SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A highly anticipated rivalry renewed was ultimately decided by Notre Dame’s play-calling and execution from—wait for it—much-maligned quarterback Brandon Wimbush. The quarterback who overcame national criticism and an offseason competition to keep his starting job showed on Saturday night that he has, in fact, grown more competent and confident in the passing game since Fighting Irish fans last saw him. Here are three thoughts from Notre Dame’s 24–17 win over Michigan:
1. Brandon Wimbush needed to come out against Michigan and show that he could throw the football. He needed to be patient, stay in the pocket and trust that his playmakers would show up. Last year, he never managed to establish a rhythm in the passing game and finished as a 49.5% passer with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. In order to keep his job as the starting quarterback, he needed to evolve.
Perhaps to the surprise of many, he looked like a different player against a Michigan defense that returned nine of 11 starters from a unit ranked that third in the country last season in yards allowed per game. In a complete turnaround from 2017, Wimbush was calm, confident and composed and made the plays the Irish needed to win. On Notre Dame’s first series, he completed a 16-yard pass to Chase Claypool on third down and a 28-yarder to Miles Boykin on the next play. The drive was capped with a 13-yard rushing touchdown from Jafar Armstrong. On the Irish}s second scoring drive, Wimbush found tight end Alize Mack for 26 yards on third-and-nine, then uncorked a deep ball for receiver Chris Finke, who elevated over the defensive back covering him to reel in a 43-yard touchdown. Late in the third quarter, he hit Claypool again for 19 yards on first down, part of a drive that ended with a 44-yard field goal to put Notre Dame up 24–10.
Wimbush finished the day 12 of 22 for 170 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He led all Notre Dame rushers with 53 yards.
One of the keys coach Brian Kelly touched on last week was how the staff has figured out ways to set Wimbush up for success.
“I just think our confidence in his ability to go be who he is and not try to conform him to who we want him to be,” Kelly said. “This is much more about calling the offense for who Brandon Wimbush is than who we want him to be more than anything else and that’s what you’ll see Saturday night.”
Wimbush was who he was on Saturday night, and the Irish reaped the benefits and staked their defense to a double-digit lead.
2. A popular story line heading into this matchup was how, after losing two top-10 NFL draft picks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame’s offensive line would hold up against Michigan’s powerful defensive front. The answer: just fine.
Notre Dame had to reshuffle its entire offensive line in the offseason after losing left tackle McGlinchey and left guard Nelson in addition to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who took the same job with the Chicago Bears. Jeff Quinn assumed Hiestand’s position seamlessly, and he inserted Liam Eichenberg into left tackle, moved fifth-year senior captain Alex Bars from right guard to left guard to add experience, left captain Sam Mustipher where he finished last season at center, moved 2017 right tackle Tommy Kraemer to right guard, and placed Robert Hainsey, who started one game last season, at right tackle. It wasn’t an inexperienced group, just one that didn’t have McGlinchey or Nelson.
Notre Dame’s first two scoring drives showcased Wimbush’s improvements in the passing game and his receivers’ improvements on 50-50 balls. Its third one demonstrated that, like last year, this offensive line can be effective in opening up the running game. Early in the second quarter, the Irish showed off the ground-and-pound, running 12 times while only attempting three passes. The drive ended with a four-yard rushing touchdown from Armstrong to give Notre Dame a 21–3 lead.
For all the hype surrounding Michigan’s elite rush ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, they weren’t quite as noticeable. Winovich had one sack and 3.5 tackles for loss, but he was also called for roughing the passer on a third down that set up Notre Dame’s third touchdown of the night on the next play.
3. Michigan doesn’t have a true road win against a ranked opponent since 2006 (which happened to be Notre Dame). Jim Harbaugh will leave South Bend with that statistic intact. So what does the season look like now in Ann Arbor after a 0–1 start?
Teams can come back from early losses, and Michigan, unlike independent Notre Dame (who with a loss would have less margin for error), can come back and potentially win the Big Ten to put itself back in the College Football Playoff conversation. East Division foes Michigan State and Penn State struggled this weekend, too. If that ends up being the case, this loss will end up as a blip on the schedule. It could even end up being a “good loss” in the selection committee’s eyes, if the conversation goes that way down the road.
Notre Dame was better prepared Saturday, scoring 24 points on what was projected to be a lethal defense. The Irish defense only allowed three points through most of four quarters, with another touchdown coming in the final three minutes. Up until then, Michigan’s only touchdown came from a 99-yard kickoff return by Ambry Thomas in the second quarter.
The defense was supposed to be the strength of the Wolverines, and the offense was supposed to be improved, but both sides of the ball faltered in the opener.