SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two sets of lessons may have come out of No. 3 Notre Dame’s 42-13 dismantling of Florida State on Saturday. Such is the ambiguity innate to the uncertain health of starting quarterback Ian Book. After the game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was vague about Book’s health moving forward as he recovers from a ribs injury, but Kelly was adamant a healthy Book would return to the starting lineup.
By Sunday afternoon, Kelly “expected” Book to practice Tuesday and play next week against No. 12 Syracuse (8-2) at Yankee Stadium.
“There were stages of evaluation that he’s been going through,” Kelly said. “This was just another step in that evaluation process that needed to be clicked off through our team doctors, for him to move through the protocol that has been established for him to be cleared to play.”
Notre Dame would prefer Book be healthy and starting, but the unbeaten Irish can keep that no-loss distinction with senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush at the helm.
Some of that is simply due to the luxury of having a proven and known commodity at backup quarterback. When Wimbush comes in, Notre Dame knows what it is getting, knows the substitute will not panic under pressure, knows the offense can produce behind him, even if not necessarily consistently.
“Brandon’s a baller,” to use senior receiver Miles Boykin’s words. “He’s going to go out there and win every game he plays.”
Compare that to the response a year ago when the roles were flipped and Book had to spot start for an injured Wimbush.
“It was different when Ian stepped in just because we didn’t really know at that point,” Boykin said. “We were just, okay, Ian is stepping in.”
When Wimbush is in a rhythm, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. That is not hyperbolic, just selective. He began the day 10-of-16 for 111 yards and three touchdowns. Stat lines do not come much better than that, especially not when adding seven rushes for 43 yards.
“We’re trying to attack a defense, but we’re also trying to be smart and utilize the strengths of a quarterback we feel can accurately do the things we want him to do,” Kelly said Saturday. “The game plan was solid. We wanted to get off to a great start. We did.”
Yet, Wimbush remains Wimbush, warts and all.
After that great start, Wimbush’s productivity halted. He went 2-of-9 for 19 yards after that, finishing 12-of-25 with two interceptions and 130 yards. Both turnovers were avoidable, something even Wimbush admitted.
“I made a bad read on the first ball, and I was kind of late on the second ball,” he said. “That’s what got me those two picks. I don’t think [Florida State] made any adjustments. I don’t think I came out with the same fire in the second half.”
A skeptic would note Wimbush’s first success came as a result of one of his flaws. With the Irish at the 3-yard line after a Nick Coleman interception, offensive coordinator Chip Long called for a fade route on each side of the field, leaving the decision of whom to target to Wimbush. On one side, junior receiver Chase Claypool; on the other, Boykin against a safety.
“I’m not going to say [Seminoles sophomore Hamsah Nasirildeen] had no chance, but I’m taking Miles in that matchup, for sure,” Wimbush said.
Boykin knew as much.
“I knew he was coming to me just because he was staring at me,” Boykin said. “He threw a great ball in the back of the end zone.”
The well-placed throw made the staredown acceptable in this instance, but the result does not usually cover for that process.
Wimbush still struggled with reading coverages, making the right decisions and remaining accurate through four quarters. His moments of excellence are strong enough to win any game, but Wimbush’s mistakes greatly reduce the margin of error otherwise provided by Book.
That margin of error was a bit greater against Florida State, nonetheless, because of the running game, a luxury Wimbush did not have at his disposal in September. Senior running back Dexter Williams gets the headlines because of his 20-carry, 202-yard, two-touchdown showing. Deservedly so.
But to some extent, Williams playing that well is nearly expected. Maybe not that well, but when he has had room to operate this season, Williams has decisively made the most of it. Yet, in two of the last three games he has not had that room. Williams took 13 carries for 31 yards against Pittsburgh and 19 for 56 yards last week at Northwestern. Notre Dame as a whole did not fare much better, rushing for 80 yards on 38 attempts and 121 yards on 40 attempts, respectively. That will not get the job done.
Something changed against the Seminoles. Perhaps it was the re-insertion of junior Tommy Kraemer at right guard due to an elbow strain affecting senior Trevor Ruhland. That made for the fifth offensive line grouping seen this season. To refresh your memory:
Michigan through Stanford: Liam Eichenberg — Alex Bars — Sam Mustipher — Tommy Kraemer — Robert Hainsey.
With the exception of Wake Forest: Eichenberg — Bars — Mustipher — Ruhland — Hainsey.
Bars’ injury through Pittsburgh: Eichenberg — Ruhland — Mustipher — Kraemer — Hainsey.
Navy and Northwestern: Eichenberg — Aaron Banks — Mustipher — Ruhland — Hainsey.
Florida State: Eichenberg — Banks — Mustipher — Kraemer — Hainsey.
This is more churn than desirable, but for one day, the rushing output resembled last season’s.
“It was an overall unit victory in a sense that all of them played well together,” Kelly said Sunday. “We’ve been waiting for that kind of consistency as a group, and that includes tight ends. They were much more effective and efficient.”
There were no ups-and-downs with the offensive line Saturday. Florida State did not manage a single tackle for loss.
That running game, combined with an opportunistic defense, made up for Wimbush’s second-half ineffectiveness, and his opening work was impressive enough the Irish could afford to coast through the second half to 10-0.
If Book returns in a week, that running game should make Notre Dame’s offense more high-powered than it has been since perhaps 2015. If not, the Irish may be just alright, anyway.