SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The declaration echoed through the hallways near the home team locker rooms and might have just been loud enough to be heard at the visitor’s locker room, too.
“Brandon Wimbush for Heisman!”
Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer skipped down the corridor underneath Notre Dame Stadium and put his arm around his successor. He’d done the same thing a few minutes earlier, nearly tackling Wimbush on the field where the redshirt junior quarterback had just led the Fighting Irish to a 24–17 win over rival Michigan.
The Heisman Trophy conversation might be premature. But what’s not is a lengthy discussion about Wimbush’s progress over the past year. Everyone within and around the program, from head coach Brian Kelly to offensive coordinator Chip Long to receiver Miles Boykin to Wimbush’s high school coach back in New Jersey, has had to answer questions about the starting QB’s accuracy, mechanics, confidence, leadership, etc. Has he evolved in the passing game after finishing his rookie season with a 49.5 completion percentage? More specifically, what kind of progress has he made in the short game? Has he developed a mental edge after panicking in last year’s most chaotic environments, such as road games against Miami and Stanford?
Wimbush took these questions in stride for months. He maturely answered the best he could. Glimpses into open practices sometimes showed that he looked like his 2017 self with throws into the dirt; other times, he’d send a beautiful sideline pass to one of his 6’4″ receivers.
The real test wouldn’t come until Week 1 against Michigan and its relentless defense, a defense that returned nine of 11 starters from last year’s unit that ranked third nationally in yards per game allowed and included two pass rushers destined for the first round of the NFL draft in Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.
The moment was big, and Wimbush stepped into it looking like a different player. In a complete turnaround from 2017, he showed a more confident and composed version of himself, making the necessary plays the Irish needed to win.
“He’s a guy who can flip that switch and make things happen,” said receiver Chris Finke, who caught a 43-yard touchdown from Wimbush in the first quarter (and is also Wimbush’s roommate).
“Brandon is Brandon,” said fifth-year senior captain Alex Bars, who moved from right guard to left guard this season. “Phenomenal athlete, phenomenal player. I’m really happy with what he did tonight. Closing the door on the noise and focusing on what he could do.”
“I thought he played with an edge to him, a confidence,” Kelly said. “He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.” Kelly also called him a “spark” on the team and awarded him the game ball afterward.
Wimbush completed 12 of 22 pass attempts for one touchdown and overcame an interception in the third quarter. He also rushed 19 times for 59 yards. Some highlights included the first scoring drive 90 seconds into the game. He hit Chase Claypool for 16 yards on third down and Miles Boykin for 28 yards on the next play. The 75-yard drive was capped with a 13-yard touchdown run by Jafar Armstrong. Wimbush said most of those plays had been scripted, so he was comfortable running what Long was calling. But he was still able to adapt to the various coverages Michigan’s defense was showing.
“I think they were a real bear in terms of what they were playing,” Wimbush said. “I think we had a good idea of where we wanted to attack and they would go man sometimes and it was matchup and leverage there, and Cover 2, middle of the field was real vacant, so we kind of attacked there a little bit. Then, you know, obviously the guys on the outside did a great job of getting open and making plays.”
Wimbush also had the 43-yard bomb to Finke to put the Irish up 14–0 less than five minutes into the game, converted fourth-and-one to keep a scoring drive alive in the second quarter and had a 22-yard rush to pick up a third-and-long during a third-quarter drive which ended in a Notre Dame field goal.
“I just had so much fun out there,” Wimbush said. “Just playing ball and not worrying about anything else.”
Kelly spoke last week about how his staff was planning ways to set Wimbush up for success. The play-calling would be “much more about calling the offense for who Brandon Wimbush is rather than who we want him to be.” If Wimbush couldn’t execute the way they wanted him to, Kelly wouldn’t be afraid to replace him with backup Ian Book. And Wimbush, he swears, was O.K. with that.
Notre Dame never had to resort to that. The only times Book came in were two chances to hand off two touchdown runs to Armstrong when Wimbush needed to leave the game after getting poked in the eye after he was grabbed by the facemask and later following a roughing the passer penalty.
Wimbush claims he wasn’t trying to prove anything with his performance. His stats weren’t gaudy by any means, but he was efficient and was the difference against perhaps the best defense Notre Dame will see all season.
“I think I made a statement, but I don’t think it was a necessary—that’s not what I was trying to go out here and do,” he said. “I told Ian Book, whoever, whenever, whatever it takes, we’re going to get this W. Him and I are on the same team and that’s one of my best friends on the team.
“We had packages in for him and we had packages in for me, and I think I did what I had to do to keep myself on the field and that’s all I really wanted to do. And to make plays that were there and I think I did.”