Associated Press

Things We Learned: Notre Dame is focused, but continues to struggle in the secondary & with Wimbush’s accuracy

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It was decisive. It was never in doubt. It was efficient.

The 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday was exactly what it should have been, and that made it different.

This space poised the Thursday question, “Will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks?” A year ago, the answer would have been a definitive no, though it should have been a shrill yes. Consider this weekend’s 59-minute, 35-second rout a demarcation of certainty that times have changed.

Even the Irish knew this was not a sure thing.

“It’s huge for us,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said afterward. “This was a big week for us. We were going to see if we were mentally tough or not. We went out against an opponent that we were supposed to, on paper, beat. That’s not always how it goes.

“We had to come in mentally tough and go out and execute at a high level.”

Notre Dame did.

It can be left that simple. If insistent on more-specific metrics, the Irish committed five penalties for 60 yards Saturday, not much of an increase over the beforehand season average of 48.2 penalty yards per game. Notre Dame did not commit any turnovers. The defense allowed only one play of more than 30 yards. (More on that 34-yard RedHawks touchdown pass in a bit.)

All of these are indications the Irish focus did not stray. The scoreboard was another clear sign.

“We preach all the time we don’t want these up-and-down performances,” junior defensive tackle and game ball-recipient Jerry Tillery said. “That’s how you get beat. We were able to impose our will on this team consistently and that was our goal from the start.”

This is what should be expected. Good teams win in blowouts when the opportunities present themselves. That is exactly what Notre Dame just did. There is no need to nitpick the performance.

But if insistent on nitpicking and looking at items that were not egregious, because in a 52-17 victory, nothing is actually egregious …

The Irish secondary is not yet ready for true aerial threats.
First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due. RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner could be playing for most Power Five teams. His five catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned 34-yarder, are not the most terrible reflection of Notre Dame’s secondary, but they are tangible proof of an area needing improvement.

“We tried to defend the back shoulder, and we thought we were in some pretty good positions for back shoulder throws,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They made some good throws down the field, quite frankly. We were in position one time where I thought it could have gone either way on a couple of calls here or there, but we were competing for the ball.”

No one in collegiate football excels at covering 6-foot-4 athletes with strong hands. That is why it has become such a passing-oriented sport. But Notre Dame struggles more than most.

Both Gardner’s touchdown catches were over senior cornerback Nick Watkins, who up until this weekend had quietly put together an impressive season. Gardner twice pulling in passes despite Watkins’ defense illustrates the greatest weakness in the Irish defense. As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Notre Dame concern, offensive or defensive.

Yes, it is even more concerning than Brandon Wimbush’s inconsistent accuracy.
The junior quarterback’s (in)accuracy remains questionable. He finished 7-of-18 for 119 yards passing. To the quickest memory, at least two of those incompletions were wise throwaways. Perhaps more were, but however many can rightfully have that justification, Wimbush still falls short of an expected completion percentage.

“It’s an apprenticeship,” Kelly said. “We’re still learning as we go, but [Wimbush is] making some really good progress.”

Perhaps the Irish rushing game grants Wimbush some leeway. Actually, it certainly does. But this could be of great concern if and when Notre Dame needs to convert a two-minute drill.

For that matter, it should be of worry well before then. Wimbush lucked out of an interception in the second quarter Saturday. The phrase “lucked out of an interception” has been used to describe his passes many times this season, to the point even this scribe is starting to consider it a trite wording. Yet, it remains accurate.

Much of any Irish success thus far this season has derived from the ability to avoid turnovers offensively while creating them defensively. The moment Wimbush’s luck runs out, that ratio quickly evens out and a 70-3 points off turnovers differential in Notre Dame’s favor may become an anomaly rather than a reliability.

Hello, Mr. Stepherson.
Yes, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson played. He lined up wide, as Kelly said he would. He even caught a pass.

That reception lost three yards.

Stepherson was targeted three times, the first two coming on back-to-back snaps. One of those Stepherson dropped. The other fell to the turf due to either an overthrow or a misrun route.

“We weren’t able to get him the ball in the first half,” Wimbush said. “But just want to get him a couple of touches and get him up to speed with what we’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

At least Claypool is consistent.
Once again returning to Thursday’s wonderings: “Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?”

If the answer is no, it is because in time Claypool may challenge junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for top target honors. Claypool finished with 28 yards on only two catches Saturday, but they were both vital receptions.

The first converted a fourth-and-11 which led to the second Irish touchdown. The other was the fourth Notre Dame score.

Wimbush dodged the question when asked if Claypool may be the best jump-ball receiver on the Irish roster, but that does not make it any less a viable concept.

“I’ve had a couple opportunities to throw them up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys, 6-5, all big bodies, all able to go up there and do what Chase did today. When those guys get the opportunity to go do that, they definitely go do it. I have tons of weapons out there.”

Kelly gave Claypool a touch more credit, though not asked as specific a question. When wondering if Notre Dame has established its preferred receivers yet, Kelly included Claypool in the two-man subset of known commodities.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and [St. Brown],” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress with some of the other receivers. … We’re still evolving. We’re getting closer, but no, I’m not ready to tell you that we’re solid in our first three guys yet.”