SOUTH BEND — The happily-ever-after quotient in Notre Dame’s quarterback inversion isn’t as simple as Ian Book taking a dominant performance Saturday against the nation’s now-No. 114 pass-efficiency defense of Wake Forest and applying the template against more formidable resistance.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly maintains he’s still committed to a two-quarterback system of some sort, conceptually if not in practice, as his eighth-ranked Irish (4-0) get set to host No. 7 Stanford (4-0) Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
It’s the 33rd meeting between the schools, which first clashed in the 1925 Rose Bowl, but the first in which both are ranked in the top 10 at the time of the matchup. It’s also the first time a top 10 team has come to Notre Dame Stadium in the Kelly Era.
No. 6 USC, in Charlie Weis’ final season as head coach (2009), is the most recent top 10 visitor. That Trojan team left with a 34-27 victory over a 25th-ranked Irish squad.
It is difficult to concoct a scenario in which Book doesn’t get start No. 2 of this season and No. 3 of his career on Saturday night against the best pass-efficiency defense (33rd) on the remaining Irish schedule. But Kelly sort of tapped the brakes on that notion, initially, anyway.
“It would be absolutely foolish for me to sit here and go, ‘We’ve got one quarterback and one quarterback only.’ ” Kelly said Saturday after the highest-scoring performance of the Kelly Era in a true road game, a 56-27 overwhelming of host Wake Forest.
“We’ve got two really good quarterbacks. and I’m going to reserve the right, each and every week, (to determine) who’s the best guy for that week to win.”
Book completed 25 of 34 passes for 325 yards with two TDs against the Demon Deacons. That’s the most passing yards for an Irish quarterback since DeShone Kizer threw for 471 in game 5 of the 2016 season, a 50-33 win over Syracuse.
Book also had 43 yards on 10 carries and three rushing TDs on Saturday.
All of which, 24 hours later, apparently helped coax Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson to fire his defensive coordinator — former ND grad assistant under Bob Davie, Jay Sawvel —17 games after succeeding Mike Elko and after current ND coordinator Clark Lea turned down the job.
As Wake tries to build a new defensive reality without promoting any of its current assistants into the interim coordinator role, per a school press release, here are three realities that strongly factor into what Notre Dame’s current quarterback situation eventually turns into:
How Brandon Wimbush responds matters.
Before he got his chance to be a starter, at the outset of the 2017 season, Brandon Wimbush was a consummate backup.
He was extremely supportive of the QBs ahead of him on the depth chart. and he was so laudatory about his ND experience, while waiting his turn, it did factor into the Irish landing former Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep teammates Jayson Ademilola, Justin Ademilola and Shayne Simon in the 2018 recruiting class.
But what now? Can Kelly keep the senior, with a year of eligibility beyond this one, engaged and improving?
“You have one of two ways to go,” Kelly acknowledged Sunday, during his weekly tele-wrapup. “I think Ian Book would be a great example of, was he engaged? and I think you would say a resounding yes, he was engaged.
“He knew that he was going to contribute, and Brandon knows he’s going to contribute. So I think he’s got the right makeup that he’ll be engaged and prepared each and every week. So I’m not really concerned about that. Again, we will see how each week goes.”
In 2012, the Everett Golson/Tommy Rees combination was unifying and productive. In 2016, the Malik Zaire/DeShone Kizer dynamic grew toxic. In 2014, Zaire probably would have overtaken Golson sooner had he not spent the first half of that season sulking and regressing.
Ideally for Kelly, Wimbush will use his demotion as fuel to improve his passing accuracy and decision-making.
“Continue to work on those little things within his game, that he’ll get a chance to do when he’s moving our offense in practice,” Kelly said. “I think he’ll take hold of that.”
Book is better than and more complete than in 2017.
The junior’s sample size statistically is too small and too untested in game competition to draw too many big-picture conclusions.
It’s also too small for him to qualify for the national stats, but his 179.17 pass-efficiency rating would place him 14th in the FBS if he did have enough attempts for inclusion. Wimbush, who is included, is 106th with 114.2 ratings points.
What’s been happening with Book behind the curtain in practice, though, has been going on long enough and consistently enough for Kelly to consider it transformational.
“Certainly physicality is something that would jump out at me (from) somebody that’s around him every single day,” he said. “He’s stronger. He’s faster. Those things may not hit you guys as quickly as they hit me, but he sticks his foot in the ground, and he’s gone.
“He smells the goal line. He finds it. He scrambles. He gets first downs. He’s a guy you have to account for in the run game as well. I don’t think that was necessarily the case last year.
“So that physicality development and then just another year in the system has sharpened his progression reads and things of that nature.”
Timing with QB choices mattered versus Michigan and still does.
Kelly maintains Notre Dame doesn’t beat Michigan in the opener (24-17) if Wimbush isn’t the starter — and finisher — for the Irish in that game.
“We needed Brandon against Michigan, because of Michigan’s defense, first and foremost,” Kelly said. “The whole offseason was focused on Brandon beating Michigan. (Running backs) Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones were not ready. (Wide receiver), Kevin Austin wasn’t ready. This offense was not mature enough going into the Michigan game.
“The playmaker on our offense was Brandon Wimbush. It needed to center around him to beat Michigan. Then the next two weeks, those (other) kids needed to mature, and then we needed to make this decision that we did relative to the quarterback position.”
Michigan, at No. 3 nationally in total defense, is the by far the best defense statistically on the Irish schedule, upcoming or in the rearview mirror. The next closest is Stanford at No. 55. Among the six remaining opponents after Saturday night, Florida State has the best national standing at 69th.
It’s still early enough in the season for there to be some big fluctuations from week to week and for teams to improve or regress statistically, but after Stanford, the Irish face zero pass defenses ranked in the top 55 over the balance of the regular season.
Last season, Wimbush faced eight in the top 45 and three in the top 10.
It’s quite possible that the next defense that is configured, like Michigan’s, where the Wimbush option may be more appealing wouldn’t be until a playoff or bowl scenario, if at all.
From a perceptual standpoint, it’s easier for Kelly to tout a possible two-quarterback system than in the past, if he indeed continues to consider it.
The top three teams in the AP poll all have some sort of tag-team QB arrangement. and not only are Alabama, Georgia and Clemson Nos. 1, 2, 3 in the AP poll, but the Crimson Tide is No. 1 nationally in passing efficiency, Georgia is fifth and Clemson 21st.
The Irish moved from 101st to 78th after Saturday’s results. They were a Kelly Era-worst 101st at the end of the 2017 season, with a previous low of 74th in 2012.
Ruhland rises to the occasion
Overshadowed by the change at QB, senior Trevor Ruhland drew his first career start, Saturday against Wake Forest, in part because of a minor ankle injury to junior Tommy Kraemer and in part because he fit the offensive game plan so well.
His strong play against the Demon Deacons has Kelly considering a time share are the right guard position as well.
“Wake Forest is not typically one of your bigger defensive fronts, so he fit very well against Wake Forest,” Kelly said. “A good opportunity to get a guy out in space, and he moves a little bit better obviously than Tommy does.
“Tommy is really good if you’ve got a big defensive line, where it requires you to move some guys. So again I think that’s a game to game situation as well. We’re pleased that Trevor was in there and gave us the kind of play. Tommy will continue to play for us as well, and you’ll see him quite a bit.”
Kelly also lauded the play of sophomore Aaron Banks, who saw some time at right tackle, spelling sophomore starter Robert Hainsey.”
Injury and personnel updates
Freshman defensive lineman Ja’mion Franklin suffered a leg (quad tendon) injury during his college debut Saturday at Wake Forest, and was to have an MRI done Sunday to determine if surgery was necessary, per Kelly.
Franklin posted the following on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon: “Devastated ... but God has a plan. Positive vibes only. Prayers needed and appreciated.”
• Sophomore tight end Cole Kmet has been cleared to practice this week after missing the past two games with a high ankle sprain, suffered Sept. 8 against Ball State.
“He is an incredible young man that he’s been able to heal as quickly as he has,” Kelly said.
• Presumably senior Dexter Williams will be eligible to rejoin the active roster for Saturday night’s game with Stanford. The No. 1 running back option for the Irish during much of spring practice was suspended for the first four games of the season.
“If he continues to have the kind of week that he’s had the last few weeks, I would expect that he would be able to do something for us this week,” Kelly said.
Wake’s uptempo offense, a turf temperature of well over 100 degrees Saturday and 12 freshmen on the travel roster was the perfect confluence of events for Kelly to get a long look in game action of some of his younger players.
Defensive end Justin Ademilola (4 tackles), defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (4 tackles), cornerback TaRiq Bracy (1 tackle) and wide receiver Kevin Austin (2 catches for 35 yards) grabbed Kelly’s attention.
“Those guys jump off the film for me,” Kelly said.