Notre Dame O-line responds to challenge in record-setting win over Eagles

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Change wasn't the answer for Notre Dame.

After a lackluster first half at Boston College, second-guessing was an easy option for the Irish football team. Instead, the only thing different was the production.

ND head coach Brian Kelly stuck with his workhorses, and the Irish ran away with a 49-20 victory, Saturday at Alumni Stadium.

“We didn’t make a lot of plays in the first half,” Kelly said, “and we came in at halftime and went up to the offensive line and said, ‘Look, we need you to take over this football game. You’re our veteran group.’ And they really responded.”

They sure did. Notre Dame trounced the Boston College defense for 515 rushing yards and had two Irish players (running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush) surpass 200 rushing yards — a first in school history. The Irish were able to scrape together only 14 points on 218 rushing yards and 53 passing yards in the first half.

The offensive line struggled a week ago in the 20-19 home loss to Georgia. The running game was limited to 55 yards and the Irish allowed three sacks and seven quarterback hurries. It served as motivation Saturday for a unit counted on as one of the team’s strengths.

But 500 yards? That’s not even a goal the offensive line had in mind. Left guard Quenton Nelson didn’t even think of it as a possibility until he saw 400-plus yards on one of the video boards in the second half.

“We just try to do our best every week and see where that gets us,” Nelson said. “We’re all really happy with the win especially after not executing our game plan last week. It was a good step in the right direction.”

The onslaught didn’t take full effect until midway through the third quarter. A 41-yard field goal from Colton Lichtenberg cut Notre Dame’s lead to 14-13 less than four minutes into the second half. Two drives later, the Irish offense took control with a nine-play, 70-yard drive capped by a one-yard touchdown run from Tony Jones Jr. Notre Dame would score touchdowns — all rushing — on five of its last seven drives.

The momentum shift started with the Irish defense. With a chance to take the lead, Boston College’s offense stalled at the Notre Dame 30-yard line. Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney stuffed running back Jonathan Hilliman for no gain on fourth-and-1. Coney was the leading tackler in the game, with 13.

Then came the Jones touchdown, a three-yard touchdown for Wimbush, a 65-yard touchdown for Wimbush, a three-yard touchdown for Dexter Williams and a 15-yard touchdown for Williams.

“Our defense really ignited us with a fourth-down stop, got some energy,” Kelly said, “and when you make plays, obviously that creates an energy and we were able to score. That was a pretty big turning point in the second half.”

"I was enjoying that football game, OK," said Boston College head coach Steve Addazio. "I really was. Just aggravated that we let that last seven minutes of the third quarter and then the first five of the fourth, just let that get away right there.""

Boston College hit 400 yards of offense, but Notre Dame’s defense forced three turnovers with cornerback Shaun Crawford nabbing two Anthony Brown passes for interceptions and recovering a fumble forced by defensive end Julian Okwara.

Adams led the Irish with 229 rushing yards, the fourth-best mark in school history and the most since Julius Jones set the school record with 262 yards against Pittsburgh in 2003. But Adams was breaking big runs in the first half. His nine carries in the first half netted 167 yards, including a 65-yard romp.

The unexpected surge came from Wimbush. He sprinted for 207 yards and four touchdowns, setting the school record for quarterback rushing yards in a game. He ran by Bill Etter’s record of 146 yards against Navy in 1969 with 156 yards in the second half.

Wimbush’s explosion in the running game occurred while he struggled throwing the ball. He completed only 11 of his 24 passes for 96 yards with one interception. He also fumbled on the first possession in the second half and a botched handoff.

“You just have to find a way to find something that’s working for you,” Wimbush said. “It happened to be my feet during this game.”

In his worst throwing performance of the season, Wimbush was left to create plays on the ground. He made a conscious decision to run.

“Sometimes you think, ‘All right, this is not working for me right now, so let me go use my feet,’ ” Wimbush said. “I have those available to me. I did a good job of using them.”

The Irish will need Wimbush to progress as a thrower to become a two-dimensional offense. Even in his first two starts of the season, Wimbush hasn’t been able to connect on any passing plays of more than 35 yards, and he hasn’t thrown a touchdown since the season opener against Temple.

Kelly said the up-and-down play from Wimbush as a passer might not go away anytime soon.

“That’s probably going to be the case most of the year as he continues to grow, but we’ve got a fantastic competitor, a kid with terrific grit and toughness,” Kelly said. “And so I think as we move into the season now, we’re starting to develop a little bit more of who we are offensively and what he can do and what his skill set is. He’s going to develop in the passing game. That’s just a matter of time.”

Wimbush isn’t satisfied with the ineffectiveness. He noted after the game that it bothers him that he didn’t pass for more than 100 yards. Being a running quarterback isn’t enough, and it doesn’t help Wimbush get the ball to his receivers.

“There were some miscues in the passing game,” Wimbush said. “I really want to get those guys the ball, because I have so many playmakers. I feel bad, and I take full responsibility of not making the throws and getting those guys the ball.”

With a better feel for how Wimbush has played through three games, Kelly said it falls on the coaching staff to adjust to his strengths. But he didn’t place the blame on Wimbush.

“Our passing game will have to be better, and that means not necessarily just from the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to make some catches that are contested. We’re going to have to step up and make some big plays at the receiver position and assisting our quarterback. I don’t think it all falls on our quarterback.”

With a running game dominating late in games, it won’t have to fall on the quarterback, either.

“We had a lot we wanted to prove this week to ourselves and how our preparation was,” Adams said. “We really wanted to get out there and force our dominance on offense. That was our mindset. Coming out, being a stronger second half team. We did that very well.”

Notre Dame offensive tackle Robert Hainsey (72) picks up Brandon Wimbush (7) after he scored one of his four TDs in a 49-20 romp over Boston College, Saturday at Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)