Brandon Wimbush was twice asked about No. 8 Notre Dame’s offensive identity after Saturday’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt. Neither of his responses provided a description of that identity, both because it is unknown and because in that moment, immediately following a close victory, he was not about to focus on it.
“Three wins, I don’t care,” if the lack of a distinct identity is a good or bad thing to this point, the senior quarterback said.
“We’re still forming that identity. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly came up to me and said, week three is the time that you kind of form that identity. Just looking back on the first three weeks, I don’t think there’s something we can kind of hang our hat on yet.”
Perhaps there is, though. And it was Kelly who pointed toward it Saturday evening.
“You see us early on in three games, we’re not going to beat you 52-3,” Kelly said. “We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football.”
A day later, Kelly spoke of the physicality Notre Dame had played with in two of the first three weeks, acknowledging the lack of such against Ball State. If discounting that malaise during a 24-16 win as an anomaly deriving from overlooking a MAC opponent, then the Irish offense has shown some tendencies in its two games against Power-Five opponents.
Notre Dame has rushed the ball 45 and 48 times in those two games, averaging 4.25 yards per carry (sacks adjusted). That average is by no means a startling figure, but running the ball that often is. Such a rate over a full season would have put the Irish at No. 15 in rushing attempts per game last season, with five of the teams ahead of them relying on option-based schemes. Even last year’s record-setting Notre Dame rushing attack averaged only 40.77 carries per game (sacks adjusted).
Comparing those two offenses is a recipe for disappointment, one led by a brief Heisman campaign and two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the other not. It was led by Wimbush and junior running back Tony Jones this week. Wimbush’s 19 rushes consisted of 18 designed carries, per Kelly, with the exception a scramble ending in the end zone. Jones, meanwhile, took 17 carries for 118 yards, not to mention two catches for 56 yards. Every number listed in the previous sentence was a career high for Jones, building on his 13-carry, 61-yard performance against the Cardinals.
“It started last week in the Ball State game when he started to run with a demeanor and mindset that he wasn’t going to be tackled,” Kelly said. “He carried that into practice.
“We felt he was getting ready to be the kind of back that we had been talking about, in the way he’s run: physical, kind of being who we thought he needed to be. That’s the way it certainly turned out this past weekend.”
If these trends were to continue — 40-plus carries a game, Wimbush and Jones splitting the workload with sophomore Jafar Armstrong adding some dynacism, theoretically senior Dexter Williams sprinkling in some big-play potential beginning two weeks from now — then this is essentially what was always expected. It just hasn’t been as dominant as 2017’s precedent.
Struggling to pull away on the scoreboard underscores the value of this approach. Running the ball 45 times shrinks the game, reduces the chances for an offensive mistake as well as the opportunities for the opponent to break the Irish defense.
With such a formula, special teams take on added importance. A mistake there counteracts the cautious effects of a “tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar” scheme. Fortunately for Notre Dame, its special teams finally showed up in a positive way this weekend.
Sophomore Jonathan Doerer did not send one kickoff out of bounds. Instead, he knocked four of six into the end zone for touchbacks, and those two returns netted Vanderbilt an average starting field position inside the 20-yard line.
Sophomore Michael Young broke off a 48-yard kickoff return when the Irish needed a spark. The drive resulted in a missed field goal, but that should not diminish the promise shown in Young’s return.
Despite missing that field goal, senior kicker Justin Yoon remained reliable, making hi first three. Kelly took some of the onus for the miss, positing they rushed Yoon on the kick after pondering some clock mechanics.
Fifth-year senior punter Tyler Newsome’s five booms gave the Commodores average field position of the 23-yard line, part of a day in which he averaged 59.6 yards per punt. His final punt was snapped with 12 seconds remaining in the game and was fair caught with five left on the clock. The hang time math speaks for itself.
It was a good week for Doerer and Newsome to step forward, both as it tied to that victory and as to the timing moving forward. Wake Forest junior Greg Dortch has already returned two punts for touchdowns this year and averages 17 yards per return with another 27.3 yards per kick return. Finding a way to limit Dortch’s impact on special teams will be crucial.
One additional note on special teams: Armstrong joined Young on the back line to return kickoffs, not freshman C’Bo Flemister, who had decent success with three returns for 65 yards against Ball State. It is most likely Flemister was an experiment during a week Notre Dame felt it could test out some things or reduce other’s workloads.
ON DEFENSIVE SCORING AVERAGE
If looking at the simple averages kept by the NCAA, the Irish scoring defense is No. 31 in the country at 16.7 points per game. After three games, however, one favorable matchup can skew those numbers greatly. Most of those ahead of Notre Dame have enjoyed an afternoon against an FCS-level opponent, for example.
Only three times have faced only FBS foes and not yet given up more than 17 points in a game: Minnesota, Alabama and Notre Dame.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— Notre Dame escapes genuine test from Vanderbilt
— Things We Learned: Not yet ‘great,’ Notre Dame’s ground game and safety play emerge
— A more focused playbook could key a more consistent Notre Dame offense
— Some Wake Forest defenders played well, Greg Dortch needs the ball and some confusing play calls
— How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad
— Syracuse football stock watch: Dino Babers’ 2017 prophecy is coming true
— USC kicker Chase McGrath out for the year with torn ACL