Like any balance, it is a difficult one to find. Notre Dame’s offense is at its best when senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush poses a viable rushing threat. He is at his most efficient then, too.
He is also at his most vulnerable. Across a 12-to-14 game season, averaging 10-plus carries a week is a near-guarantee for one result: injury. After all, that is why in-season attrition at the running back position is a certainy just a notch below death, taxes and football fans’ overreactions. Asking your quarterback to take on that load is a dangerous proposition for any coaching staff.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that in preseason practices without committing to limiting the load and potentially neutering the offense.
“When you go into your game plan, you always think about how many carries do you want to average per game,” Kelly said on Aug. 15. “I don’t think we’ll go into that thinking — [at Boston College], obviously ran for over 200 yards given the circumstances of what was going on, right?
“I think we’re less concerned about carries with him and more interested in highlighting his strengths and being productive with him.”
Kelly’s pause to provide an example showed he is not inclined to deliberately limit Wimbush’s carries if they are what is working on a particular afternoon, even if doing so may be prudent. Against the Eagles, Wimbush indeed took 21 carries for 207 yards and four touchdowns. When Kelly refers to those circumstances, he is acknowledging how easily Notre Dame ran through Boston College’s defense. In that particular instance, the way to minimize the hits the offense took was actually by sticking with the ground game. That was literally a record-setting day, averaging 10.1 yards per carry as a team a modern-era record.
That is the outlier to one side. Going in the other direction and focusing on 2017, Wimbush took only five carries for 28 yards (sacks adjusted) against North Carolina State, leading the Irish to a 35-14 victory over a top-15 opponent.
Both methods worked, broadly speaking.
That does not mean Kelly would not want to preserve Wimbush from some of those hits this season. The Boston ollege reference may be the exception to prove the rule of that ideal. Wimbush had 141 official carries last season. By November, he was as worn down as the rest of the roster. Some of his specific fatigue, though, likely could have been prevented.
Which brings this thought process to Saturday’s 24-16 victory against Ball State; Wimbush took seven carries for 18 yards if excluding sacks. Two of those rushes were on the final Notre Dame drive, deliberately trying to kill clock, gaining 10 yards in a situational occasion. That leaves five rushes for eight yards within the game plan.
Well, somewhat within the game plan. Consider Wimbush’s first rush of the day, on the final drive of the first half to gain two yards.
Not exactly a designed run.
There were others that simply did not reach the rushing stage of the play.
“A lot of our run plays are designed within a play itself,” Kelly said Tuesday. “A psas play could turn into a designed run based upon what he reads. What we have to do is continue to make sure that we pay attention to detail within our structure and offense. I think Brandon learned a lot from that game.
“What I mean by that is that he’s given a lot of run-pass options. I wouldn’t buy much into the notion that he’s going to stop running and we’re just going to be throwing the football. What we really need to do is continue to work toward what his strengths are.”
Not all of Wimbush’s rushes or strengths come from those reads and/or scrambles. The first Irish play from scrimmage in the second half was also his first designed run of the day of any variety.
(Sidenote: Rewatch that clip with an eye on No. 71, fifth-year left guard Alex Bars. To this eye, he patiently waits for teammates to set up two blocks before moving to the next level and picking up Ball State middle linebacker Jacob White. Wimbush’s deliberate choice of running lane does not work without Bars playing a role in three different assignments, most notably the last of them.)
That quick nine-yard gain immediately begat a rollout to the right to find senior receiver Miles Boykin for 17 yards in a pocket of the coverage, the rollout in effect easing the pressure on the offensive line. Next came another completion to Boykin for 14 on a comeback route, and after a two-yard running play, Wimbush rolled out to his right again to find senior receiver Chris Finke at the one-yard line. Whether intentional or not (and there is literally absolutely no way to know), Wimbush actually protected Finke from a possibly-vicious hit by putting the pass on his back shoulder.
Junior running back Tony Jones gets the credit for the touchdown on the drive, but it began with Wimbush’s off-tackle rush and then got to the goal line’s doorstep by his arm.
Such is presumably what Kelly meant in August when he spoke of “highlighting” Wimbush’s strengths.
The party line following the victory may have been a lack of Wimbush running was not intentional. “I think it was just part of play calling and part of what we’re doing,” Kelly said Saturday. “Sometimes we look too much into the whole, did you run him, did you not run him?”
Yet, tracing back to those August thoughts, reducing Wimbush’s exposure across the season was a conscious consideration. “You always think about how many carries do you want to average per game.”
Granting that some credence, then the haphazard offensive game plan against the Cardinals may make more sense, and it is unlikely to be seen again for at least a few weeks.
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