Maybe Notre Dame scripts its first possession, or perhaps that is an out-of-date phrase in the days of extensive film study and pre-snap adjustments, but still something of a general concept. What cannot be argued is the No. 8 Irish (3-0) have excelled offensively to start each of their first three games and then they have ground to a halt.
Against Michigan, Notre Dame scored with a 7-play, 75-yard drive executed in fewer than 90 seconds to open the game. A week later, five plays and 74 yards took fewer than two minutes. Against Vanderbilt, nearly four minutes elapsed as the Irish drove 74 yards in 10 plays, finishing with a field goal in part due to a false start by a reserve offensive lineman in a jumbo package. If once is chance and twice is a coincidence, this is very much a trend: Notre Dame’s offense is at its most efficient immediately after the opening kickoff.
It makes sense. The Irish begin the game aggressively, calling plays with the greatest chances of success, whether it be because of schematic fit or, to take senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s word for it, repetition and subsequent comfort.
“You run those opening nine [plays] three or four times throughout the week,” Wimbush said after Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt. “You do get comfortable with those looks and your progressions throughout those reads.”
Looking through those drives — and including the second Irish possession against the Commodores, in which they scored a touchdown after 15 plays went 94 yards in 5:21 — only a couple plays show up in common, but they are successful plays, relatively speaking.
Notre Dame’s first snap against Ball State ended up Wimbush’s longest completion of the day, a 27-yarder to senior receiver Chris Finke. The Irish appeared to run the same play to the opposite side of the field against Vanderbilt, waiting until the third snap to deploy it. Junior receiver Chase Claypool gained 17 yards.
Wimbush’s progression seems clear: Consider the screen and at the least give it a pump fake. With how often Notre Dame runs such a screen, the secondary leans into the possibility, creating a cushion behind them for Finke and Claypool. To keep the safety occupied, another receiver runs a deep route a lane inside the eventual target. Theoretically, if the safety sagged onto Finke or Claypool, that could result in the deep target becoming the proper read.
Both times Wimbush executes this well, getting the ball to his receiver while within the gap in coverage, a space created in part by the Irish habit of throwing those screens to sub-par success and cemented by Wimbush’s pump-fake.
It is logical to think Wimbush handles the progression and eventual read well because he has worked on this exact play numerous times throughout the week. It does not have to be in a debated script to still be a play Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long likes to call early to get his quarterback comfortable and in a rhythm.
“Just got to keep the same energy,” Wimbush said. “Understand that we’ve run through so many of these plays throughout the week and we have to just execute them.”
Another passing play shows up in common in these opening drives, one the casual observer may use to criticize Wimbush despite the replicated outcome pointing to an intentional thought process.
The second Irish play of the season included pressure from Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. Similarly, a play on Notre Dame’s second drive against Vanderbilt featured pressure from a Commodores defensive end. Both times Wimbush rolled to his right to evade the chase and heaved up a jump ball toward a receiver standing 6-foot-4 or taller.
The first rendition concluded with a contested incompletion intended for Claypool. Senior Miles Boykin nearly caught the second before the ball, again, fell incomplete.
Two incompletions on two drives that still finished with touchdowns — the reward available was a gain of chunk yardage on a play blown up by a pass rush. The risk?
Well, some deference should be offered to Claypool and Boykin. They both get their hands on the off-balance throws, both have a chance to catch the pass. These do not qualify as drops or failings by the receivers in any regard, not that those have been in short supply already this season. Rather, this is to say the physical presences of Claypool and Boykin made it exceedingly-unlikely Wimbush’s passes would be intercepted. Thus, the risk was actually low.
In fact, of Wimbush’s four interceptions this year, only one has been in the vicinity of the big targets, a slant that bounced off Boykin’s hands against Ball State. Another interception that day was also intended for Boykin, but that one came from Wimbush not seeing a defender and misreading the situation, not from a one-on-one opportunity down the sideline.
Despite the pass rush, Wimbush was comfortable looking down the sideline, trusting his biggest receivers to be sure respective defenders would not haul in his jump ball, leaving a chance for an Irish gain on the play. That possibility would not exist if simply throwing the ball into the sidelines. Analytically, the difference in expected gain may be infinite.
Before pounding a keyboard insisting this is a foolish view, watch that clip again. The passes were hardly in true jeopardy of being intercepted, a credit to Claypool and Boykin. They were, however, in play to be caught, especially the second of the two. Thus, expect to see that reflex again from Wimbush, at the least early in the game, but possibly more often than that, as well.
“We just get into a good flow early on and what we probably need to do is be more repeaters of plays,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Go back to plays that have been successful and come back and repeat them.”
ON NICK COLEMAN & HOUSTON GRIFFITH
Senior Nick Coleman did not play against Vanderbilt, leaving freshman Houston Griffith to handle most nickel back duties. There was no underlying reason other than wanting to give Griffith more playing time, per Kelly.
“We’ll need Nick this weekend,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This will be a game that he’ll have to play a considerable amount of football for us.”
That does not mean Griffith will not see action, as well, especially since Wake Forest will be happy to rattle off an absurd number of plays.
“He’s obviously a guy that each and every week when he gets a chance to play, we see more and more from him,” Kelly said. “It’s just a true freshman playing. He’s got a nice skill set, but he’s learning every time he goes out there.”
Griffith finished with four tackles against Vanderbilt.
ON GREG DORTCH
Coleman will be needed for “considerable” contributions because the nickel back is likely to frequently line up opposite Demon Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch. Kelly broke out most cliché pieces of praise for Dortch, though deservedly so.
“He can take over a football game,” Kelly said. “Electric player, great acceleration, great hands, makes people miss as a highlight reel.”
COLE KMET UPDATE
Kelly said Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will remain sidelined at Wake Forest as he recovers from a high ankle sprain, but Kmet should be healthy before the Stanford tilt on Sept. 29.