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Gaining third yard more important for Notre Dame’s Wimbush than the seventh

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Brandon Wimbush used his legs to keep one drive alive, spinning forward with an acute awareness of what was needed for a first down. The very next drive, the junior quarterback broke outside rather than charge forward, falling a yard short on a third-and-three. One minute he knew what to do. Just a few minutes later his instincts misled him.

“Just trust what you see and go with it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday of what he has emphasized with Wimbush since the 20-19 defeat to Georgia. “Don’t be indecisive. Be decisive. Trust it and go with it.”

Such are the perils of placing a season on the shoulders of a first-year starter, especially when he faces a top-tier defense in only his second career start.

“That’s probably the biggest learning curve for all young quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “At times they become a little bit — they think a little bit too much instead of just trusting it and going with it. Just trust your teaching.”

When Saturday’s fourth quarter began, Notre Dame faced a second-and-10 at its own 31-yard line. A short completion later and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called for an old-fashioned quarterback draw. Wimbush dropped back as his receivers began routes, though they didn’t even bother to look back toward the ball as they crossed the field, indicating in hindsight the play’s intended design. With a hole on the line open, Wimbush started up field, spinning through the tackle of Bulldogs freshman safety Richard LeCounte to gain eight yards, two more than were needed.

That was only the second successful third down for Notre Dame to that point. Wimbush would connect with junior receiver Chris Finke to convert another one that same drive, before the next Wimbush dash fell short on third-and-nine in the red zone. Nonetheless, the earlier draw led to the drive continuing up to a field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon to give the Irish a 19-17 lead.

That was the good.

Georgia went three-and-out on its following possession. Facing a third-and-three, Wimbush kept the ball on a zone-read. As he started up field, rather than drive right into Bulldogs junior linebacker Natrez Patrick nearly exactly three yards past the line of scrimmage, Wimbush attempted to cut outside. A diving tackle to Wimbush’s right thigh by Georgia junior safety J.R. Reed felled the quarterback a yard short of the needed gain.

That was the bad.

“He needs to stick his foot in the ground and go north and south instead of bouncing it out,” Kelly said. “Just the little nuances of the game. … But those are experiences he’s never had before. He’s learning those things, then he’ll take the next step.”

As much as the Bulldogs did limit Wimbush, giving up only 28 yards on 13 carries, including the two aforementioned eight-yarders, the greater concern for Kelly and Long is the situational moments. Gaining that third yard would hardly have effected Wimbush’s stat line and may evade much notice later on, but it could have elongated a Notre Dame drive well into the last third of the fourth quarter. Additionally, it may have pushed Georgia further back into its own end of the field before beginning what would be a game-winning drive.

“They’re really details of small, minute things you may not see,” Kelly said. “But when he went through them this week, he’ll be better for it next week.”

Wimbush’s progression will also aid the offensive line in its protection. His decision to keep the ball on that third-and-three was the right one, but as often as not, he may keep it instead of handing it to junior running back Josh Adams or sophomore Tony Jones even when they have a better lane. Those misreads alter the offensive line’s positioning.

“I know we immediately go to the offensive line and say we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that,” Kelly said Sunday. “Some of that might be true, but your assessment is correct in that they’re all working together post-snap off of decisions the quarterback is making.”

When the Irish next face another top-tier defense (sometime in mid-to-late October), Wimbush will have a chance to show he learned from those seemingly-small, yet quite crucial mistakes.

“He learned a lot from that game. I think it will be a springboard for him.”