Padanilam: Irish shouldn’t settle for mediocrity
Benjamin Padanilam | Friday, September 22, 2017
“The Georgia loss didn’t snowball.”
“The Irish proved that they can beat the teams that they should, even when they struggle.”
“That’s a big deal.”
My colleague, Daniel O’Boyle, offered those takes in his column following Notre Dame’s 49-20 win over Boston College last weekend. And for the most part, I agreed with him.
Except when he said the team’s performance was a big deal.
Because even though they got the win, there was a lot to be concerned about that only gets overshadowed by emphasizing the final result.
As great as the rushing attack was, it can’t be ignored how poor the passing attack was.
As great as the team’s final offensive numbers were, it can’t be ignored how poor the offensive game plan was throughout the first half.
As great as a final score of 49-20 looks, it can’t be ignored how poor a third-quarter score of 14-13 against Boston College looks.
In short, as great as a 2-1 record with a +61 scoring margin looks on paper, the Irish haven’t secured a truly foundational win quite yet.
The fact remains that Notre Dame’s junior quarterback is still very much a rookie. Brandon Wimbush has thrown for zero touchdowns, one interception and just 306 yards combined in the last two games. His completion percentages in those contests? Fifty percent and 46 percent, respectively.
And while Wimbush certainly can’t escape blame for his own struggles, some of the blame doesn’t fall on him. The Irish game plan through the air hasn’t put the first-year starter in a position to succeed thus far. Aside from a bevy of screens and the occasional deep shot, the play calling has largely consisted of rolling Wimbush out in play action, asking him to make throws to the sideline while on the run.
The problem with the throws they’re asking him to make is that they require a quarterback to have a rhythm, both with his own mechanics and a timing that matches his receivers. And as a rookie on the field, Wimbush is still developing in those areas.
But you wouldn’t know that from the Irish game plan under the direction of offensive coordinator Chip Long thus far. Instead of treating his quarterback as a first-year starter, Long has consistently asked the junior to play like a four-year veteran.
In order to establish an effective passing game and avoid becoming a one-dimensional offense, Notre Dame needs to recognize what they have in Wimbush: a quarterback with a strong arm who is still developing a rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. The fact that junior Equanimeous St. Brown — Wimbush’s top target coming into the season — has only seven receptions for 99 yards through three games speaks to that issue, and establishing their connection will be crucial for Notre Dame to compete with the elite teams — such as No. 5 USC — remaining on its schedule.
The Irish could go about developing Wimbush as a passer in a number of ways. They could line him up under center, asking him to work on simple-rhythm passes such as the five-step drop. They could keep him in the pocket more often, enabling him to go through his reads and throw with his shoulders squared, something he hasn’t done when being forced to roll out from the pocket.
But that isn’t what the Irish seem to be planning to do. And that’s why the Boston College win wasn’t foundational.
Because Notre Dame is choosing to embrace the results on paper rather than to address the issues that were borne out in the Boston College win or even the Georgia loss.
After Saturday’s game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, “Now, I think we know what part of the library we need to kind of move towards. … Now, I think we can start to really focus in on the things that [Wimbush] does really well, and that’s where this offense will continue to grow and develop.”
And Kelly all but doubled down on the commitment to the run in his press conferences Sunday and Tuesday.
The wins over Temple and Boston College showed that commitment works against low-caliber competition. The Owls (2-1) have one-score wins over FCS Villanova and 0-4 UMass. The Eagles’ only win came by three points over Northern Illinois.
So Notre Dame’s offensive game plan has proven success in games it is already expected to win handily.
But against higher quality teams with significantly better defenses?
Well, Notre Dame’s 55 rushing yards on 37 attempts in a loss to No. 11 Georgia provided that answer.
So until the Irish commit to developing Wimbush, their ceiling will be capped. They will only be capable of beating the teams they are expected to, while floundering against the teams they aren’t.
As long as Notre Dame commits itself to a largely one-dimensional offense, it will essentially be committing itself to mediocrity.
So I ask, why should we believe Saturday’s win was a “big deal?”
Alright, let’s try again.
Is Notre Dame really a program content with mediocrity?
Is that good enough for you?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.