The talk about Notre Dame going into the 2018 season at least partially revolved around whether the defense might be as talented as the 2012 unit that propelled the Irish to a 12-0 regular season. Through three games, we don’t have a clear answer on that question, but the season as a whole sure seems a lot like 2012 right now – for better and worse.
The Irish staved off a valiant comeback attempt by Vanderbilt and won the game Saturday, 22-17, to move to 3-0, all by one possession. This game in particular was reminiscent of that year’s Purdue game, another one-possession ‘thriller’ against a team ND was expected to handle. Vandy has a good defense, as far as we know. Their quarterback, Kyle Shurmur, might be the best one ND has faced to date. It remains to be seen how good Vandy is, but just as we had in 2012, there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding this team. A few of them:
How good is this secondary?
The ND run defense was very good today, holding Vandy to under 100 yards rushing as a team and 3.5 yards per attempt. Then again, the run defense wasn’t in question – the pass defense was.
On the whole, the Notre Dame secondary has probably exceeded expectations so far. Today wasn’t the strongest effort, but Shurmur made some remarkable throws in going for 326 yards, nearly eight yards per attempt. One very unremarkable throw was the one that got picked off by Troy Pride, although even that one worked out for him when Pride was tackled at the 1-yard line and Vandy turned the ensuing three-and-out into a touchdown. Pride made a handful of very good plays to force incompletions, though, and his physical play proved a net positive (even though it also resulted in a fourth-down flag that briefly kept Vandy alive on the final drive).
The best plays, though, went to Jalen Elliott, who poked his hand in and broke up the final fourth-down pass at the last second to preserve the ND win, and Alohi Gilman, who yanked the ball away from a Vandy receiver at the 1-yard line resulting in a touchback. If they don’t pull that off, we’re probably having a very different conversation right now.
We don’t know how good the ND secondary is, and we might not for a while as the Irish don’t face many game-breaking quarterbacks in the next month or so.
Do we have a quarterback?
I’m trying not to obsess over the “Wimbook” phenomenon too much, because everyone else is too, but I have to give it a mention. Brandon Wimbush was pretty much what he always is today – occasionally excellent (his throw to Tony Jones on the wheel route was just gorgeous), dynamic (he had some big runs, though Vandy did well to limit them), and sometimes maddening. That said, 16/26 for 135 plus 84 yards rushing without a turnover isn’t a bad stat line against a good defense. It would’ve been nice if Wimbush could’ve hit on a deep shot, but unsurprisingly the Commodores seemed to be selling out on stopping those.
I do wonder a little bit about the red zone thing. Book seems to have taken on the role of Paul Failla in the early 1990s (I’d say I’m dating myself, but I was only six for this), and today it worked really well, as he lofted a nice TD to Nic Weishar. But taking Wimbush out in those spots does limit the Irish’s options somewhat, and his ability to score with his legs was a huge factor in their impressive red zone offense a year ago. So far, ND hasn’t had the same ability to finish drives – a big part of the reason this game was close to begin with. The Irish might be better off keeping Wimbush in there. But coach Kelly seems wedded to this idea, so I guess I’m shouting into the void there.
Is Tony Jones the answer?
If there’s one big positive development today, it’s the work of Tony Jones. He was terrific, following good blocks, making cuts and going for 118 yards on 17 carries. ND hadn’t gotten much out of its running backs through two weeks, so for Jones to put up that kind of game against a good Vandy defense was a great sign going forward. ND is going to need its running game if it’s going to get much farther into the season without a loss, and if Jones can be the guy to carry the load, that would be tremendous. Jafar Armstrong, who had 46 yards on 11 carries, wasn’t bad either. It was a promising game in terms of the running game.
Is this team good?
Well…I don’t know yet. Ball State getting trounced by IU one week after playing the Irish to one possession wasn’t promising. Neither was a whole ton about this game. But as we used to say, Doesn’t Matter; 3-0. Sure, the Irish haven’t looked imposing. But they’ve won all three games. Hopefully we will see some improvement next week at Wake Forest, a game that is screaming Trap Game with the Stanford/Va Tech double to follow.
(Photo credit: Indianapolis Star)