Padanilam: Irish took important, necessary step Saturday
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, September 25, 2017
EAST LANSING, Mich. — On paper, a 20-point victory might seem to pale in comparison to 33- or 29-point victories.
But looking as something on paper can be deceiving.
On Friday, I wrote that Notre Dame’s 49-20 win over Boston College wasn’t as good as it looked on paper. The success in the running game had masked the deficiencies in the air attack — the same deficiencies that had showed themselves against Georgia in Notre Dame’s only loss of the season.
And a look at the box score from Saturday’s 38-18 win over Michigan State would, on paper, indicate similar struggles. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw for only 173 yards through the air — his third game this season in which he failed to reach the 200-yard threshold. And in contrast to last week’s win, the offense wasn’t buoyed by two 200-yard rushing performances, as not a single Irish runner exceeded 60 yards on the ground.
But looking for the box score to evaluate the success of Notre Dame’s offense Saturday would be misguided.
Because when it was all said and done, the Irish (3-1) walked out of Spartan Stadium on Saturday with their best, most complete win of the season.
The emphasis on a balanced attack was clear from the get-go, as Notre Dame came out with five passing plays in its first six plays. The Irish even allowed Wimbush to find his rhythm, as the first play from scrimmage was a one-step drop for the junior that allowed him to fire a pass on target to waiting sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool. After several screens that allowed Wimbush to get a few throws in, the Irish finally took their deep shot; and Wimbush connected, finding junior wideout Equanimeous St. Brown 40 yards downfield to set up the 16-yard rushing touchdown by Wimbush just two plays later.
Perhaps Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long read my column and adjusted accordingly. But more likely than not, the Irish had this game plan from the beginning of the week — taking advantage of a Spartan defense stuffing the middle of the field to slow the run by throwing outside — and just didn’t want the rest of the world to know about it.
And sure, the numbers might not pop off the page, but the Irish maintained a balanced attack the rest of the way. Their 173 yards through the air was only narrowly surpassed by their 182 yards on the ground. And Wimbush’s 14-of-20 passing mark was good enough to make the Spartans (2-1) respect the passing attack or hurt them when they didn’t.
So while the Irish still stuck with a run-heavy game plan — toting the ball on the ground 40 times against just those 20 pass attempts — they did enough through the air to move the ball with success on most of its drives.
And they made sure their first-year starter at quarterback was comfortable enough to deliver when they called on him.
But what truly made this a complete effort for Notre Dame was the performance of its defense. The unit made the plays it needed to for the Irish to pull ahead, singlehandedly shifting the momentum of the game.
Even head coach Brian Kelly couldn’t help but note that the true story of the game was the defense’s ability to take the ball away.
The Irish forced three turnovers in the first half. Two came in the form of fumble recoveries, including a touchdown-saving punch out and recovery that would make former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman proud by Irish junior corner Shaun Crawford. And the third was an early pick-six by sophomore cornerback Julian Love.
By the end of the first half, the Irish had turned all three of those turnovers into touchdowns. Together, the offense and defense had done their part to jump ahead 28-7, a comfortable lead they would essentially maintain throughout the entire second half.
And that’s why Saturday’s game represented Notre Dame’s best effort this season thus far, regardless of the numbers might seem to indicate.
Because the Irish were as good as they needed to be in every facet of Saturday’s win.
Is this Irish team perfect? No.
Does it still have room for improvement? Absolutely.
But it cannot be ignored that Notre Dame took a big step in the right direction at Spartan Stadium.
A step it very much needed.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.