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Mulvena: Don’t just blame Brandon Wimbush for a close game

| Monday, September 10, 2018

What a whirlwind. From victory over then-No. 14 Michigan under the bright lights of prime time to the dreary chill of a grey Saturday afternoon against Ball State in a game that was almost a little too interesting, it’s hard to tell where the Irish stand right now.

After my column in this week’s Irish Insider, in which I said Notre Dame didn’t really prove itself against Michigan, my mother chided me for my general negativity in a lengthy phone call.

Well, I hate to say “I told you so,” but we all saw a very different Notre Dame team against a much inferior Ball State. There were a number of areas that simply did not align with the performance the Irish put on in Week 1.

Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush did not have a good game, but he is absolutely not the reason Notre Dame almost dropped Saturday’s contest.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush looks to make a throw during Notre Dame’s 24-16 win over Ball State on Saturday. Wimbush finished with 297 passing yards, but with three interceptions.

“I think what we want to do is for Brandon Wimbush to continue to lead our offense. Brandon Wimbush wasn’t the reason that we were ineffective offensively,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I don’t think we coached very well this week. I don’t believe I prepared him the way we should have, now that I see the way they played. We didn’t protect him at the highest level, there’s a lot of things.”

Wimbush could have passed more efficiently from the pocket, and three interceptions (one of which ought to fall on senior wide receiver Miles Boykin) are not ideal. But instead of jumping straight to criticizing him for his pocket-passing efficiency, which is simply tiring at this point, let’s look at some alternative explanations for Wimbush’s line of 17-of-31 with three interceptions and the loss as a whole.

First, the Irish offensive line was puzzlingly bad. Wimbush took a lot of pressure throughout the game — he once scrambled for about 30 yards just for a 2-yard gain — and although at least one of those interceptions could have been avoided by throwing the ball away, much of the blame falls on the offensive line. You can’t call for anyone to be comfortable in the pocket if they don’t have enough time. Graduate student offensive lineman Sam Mustipher spoke about the challenge Ball State’s front posed for the Irish offensive line.

“They were physical, they were moving — blitzing us, pressuring us,” Mustipher said. “They played well. They had a good front, a good seven that gave us problems.”

Mustipher clearly had a far better look than I at the Ball State defensive line, but it seems odd that an offensive line that had no problem paving the way for Wimbush against Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, two of the best defensive players in college football, would struggle with the Cardinals. Maybe all of that falls on Chip Long, or maybe even on Kelly, who himself admitted must do a better job of preparing his guys. But either way, Wimbush ought not be blamed for offensive blocking struggles.

Secondly, the Notre Dame defensive unit was, in large part, inconsistent. Junior safety Jalen Elliot’s two picks were high points of the contest, and without them, this game could have gotten away from the Irish. But if Notre Dame must rely on two interceptions from a safety against a team who struggled in MAC conference play last year, how will it fare against Bryce Love and Stanford?

That aspect of Saturday’s game is difficult because it’s clear, on paper, that the Irish have the defensive pieces to build one of the strongest units in the country. But for some reason, Ball State quarterback Riley Neal had just a little too much room to breathe on Saturday. With little slant passes and a high tempo, Neal and his unit managed to carry drives above the five-minute mark, and the Cardinals’ time of possession more than doubled that of the Irish after the first quarter. Of course, in the red zone the Irish defense was very solid, but against a different team, those field goals could certainly add up.

Thirdly, whereas Notre Dame’s wide receivers seemed to grab every 50/50 ball in sight against Michigan, they struggled mightily on Saturday. Sophomore running back Avery Davis dropped a certain touchdown in the second quarter. Boykin bobbled a pass from Wimbush that was right in his hands, which resulted in a pick. The pass was tipped at the line, but Boykin still could have easily made the catch. Things just seemed out of sync at times with the wide receivers. When Wimbush threw his third interception of the game in the fourth quarter, it went right into the hands of Ball State’s Ray Wilborn, as senior wide receiver Chris Finke and Boykin watched. That was certainly more than an errant throw.

The point is, Notre Dame was inconsistent on virtually all fronts Saturday afternoon. One minute, the offense was shredding through Ball State’s secondary in seconds, and the next, the Irish were dropping touchdown passes. The defense would allow Neal to prance into the red zone, and then shut him down once he was there. The Irish would take one step forward and two steps backward. And all of this cannot fall on Wimbush, even though he too needs to be much better if Notre Dame is intent on making the playoff. If Wimbush becomes the center of blame, it becomes easy to forget how much it truly takes to build a championship football team.

Saturday ought to be a humbling, and more importantly an awakening experience for the Irish.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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