“We’re happy to win the game…” are the words with which Brian Kelly chose to start his post game press conference in the uncertain wake of a 24-16 win over in-state rival (?), Ball State. Coach Kelly took most of the blame, but to be fair, not a single coach took a single snap. With The Irish unchanged at 8 and 2-0 on the season, is there something rotten in the state of Notre Dame?
I don’t think so. For one, Notre Dame is 2-0 and unchanged at 8 in the AP poll. Reality for Notre Dame is that no game is a guarantee. From Stanford in 1990 to Boston College in 1993 to Duke in 2016, Notre Dame has a way of losing games it should, on paper, win easily. 2018’s reality is that Notre Dame is undefeated.
It looked like Brandon Wimbush had a tough game, but the reality is that he threw for 297 yards and completed 17 of 31 passes. That’s a career high for yards passing and… wait for it… a career-long streak of 54% completion games, with two. Three interceptions, though, make any effort at silver-lining-finding seem a lot like turd-polishing.
Wimbush certainly seemed “off.” The confidence he displayed against Michigan in the opener was gone. In its place was a hesitation and a perplexed puss that trailed after every errant pass and missed read. He seemed to spend as much time watch the replay as I did at home, as though he couldn’t quite remember what just happened.
The defense won the game. Jalen Elliott’s two interceptions saved the game. A disciplined defense kept Riley Neal, Ball State’s quarterback, largely contained. Notre Dame largely stifled his accuracy. They limited him to 23 completions on 50 attempts. Compare that to 23 completions on 30 attempts the week prior against Central Connecticut. The Irish D sacked Neal once and hurried him nine times.
While the defense maintained its consistency from week one’s win over Michigan, Wimbush and the offense seemed to falter, if not regress. Importantly, Coach Kelly seized much of the blame. Whether this is a meaningless gesture on his part is not for me to say, as I’m not inside the locker room. But words matter, and it’s an interesting thing to note the difference from seasons previous. Recall, for example, the blame Coach Kelly placed on Sam Mustipher’s door after his awful snapping day during the 2016 NC State debacle.
Certainly, the O-line took a step back. It was difficult for me to square the performance against Ball State with the performance against Michigan. Against Michigan, the Irish line did more than enough against “the best defense they’ll play all year” to open lanes and give Wimbush time to fling or fly. Against Ball State, Notre Dame just didn’t seem to have enough guys. Ball State was constantly in the backfield, causing more havoc in the backfield than a five-alarm bean burrito.
The answer to the question I posed at the outset may, in fact, be Coach Kelly. He admits that neither he nor his staff had the players ready for Ball State — a tall order after the emotional win against Michigan. Still, Alabama hasn’t had a let up since Cherbourg. Maybe what’s wrong with Wimbush isn’t so much what’s in his head, as what’s in Brian Kelly’s.