Even in retrospect, Brian Kelly would not change who he started at quarterback for Notre Dame to begin the season. Irish senior Brandon Wimbush gave Notre Dame its best chance at overcoming Michigan’s defense despite a dearth of offensive experience.
“The whole offseason was focused on getting Brandon ready to beat Michigan,” Kelly said. “… This offense was not mature enough going into the Michigan game. The playmaker on our offense was Brandon Wimbush. It needed to center around him to beat Michigan.”
Let the record show: The Irish beat the Wolverines. Wimbush accounted for 229 yards and a touchdown. Even including sacks, he was Notre Dame’s leading rusher and his 22-yard quarterback draw on a third-and-18 revived an Irish drive when there had been no momentum for far too long, eventually setting up a field goal but also draining the second-half clock.
Wimbush needed to carry the load then, per Kelly, as running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones “were not ready.” Neither was freshman receiver Kevin Austin. Even senior receiver Miles Boykin could claim all of 18 catches in his career before this season, and he was considered the leading pass-catcher.
“The next two weeks, those kids needed to mature,” Kelly said. “Then we needed to make this decision that we did relative to the quarterbacks position.”
That maturing showed itself most notably in Jones rushing for 118 yards and catching two passes for 56 more last week against Vanderbilt. Austin found the field and contributed, Boykin proved steady, and even senior tight end Alizé Mack caught three passes from Wimbush, a connection that never quite developed the expected chemistry. But it was the improved running game that stood out most.
“They just needed reps,” Kelly said. “Real, live reps.
“I tried to go as much live (in practice) as I could, but that’s hard to duplicate even in camp. … They needed game reps, they needed these games to really find themselves. Now they know they can lower their shoulder and run through players …
“We just needed games offensively to find ourselves. That’s why I knew this was the week that we needed to do this. Ian needed that supporting cast that would best suit him.”
And thus led to the change of inserting junior Ian Book as the starting quarterback at Wake Forest this weekend.
Let the record show: Notre Dame won its fourth game in four tries, led by Book’s 325 passing yards and five total touchdowns, completing throws to 10 different targets, buoyed by Armstrong’s 98 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“We were at week three and it didn’t matter what other people thought of this team,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a good team. … We needed to play with a sense of urgency. I felt the pieces were there to have a really good football team. We needed to kick it in gear.”
Kelly said Book may have started to realize something was different as early as Monday when practice reps were split more evenly between the always-a-backup and Wimbush than their usual 40/60 rotation. It started to become quite clear by Thursday.
In Kelly’s mind, and supported by this first week of evidence, turning to Book would do more than give the offensive playmakers greater opportunities. He would also give the Irish defense a break, a breather, a badly-needed rest. By not keeping drives alive — Notre Dame had converted only 16-of-44 third downs entering the weekend, 36.36 percent, compared to 4-of-9 against the Demon Deacons — and by not establishing sizable leads, the offense had left the defense exposed to the demands of both quantity of snaps and their competitive quality.
“The residual effect, it was wearing on our defense,” Kelly said. “I’ll start with the end in mind. The end in mind is we needed to win, but we weren’t winning at a level that was going to allow us to continue to win.”
That end in mind will remain the starting point. On that note, Kelly would not outright commit to Book as his quarterback moving forward, not that such a declaration was expected. Even in a 13-minute session filled with candor unbefitting most college football coaches, Kelly was not going to commit to anything he did not need to. His toeing the line made practical sense both tactically and personnel-wise.
“We saw today that our offense is operated very well with Ian Book, but we also beat a top-10 team in Michigan,” Kelly said. “It would be absolutely foolish of me to sit here in front of you and go, we have one quarterback and one quarterback only.
“We have two really good quarterbacks. I’m going to reserve the right to decide each and every week who is the best guy each week to win.”