Padanilam: Saturday’s win didn’t teach us all that much
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, October 9, 2017
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Saturday’s game against North Carolina could’ve been billed as a chance to learn about who this Notre Dame team really is.
The expectation for most of the week was that junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush wouldn’t be able to go, leaving sophomore Ian Book to start in his place. And just under 30 minutes before Saturday’s kickoff, that was confirmed.
So how would the Irish perform without their starting quarterback able to go for them?
Turns out, the Irish (5-1) played well at some times and not so well at others.
Early on, Book looked comfortable. He completed eight of his first 11 pass attempts and threw his first career touchdown pass in the second quarter. He seemed in his element in coordinator Chip Long’s offense, rolling out of the pocket and making the throws that Wimbush has often struggled with at times this year.
But as the game progressed, Book didn’t look as comfortable.
He was kept in the pocket a little bit more, and he struggled to read the defense and make his progressions after the Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3 ACC) started to make adjustments. On his last 20 attempts, Book completed only nine passes and threw two interceptions.
And all of that invites the following question: Did anyone really expect Book to throw the ball 31 times in the first place? Let alone 25 times in the first half?
You’re lying if you said yes.
Because with a new quarterback under center making his first career start, it was difficult to foresee Notre Dame throwing the ball nearly as many times as it handed it off in the first half.
But that’s exactly what the Irish did.
And in the end, it all worked out fine. Book didn’t play well enough to stir up any questions about Wimbush’s job security, as my colleague Daniel O’Boyle suggested a strong performance could in his column Friday; nor did he play poorly enough for the Irish to ever truly feel threatened in this game.
So we didn’t really learn much about the Irish passing game with or without Wimbush in Saturday’s game. And the fact Book threw more times in the first half than Wimbush had in either of the previous three games suggests we really didn’t learn much about the offensive strategy going forward, either.
What about the other facets of Saturday’s win?
Well, nothing much new there, either.
Junior running back Josh Adams ran for another 100-plus yards in the first half, buoyed largely, again, by another long touchdown run — this one to the tune of 73 yards — that has seemingly become the norm on a per-game basis for the captain.
And when the Irish took Adams out of the game to deal with his dehydration, we saw sophomore Deon McIntosh yet again close out another Irish win, this time with his best performance of the season — 12 carries, 124 yards and two touchdowns, all in the second half.
And while McIntosh’s performance was impressive, it also wasn’t altogether surprising. The sophomore had closed out games before, and this time he just took on a bigger role against a much weaker defense — one that had given up five yards per carry and 222 yards per game entering Saturday — behind one of college football’s best offensive lines.
This game offered a glimpse at the real depth Notre Dame has at the running back spot. But if head coach Brian Kelly is going to continue to label Adams as the “bellcow” back and play musical chairs with the backups when he needs a spell, it doesn’t really tell us much about the role McIntosh will play in closer games against better teams — a la USC, North Carolina State, Miami (FL) or Stanford — going forward.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was dominant. It kept the Tar Heels offense without a first down the entire first quarter and a good chunk of the second quarter. Plus, it forced another three turnovers and even added two points on a defensive safety to close out the first half.
But against a North Carolina offense that was averaging less than 400 yards of offense per game and had already turned from its graduate transfer starter to a redshirt freshman at quarterback just a few games into the season, there probably wasn’t much that can be gleaned from the defense’s performance either.
So what’s left to say?
Well, Notre Dame took care of business Saturday, beating a vastly inferior and thinner team, just as it was supposed to.
And the Irish saw that they have talent up and down the depth chart, players who can contribute when injuries occur or when they want to rely on their depth.
But outside of the quarterback spot, this was something Notre Dame already at least partially knew.
And going forward, it probably doesn’t change all that much either.
So Saturday’s win was what it needed to be, nothing more and nothing less.
Now the Irish have a bye week, giving them two weeks to prepare for their biggest game the rest of the way: a night game at home against current-No. 14 USC.
And that’s a game when we’ll actually learn about who this Irish team has become in the last four weeks.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.