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Mulvena: ND a long way from proving itself

| Friday, September 7, 2018

As my esteemed colleague warned us all last week, so I reiterate his caution this week: don’t drink the Michigan Kool-Aid.

Last week’s game was a fantastic win for the Irish. The defense looked solid, the running backs — most notably sophomore Jafar Armstrong — showed excellent promise and, most encouraging, Brian Kelly and his staff simply out-coached Harbaugh and his staff, especially on offense. Chip Long and his squad made one of the most menacing defenses in the country appear lackluster, confused and out of order. All of this bodes well for the Irish.

But, let’s slow down for a minute.

The Irish played well, but Michigan looked horrendous on Saturday. Supposed savior Shea Patterson looked nervous and lacked a certain confidence that tends to accompany All-American quarterbacks. He didn’t get rid of the ball when he needed to and his reads on the Notre Dame secondary were often alarmingly off-base. The Wolverines posed virtually no threat on the ground, rushing for a measly 58 total yards. And sure, the Irish staff may have out-coached Michigan on both sides of the ball, but let’s not forget, Harbaugh still had no offensive coordinator. It’s easier to out-coach another staff when it doesn’t exist.

But Wimbush is a pocket passer now! He worked on it in the offseason — Brian Kelly told us so.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback surveys the field during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

The narrative that Wimbush becoming a pocket passer will carry the Irish to the playoff is so over-hyped I can hear it when I go to sleep. Yes, a Brandon Wimbush who’s comfortable in the pocket would be devastating for defenses across the country, but we can’t talk ourselves into believing that prophesy to be true after one game against a program that is a shadow of what it used to be. Wimbush looked fantastic in the first half, completing 8-of-11 passes for 138 yards and an impressive touchdown. But the second half didn’t go so well for the newly born “pocket passer.” He was 4-of-11 for 32 yards and a pick, and Notre Dame’s final seven drives amounted to one field goal. Plus, virtually all of Notre Dame’s big receptions were 50/50 balls. Chris Finke’s touchdown could have just as easily been a pick, and Boykin’s key 28-yard reception was up in the air.

I don’t mean to put Wimbush down, he was fantastic on the ground on Saturday as per usual. And I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that he needs to be a pocket passer for the Irish to go deep this season. But let’s not fall into the classic Notre Dame trap after week one. The one where the Irish win, we tune into ESPN and watch three out of four writers pencil Notre Dame in for a playoff several months away, and think they’ve got it made.

The second half of the Michigan game was some bad football, on both sides, and we ought to remember that than get caught up in a narrative that hasn’t been decided and isn’t telling yet even if it were. Notre Dame has a ton of potential this season, and a playoff spot is totally within reach. But let’s talk about Wimbush as a pocket passer after he shreds Bud Foster’s defense in Blacksburg. Let’s talk about the defense as a national force after it contains Bryce Love. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  

Ball State this weekend offers the Irish a fantastic opportunity to assess. Let Brandon Wimbush really stay in the pocket and see what he can do, even if that means throwing it away a few times. Let Jafar Armstrong really get creative and see if he can shake a defense like Adams used to. I’m not saying Ball State will be the test which either proves or denies Notre Dame’s competency. The Irish have a long way to go for that. But Notre Dame not only needs to make a statement to teams around the nation this week, it needs to take a moment and see who fits where, what works and what is going to separate this team from a Clemson or an Auburn.

Ball State is no Michigan, not even the Michigan we saw on Saturday, but this game is crucial for Notre Dame’s in season development.

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

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