’ rests eventually included the debuts of backup linebackers. For the first time this season, Notre Dame brought senior Te’von Coney and fifth-year Drue Tranquill to the bench. This is not exactly something learned, just something finally seen beyond theory. Junior Jonathan Jones spelled Coney, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath stepped in for Tranquill, and at one point senior rover Asmar Bilal moved to Tranquill’s spot in a nickel package, showcasing another form of plausible depth. In addition to his increasing duties on special teams, freshman Bo Bauer also took some turns at linebacker.
Bauer finished with six tackles, Bilal and Genmark Heath each notched four and Jones had three including one behind the line of scrimmage. Such chances create a pathway to Tranquill and Coney having some life left in their legs in November, a necessity if Notre Dame is to continue to dream the dreams spurred by an undefeated record through four weeks.
A dream now burgeoned by Book, affecting both the offense and the defense in positive ways.
It seems a requirement to include some piece of mindless wordplay somewhere here, so let it be one more piece of caution. In routing a Power Five opponent on the road, the Irish once again showed enough glimpses of the potential, greater glimpses than seen yet this season, needed to even ponder certain possibilities.
But by absolutely no means does that make it advisable to book any travel plans to northern California just yet. Bide time for at least two more weeks. They will develop this season’s plot more than the last four weeks, or even nine months, have.
Notre Dame, Ian Book turn to passing game in blow out of Wake Forest
The instinct is to lead with a “book” pun here to cleverly recognize Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s performance in his first career start made by coaching choice rather than injury to usual-starter Brandon Wimbush. Such wordplay would be a disservice to Book’s showing in the 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest on Saturday and minimize the decision made by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to make the change despite a No. 8 ranking and remaining undefeated.
“I didn’t sleep great last night because that’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback that was leading your team is [12-3] as a starter,” Kelly said. “Had a lot of confidence in Ian and I thought our offense played to the level I thought it was capable of.”
Book improved that record to 4-0 without any trouble, even if the Deacons did hand the Irish their first deficit of the season with a first-quarter field goal. Book responded by completing all four of his passes on the subsequent drive, three of them going to senior tight end Alizé Mack for 41 yards. Once sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong found the end zone with a 30-yard score, Notre Dame never trailed again, rattling off 28 unanswered points in one stretch spanning much of the second and third quarters.
Armstrong finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries, part of the Irish gaining 245 yards on 39 carries (sacks adjusted). Book threw for 325 yards and two more scores — giving him five total thanks to three short jaunts across the goal line of 2, 2 and 1 yard — to bring the Notre Dame total to 566 yards, its most of the season by 152.
Despite giving up more than 17 points for the first time of the year, the Irish had little trouble with Wake Forest’s up-tempo attack. The Deacons gained 398 total yards, their first time falling short of 500 this season, on 92 plays, a lackluster average of 4.2 yards per play. Their final two scores came against what was increasingly Notre Dame’s second and third-units, the first time those reserves have gotten a chance to stretch their legs in a game.
They can thank Book for that opportunity, above all others.
PLAYER OF THE GAME Book, obviously. His stats jump off the page no matter the situation: A 73.5 percent completion rate to gain 325 yards by connecting with 10 different receivers (two more than the season’s previous high, set last week against Vanderbilt). Nine rushes for 47 yards (sacks adjusted). Five total touchdowns.
If this proves to be Book’s coming-out party, that will be a tough standard to maintain.
His connection with Mack stands out. Though the senior did not reach the end zone, Book looked for him eight times, including repeatedly early to build a rhythm. Mack caught six of those for 61 yards, both career highs. Frankly, he nearly matched his combined output in the season’s first three games of six catches for 74 yards.
Book found Mack both in the flat and headed downfield on a seam route, displaying a diverse skill set from the tight end previously only speculated about. Mack was not the only tight end Book looked to, also connecting with sophomore Brock Wright for a three-yard score, Wright’s first in his career and only second career catch. His first? It came last week, on a pass from Book.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME If not the early days of the week when Kelly decided to switch his primary playmaker, inserting Book into the starting lineup and moving Wimbush to the sideline, then …
For the first time this season, the Irish did not score on their first possession. The Book experiment looked to be a questionable one when Notre Dame could not muster much on its second possession, either. A fumble from sophomore receiver Michael Young ended the third. At that point, 12 plays had yielded 42 yards and no points. Wake Forest led. Another long day appeared imminent.
The Irish scored touchdowns on eight of their next nine possessions. The fourth of which eliminated any Deacons hope before it could genuinely take root. Wake Forest had just run a breakneck drive covering 75 yards in 10 plays that took fewer than three minutes to come within 21-13. The Deacons had begun the day trading field goals for touchdowns, but when senior running back Matt Colburn scored from two yards out, suddenly their offense seemed more viable. The execution it needed had shown up.
Notre Dame responded with a play many have become conditioned to cringe at. It is nearly a pavlovian response: When the Irish run a bubble screen to a receiver, express frustration and doubt the play-calling acumen as soon as the pass is thrown parallel to the line of scrimmage.
It is hard to doubt the concept when it results in a 66-yard dash by Young, sprung by blocks from Mack and senior receiver Miles Boykin. Book’s stat line was the beneficiary, thanks to both the yards after the catch and the chance to score a 2-yard rushing touchdown. In just 62 seconds, Notre Dame’s lead was back to two possessions before halftime. Wake Forest would not score again until the Irish had already raced to a 49-13 lead near the end of the third quarter.
STAT OF THE GAME At halftime, Book’s stat line read 16-of-24 passing for 189 yards. The two dozen pass attempts stood out, especially in comparison to the team total of 15 rushing attempts to that point. It was the first time Notre Dame’s offense skewed toward the air in the first half.
Vanderbilt: 27 rushes in the first half; 17 passes. Ball State: 20 rushes; 17 passes. Michigan: 25 rushes; 15 passes.
Even with the hefty lead, the Irish balance came closer to even than it had all season.
Wake Forest: 40 rushes in the game; 36 passes. Vanderbilt: 48 rushes; 26 passes. Ball State: 41 rushes; 31 passes. Michigan: 47 rushes; 22 passes.
“It’s where we have wanted it to go and grow,” Kelly said. “The balance necessary of run and pass is where ultimately this offense has been (going). I brought [offensive coordinator Chip Long] in to run a balanced run-pass offense.
“You saw what it should look like today.”
The shift toward the air showed in both the total of 566 yards and in the average of 7.4 yards gained per play. The previous peak for the Irish was 5.8 against Ball State. (Vanderbilt: 5.1; Michigan 4.4)
PLAY(S) OF THE GAME Young’s bubble screen nearly to the end zone could qualify, but instead this space will include mention of a moment that occurred long after the result was determined. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec undoubtedly did not expect his first collegiate playing time to come anywhere but Notre Dame Stadium, but the last two weeks of close games had changed those plans. With about four minutes left at Wake Forest, the heralded passer entered.
On his third snap, he comfortably and confidently fired a deep pass toward classmate Kevin Austin. The receiver’s legs innocently tangled with the defensive back’s, removing any chance of a completion, but it was telling how at ease Jurkovec was with the heave.
On the next snap, Jurkovec ran around the right end for a 7-yard gain, enjoying every step of it.
It was not all wonderful by the supposed quarterback-of-the-future, as he then missed a wide-open Wright on a crossing route, the exact kind of spot a quarterback praised for his accuracy should shine.
WHAT? A rematch from last year’s 48-37 Irish victory, though both of these teams have since lost their greatest offensive weapons. Notre Dame can no longer claim a record-setting back running behind two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the Demon Deacons are without four-year starting quarterback John Wolford and his impeccable understanding of the scheme.
WHEN? 12 p.m. ET. Yes, a rare early kick for the Irish, their first since back-to-back noon kicks to start October in 2016, a 50-33 victory against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., and a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State in a literal hurricane.
WHERE? BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C. The smallest home stadium of all 65 Power Five schools, BB&T holds 31,500. The next smallest is Washington State’s Martin Stadium, holding a bit more than 32,000.
ABC will have the national broadcast, and one presumes it will be available for streaming through the Watch ESPN app.
WHY? In many respects, the schedule has set up nearly-ideally for the Irish, and this trip plays right into that. Notre Dame got to face Michigan before the Wolverines found anything of an offense, having scored 49 and 45 points in the two weeks since. Then the Irish could work through offensive struggles of their own against Ball State and Vanderbilt. Now Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season also looks to be its easiest of only four true road games.
That has opened the door for Irish head coach Brian Kelly to reportedly start junior Ian Book at quarterback in place of a healthy Brandon Wimbush, the starter in 15 of the last 16 games, only sitting at North Carolina last year due to a mild foot injury.
IT SEEMS LIKE NOTRE DAME HAS PLAYED WAKE FOREST A LOT OF LATE. That is not false. The two met for the first time in 2011, and this will be their fifth matchup in only eight years. The Irish have won the previous four, with the only trip to Winston-Salem being the only one-possession contest of the bunch, a 24-17 outcome in that first game. At the time, it did not feel low-scoring; No. 1 LSU was holding off No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime without anyone finding the end zone as Brian Kelly began his own postgame press conference.
BY HOW MUCH? After spending much of the week with Notre Dame favored by eight points, the spread swung Friday to a 6.5-point margin with a combined point total over/under of 59.5. If sticking to those marks, a 33-27 Irish win would be the conclusion.
Two parts of that stick out. Notre Dame has yet to give up more than 17 points in a game while the Deacons managed just 23 in their opener at Tulane. The Irish, meanwhile, have not scored more than 24 points in a game since running up those 48 against Wake Forest last year, a seven-game stretch.
Then why the elevated over/under? The Deacons defense is bad enough, bookmakers expect Notre Dame’s offense to finally break through, no matter who leads the way at quarterback.
I’ll believe that when I see it, though the atrocious Wake Forest defense should give way more often than speedy and shifty receiver Greg Dortch finds the end zone.
Notre Dame 27, Wake Forest 24. (3-0 in pick; 1-2 against the spread, 3-0 point total.)
It took me four years to watch every episode of “Cheers.” Late at night, wanting background noise while turning notes into coherent sentences, the banter filled the silence at an appropriate rate. The few laughs every 22 minutes were a bonus. Once Sam Malone turned off the lights at the bar for the last time, it was only natural to continue with “Frasier.”
An episode late in season four played on a screen to my side while compiling the needed scores, stats and spreads for this week’s Notre Dame’s Opponents entry. I barely heard Frasier’s son, Frederick, explain he had long known his dad wasn’t perfect.
“You couldn’t fix my computer. You thought Venus was the North Star, and I’ve seen you run.” Frederick told Frasier before explaining why he had never pointed out these deficiencies. “I thought it might hurt your self-esteem.”
I have never worried about those feelings with my father. His shortcomings are too apparent to pretend not to notice. He finishes off the tray of potatoes at dinner without asking if anyone else wants them, before they have made so much as one trip around the table. Calling his handwriting illegible is an insult to any three-year-old who ever picked up chalk.
And, he’s a Boston Red Sox fan.
Despite that terrible mistake, my father still always gave a nod to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as someone he could tolerate. More than that, he outright respected Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Greatness like that should not be clouded by rivalry, no matter how many times Rivera and the Yankees shut the door on the Red Sox.
The same can and should be applied in any sport. Make no mistake, Rivera is the extreme of a fandom’s struggle. He was such a class act while throwing the single-greatest pitch in baseball history, a Red Sox (or Braves or Mets or Phillies) fan could hate how effective he was, but not the player himself. Watching Mariano required a touch of admiration.
By no means are any of the following examples anywhere near Rivera’s caliber. He may be on his own in that right. (After all, more men have walked on the moon than knocked in an earned postseason run against Rivera.)
So early in his career, perhaps Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch should be considered near the other end of this thought process, but Notre Dame fans should watch Dortch tomorrow and expect to marvel at what he can do on a football field, even as he keeps the score a bit closer than they may like. If not rationally capable of that, then perhaps table the appreciation for afterward and provided an Irish victory, return to some of Dortch’s dashes down the field. He is electric with the football in a way not seen often enough. Then again, it is its rarity that makes it so worthwhile.
Dortch has touched the football 45 times in three games this year. He has gained 674 yards. At some point, he will beat Notre Dame’s secondary. Separate the effect on the game from the actual ability for just a moment, and recognize how unfathomably quick Dortch is.
In a year, expect to experience something similar when Boston College visits South Bend in late November. Sophomore running back AJ Dillon may already be the best running back in the country. With another year, he could be approaching the platonic ideal of college football.
It will be tougher to appreciate Dillon than it should be with Dortch, though. The Eagles will be a better team than the Deacons are. Given last week’s result, Boston College already is. Unless a player is as peerless as the Great Mariano — who holds the record for throwing the last pitch in the most World Series. How many did he do so? Answer at bottom. — some ill will remains as they succeed at your team’s expense. Despite Dortch’s best efforts, Notre Dame should still win this weekend, just not by as much as if he was out with another injury. Topping Boston College in 14 months will not be as certain.
That is part of the formula to appreciating individual opponents in college football. An excellent player on a defeated foe is more palatable to reminisce over thanks to the eventual victory. The win makes the remembered frustration feel deserved afterward.
It is why names like Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald are remembered with nothing but fondness. Combined, they went 0-6 against Notre Dame.
In an informal survey of a dozen Irish fans this week asking what past opposing players they had most enjoyed to watch, those names were mentioned frequently, but combined they did not outpace USC running back Reggie Bush. The praises uttered for the Heisman-returnee all included caveats. Those disclaimers did not tie to any of the Trojans’ vacated wins or issues with the NCAA. They boiled down to one thing: USC went 3-0 against Notre Dame during Bush’s time there.
Dortch has not played the Irish. A life-threatening intestinal injury sidelined him last year. He may well end his career 1-0 against Notre Dame, but that is not reason enough to not take a moment Saturday afternoon and mutter some four-letter words under your breath out of respect, appreciation and admiration.
Even my father mustered that much for Mariano after he threw three scoreless innings in game seven of the 2003 ALCS to keep the Red Sox at bay for another year. His handwriting remains terrible and Thanksgiving potatoes are a 50/50 proposition for the rest of us, but he at least got that acknowledgment right.
(Five. Mariano threw the last pitch in five World Series, which includes the 2001 defeat.)