NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.
At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.
The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.
The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.
By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.
“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”
Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.
“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.
Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.
Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.
Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.
The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.
“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”
The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.
Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.
And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.
“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”
Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.
“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.
“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”
Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.
Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.
Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.
NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.
“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”
On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.
Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?