2018 always was and still is going to come down to how improved Brandon Wimbush is for Notre Dame. That might be too much pressure and it might be unfair for there to be that much pressure on the senior quarterback, but it is the reality of the season for Notre Dame. One week in, Wimbush has people believing that he is ready to embrace that pressure.
Notre Dame’s week one opponent featured perhaps the best defense the Irish will face all year. Michigan brought a defense featuring multiple future high NFL Draft picks into town this past weekend. It’s highly unlikely Brandon Wimbush will face a more talented unit. If his performance against that elite defense is the worst we see of him, big things could be in store for Notre Dame.
Wimbush completed 12 of 22 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown with one interception. All last season the only opposing quarterback to complete that high of a percentage of their passes against the Wolverines was Penn State’s Trace McSorely. So while his numbers weren’t eye popping, it was encouraging to see Wimbush play at such a high level against a defense not known for allowing opposing quarterbacks to have big games.
Now, we have seen games like this from Brandon Wimbush in the past – see the Michigan State and USC games a year ago. We haven’t seen him have games like this against an elite defense like Michigan’s though.
The key for Notre Dame the rest of the season now is to build on this performance and have it carry over into their other marquee games. The breakdown of Notre Dame’s schedule provides a great opportunity for that to happen.
Between now and Notre Dame’s week five contest with Stanford the Irish face Ball State and Vanderbilt at home and then make their first road trip of the year to Wake Forest. These aren’t all complete gimmes, but they are all games that Notre Dame should win comfortably. They are also all games that should give Notre Dame ample opportunity to continue to work on their passing game in process.
For all of the positive signs from Wimbush there were some negative as well. He threw the one interception downfield that could have been avoided and he continually threw off his back foot all night long. Given the frequency with which he still throws off his back foot, that might not be corrected easily if ever. The interception though, is one that Kelly, Tommy Rees, and Chip Long will work on in the film room this week.
Wimbush also left some plays on the field and had a few taken away otherwise his game could have been outstanding. One touchdown pass was taken off the board because of an alignment issue that ended up creating an ineligible man downfield simply from a mental lapse. That’s not on Wimbush but it did negate perhaps his best throw of the night – a beautifully placed ball right at the pylon to Miles Boykin.
Another nice gain on a screen to Avery Davis was negated for a hold and then Wimbuh missed what could have been a 50+ yard touchdown on a beautifully designed screen to Davis at the end of the first half. Wimbush had Davis with a convoy in front of him and nothing but open turf. He rushed the throw and ended up nearly having it picked off. An on target throw and Davis scores easily.
For Notre Dame and Wimbush to get to where both want to be, Chip Long and Brian Kelly have to both keep working with Wimbush in some of these areas, but also continue to put him in a position to succeed. Kelly has spoken a lot about calling the game to the strengths of Wimbush and around who he is as opposed to who fans may want him to be. I thought they did an OK job of that on Saturday night, but at times they still dialed up some plays that Wimbush has routinely struggled with the last two years. One thing we did not really see any of though was the WR screen that Wimbush really struggled with a year ago.
Notre Dame can beat Ball State this weekend pounding the ball 60 times if they want to. No one would really argue that. They can probably get away with barely passing next week against Vandy too. Can Notre Dame beat Stanford and Virginia Tech in a month though without building on the improvements we saw in the passing game week one? Maybe not.
Notre Dame shouldn’t just air it out the next two weeks to build on the good that Wimbush did last weekend either. There were still plays that he left on the field in the running game as well. No quarterback is ever going to be 100% right in the zone read, so that will be a constant work in progress. There was definitely some meat left on the bone in the running game too though.
When they do let Wimbush throw the ball, hopefully they will try to stretch the field more. With Michigan’s pass rush, it was difficult to let Wimbush sit back in the pocket long, but the next few weeks that shouldn’t be an issue. Some of Wimbush’s downfield throws looked pretty good, but others were off which is to be expected in week one. If they can start hitting the deep ball more consistently over the next few weeks, Stanford and Virginia Tech’s defenses will have a lot to prepare for.
Brandon Wimbush and the Notre Dame offense had their moments against the Michigan defense and for defenses as good as Michigan’s that is sometimes the best you can hope for. Now that that test has been passed, the next test for Brandon Wimbush and the Notre Dame offense is to play complete games the next few weeks. If they do that and their confidence starts to build, we could all be in store for more Saturday nights like we had this past weekend later this season when the schedule stiffens back up.