The Notre Dame Fighting Irish beat the Vanderbilt Commodores 22-17, to move to 3-0 on the season. Somehow, for many to most of the fan base, this is not enough. The narrative is quickly building that there is something wrong with the team, whether with Brian Kelly or Brandon Wimbush or with some combination of the two. Maybe with the Board of Trustees. Given the data, though, it looks like the 2018 Fighting Irish are more a team “on the verge” than a team “on the brink.”
Most pundits picked Notre Dame to beat Vanderbilt, either going away, or in more or less of a nail-biter. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, though, picked Vandy to win outright, and set on fire that part of the world that cares about what he says. The point was made: nothing about Notre Dame’s season would be easy.
And yet, the Irish never trailed. I don’t know that they have this season. But with the game on the line against Vanderbilt, Notre Dame’s defense came up with the fourth down stop to seal the win. To any observer, whether in the “everything’s on fire” camp or in the “everything’s awesome” camp, the defense is the strength of the team and they got the stop ND needed.
With one quarter of the 2018 season now in the books, after beating three FBS opponents, it’s time to see where the Irish stand. Notre Dame is 62nd in total defense (Alabama is 24th) and 100th in total offense (Alabama is 14th). Julian Love is tied for first in the country with 8 passes defended — he had four on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Jerry Tillery is ranked 15th overall in sacks with 3.0 (Oklahoma State’s Jordan Brailford leads with 5.0). Tyler Newsome is fourth in the country with a 47.13 yard per punt average — all of his punts against Vandy went for more than fifty yards and he rightfully earned the game ball. Justin Yoon is tied for first in PAT percentage.
Vanderbilt came into South Bend having defeated Nevada and Middle Tennessee State. Against Nevada, Vandy scored 41 points. Against MTSU, they scored 35. At Notre Dame, they managed just 17, despite passing for 326 yards. Mostly, Notre Dame, and Newsome’s leg, saddled Vandy with long fields. The Irish defense recovered two fumbles and one interception. and held the Commodores to just 96 yards on the ground. Against their first two opponents, Vandy averaged 187 yards rushing.
Against Vanderbilt, Brandon Wimbush was better, as was his offensive line. The Irish rushed for 245 yards, with Tony Jones, Jr. (118 yards) and Wimbush (84 yards) leading the pack. Wimbush went 13 for 23 through the air for 122 yards and a 70.2 QBR. Importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.
Douglas Farmer with NBC Sports pointed out on Sunday that there are three teams in college football that have played three FBS opponents and allowed just seventeen or fewer points per game: Alabama, Minnesota, and Notre Dame. That’s it. And, after three games, there are just seven teams ahead of Notre Dame, who remain ranked eighth in both national polls. Stanford, at seven, is the only team on Notre Dame’s schedule ranked ahead of them. Virginia Tech is 13th (AP) or 10th (USAToday).
The Irish will do something next week that they’ve not done this season: play away. On September 22, at noon Eastern, Notre Dame will take on a 2-1 Wake Forest team that most recently lost 41-34 to BC. Having watched Wake Forest struggle to beat a dopey and undisciplined Tulane team in week one, I don’t see how Notre Dame loses, despite the travel and despite the early start.
A far better football mind than mine developed what might be the unofficial official motto for this season: Winning Is Hard. After losing to Notre Dame, separately, a Michigan player and a Vanderbilt player both gave quotes in which they claimed some sort of alternative victory — some riff or other on the idea that Notre Dame didn’t “really” win. Losing, I guess, is harder.