SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush’s first pass in his return as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback was a well-placed fade for a 3-yard Miles Boykin touchdown. Senior-to-senior on Senior Day, errr, Senior Night — a celebration that began before the game with the crowd only cheering Wimbush’s introduction and extending throughout a 42-13 victory against Florida State.
Wimbush spent the last seven weeks and six games as the good teammate, relegated to a ballcap and supportive words. All he had done was not play well enough in leading the now-No. 3 Irish to a 3-0 record and top-10 standing. With junior Ian Book sidelined by a ribs injury, though, there was Wimbush back as the starter. And that opening touchdown let hardly any time go by before he had reasserted himself as capable of leading Notre Dame (10-0) to a needed win.
“He wants to win for his teammates, he wants to win for Notre Dame,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “He’s a great teammate. He’s been that way all year, whether he’s in a starting role or backup role.”
No matter how the night as a whole went, Wimbush was going to be the focus. Either Notre Dame would remain in Playoff contention thanks to him or it would not because of him. With multiple assists from the Irish defense, Wimbush made sure the Playoffs remain a viable possibility, beginning to border on likelihood.
A Nick Coleman interception off a Te’von Coney deflection put Notre Dame at the 3-yard line only two plays into the game. To stick with a theme of the night, both seniors.
The Seminoles then put together a three-and-out without turning over the ball before fumbling on the first snap of their third drive, forced by junior end Ade Ogundeji and recovered by junior end Daelin Hayes.
“[Kelly] really wanted us to come out and dominate at home,” Hayes said. “A last statement win as we protect our house for the seniors.”
That field position resulted in a 26-yard field goal from Justin Yoon, yet another senior, and a 17-0 Irish lead in the first quarter. Wimbush already had two touchdowns — and at that point had completed 6-of-11 passes for 50 yards. The rout was clearly on.
“It was one of the best first halves that I think the team has had, so it felt natural,” Wimbush said. “Everything was coming. We had a great game plan and we got off to a great start, which was an emphasis throughout the week.”
Wimbush finished with an up-and-down stat line. He began the day an efficient 10-of-16 for 111 yards through about 27 minutes. He then went 2-of-9 for 19 yards with two interceptions the rest of the way, finishing 12-of-25 for 130 yards, three touchdowns and two picks, adding 11 carries for 62 yards.
Oh, and a win. Temperatures in the mid-20s? No matter. Green jerseys? Cool. Senior Night emotions? Channeled as a good thing. Backup quarterback? Hardly a concern.
“We knew Brandon was going to play (earlier in the week), and nobody was worried, honestly,” Boykin said. “I think a lot of people outside this football team were kind of worried.
“We look back at the games that this guy has won for us, the things that he has done for us, he’s tough. If Book’s not playing, there is no other person I’d rather have.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
If the end zone were farther away, Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams would have finished with many more than his career-high 202 yards on just 20 carries. His 58- and 32-yard touchdown runs both featured him in the clear long before he reached the goal line. And just like most of the names already mentioned, this marked Williams’ last appearance at Notre Dame Stadium.
“I think we’re seeing the effects of a back that is coming into his own and getting an opportunity now later in his career, certainly, but seeing things, learning things, and tapping into his potential,” Kelly said. “Notre Dame is the beneficiary, and he will be, too. It’s a win/win situation.”
The Seminoles never really threatened after those two turnovers set up a three-possession deficit, but a touchdown early in the third quarter brought the score to 32-13, soon 35-13 thanks to a 35-yarder from Yoon. Could Florida State give the Irish a scare? Offensive coordinator Chip Long answered that by dialing up a 12-play drive featuring nine Williams runs, two from sophomore Jafar Armstrong and one from Wimbush. The Seminoles could not stop the run, and Williams soon provided the final tally.
“Coach Long, once he sees something, he just rolls with it,” Boykin said. “We’re running the ball well? We’re going to run it.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s second touchdown came on another route to the corner of the end zone, this time targeting tight end Alizé Mack … a senior. Mack clearly caught and controlled the 6-yard pass but where his left foot landed could be debated for a few days yet. The officials ruled on the field the foot stayed in bounds, and replay could not prove Mack’s heel touched white. The call stood, an excellent snag from a player often criticized for not being sure-handed. Technically speaking, it was the winning score.
Mack added another touchdown before halftime, finishing with three catches for 29 yards.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Even when something went right for the Seminoles — an 8-yard Cam Akers touchdown run — it resulted in something abject, a blocked point after attempt by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery returned for two points by junior cornerback Julian Love. Rather than a prototypical 17-7 score and the beginnings of a competitive game, Florida State trailed 19-6 and still had to kick off, which soon yielded Williams’ 58-yard scoring scamper.
By the way, Tillery, a senior.
“Jerry finally got one,” Hayes said, adding special teams coordinator Brian Polian has been encouraging the kick block team to keep pushing in recent weeks, insisting someone was close to altering a kick. He undoubtedly could not have expected the ball to bounce so fortuitously, though.
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame rushed for 365 yards on 50 carries, a 7.3 yards per rush average. This may be hard to believe considering that output, but the Seminoles are actually stout against the run. Entering Saturday night, they gave up 111.1 rushing yards per game (No. 17 in the country) and 2.84 yards per carry (No. 6). Only 10 touchdowns had been scored against Florida State on the ground through nine games.
None of that mattered, even when the Seminoles knew what was coming, like on that 12-play, 97-yard Long drive. (Pun mostly intended.)
“I talked about how important it was to run the football in November when teams know that you’re going to run the football and exert your will, and I thought we were able to do that today,” Kelly said. “That had a lot to do with the final score.”
With junior Tommy Kraemer starting at right guard, the fourth alignment up front for the Irish this season, a power game emphasis returned. This was the first time Notre Dame broke 300 yards this season, previously topping 250 twice with 254 against Navy and 272 (plus 10 more if adjusting for sacks) against Stanford.
Last year the Irish cracked 300 times seven times, including twice topping 400 yards with the highlight being the 515 at Boston College. Saturday’s 365 yards would have been the fifth-highest rushing performance in 2017. Comparing to then is a request for disappointment. Seeing it in the context of this season shows the progress needed and achieved, for at least one night, to remain unbeaten.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Kelly opened his postgame press conference by outlining Notre Dame’s goals for the year, one by one accomplished to this point.
13:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 3-yard pass from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 0. (2 plays, 3 yards, 0:34)
6:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Alizé Mack 6-yard pass from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Florida State 0. (14 plays, 81 yards, 5:03)
5:53 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 17, Florida State 0. (4 plays, 6 yards, 0:46)
13:17 — Florida State touchdown. Cam Akers 8-yard rush. Ricky Aguayo PAT blocked (Jerry Tillery). Notre Dame return, Julian Love. Notre Dame 19, Florida State 6. (16 plays, 75 yards, 7:36)
11:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 58-yard run. Yoon PAT blocked. Notre Dame 25, Florida State 6. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:40)
6:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mack 15-yard pass from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 32, Florida State 6. (6 plays, 67 yards, 1:50)
13:35 — Florida State touchdown. Cam Akers 7-yard rush. Aguayo PAT good. Notre Dame 32, Florida State 13. (4 plays, 30 yards, 0:45)
10:08 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 35 yards. Notre Dame 35, Florida State 13. (8 plays, 57 yards, 3:27)
13:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 32-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Florida State 13. (12 plays, 97 yards, 5:30)