Twenty-five years on from the Game of the Century, Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish rolled to a 42-13 victory over a Florida State Seminoles team with more problems than a trailer park in hurricane season. Gone were the bulky pads and dark blue uniforms of yore. In their place were Field Turf, a Jumbo Tron, and twenty thousand extra fans housed within a new stadium edifice.
Despite the years, the games shared a meaningful connection. Both were won by a starting backup quarterback. In 1993, Kevin McDougal had been destined to finish his senior year backing up the freshman wunderkind, Ron Powlus. In 2018, Brandon Wimbush came back from exile after Ian Book’s rib injury against Northwestern.
Wimbush was more than serviceable on Saturday night. He guided a productive offense that punished the ‘Noles’ defense to the tune of 495 total yards. Coach Kelly has been effusive in his praise for Wimbush’s attitude following his benching. The student-athlete demonstrated why, playing as though he hadn’t missed a snap.
In a way, there’s criticism there. Kelly’s decision to bench Wimbush after a 3-0 start in favor of Ian Book was considered the right, if a bold, move. Book’s record and individual statistics, which include a nation-leading passing percentage, have validated it. With Wimbush under center on Saturday, Notre Dame’s playbook shortened again.
The Seminole defense helped. Perhaps a lot. Coming into the game, their defense was ranked eleventh overall, allowing just 111.1 yards per game. The week before, though, against North Carolina they began to crack and Notre Dame exploited those cracks to tear whatever they had built to the ground. Dexter Williams, in his senior farewell, battered the ‘Noles for two touchdowns and two hundred two yards on twenty carries. Wimbush added twelve runs for sixty-eight yards. Jafar Armstrong and Phil Jurkovec were able the stable of ball carriers who helped Notre Dame run up three hundred and sixty-five rushing yards.
In the air, Wimbush showed why he won the starting job in August and why he lost it in September. His two interceptions were bad. His three touchdowns were good. His receivers — Mack and Boykin in particular — were just better than the Seminole defenders. Book had been the key to unlocking their potential. With him under center, the offense calls twelve or so more passing plays. With Wimbush, the offense is run-centric.
The Irish defense has been the constant. Whether it was Julian Love returning a blocked PAT for a safety or the team’s ten quarterback hurries, Florida State was under attack all night. Ranked twenty-five overall, their next opponent should be a far sterner test.
It’s hard not to draw a connection to 1993. After lighting the number one, it took just under a week to snuff it out when Boston College came to town. Many of you may remember that weekend more for Morrissey Manor’s victory in the interhall football championship to cap an undefeated season, but it was also the weekend of the stunning loss to the unranked Eagles. Taking on the country’s fourteenth-best offense in Syracuse in Yankee Stadium, the upset alert is blinking.
If Notre Dame wins and manages to remain undefeated at season’s end, Brandon Wimbush’s contributions and his acceptance of his role, his professionalism, will be bright spots in a constellation of them.