Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush finds highlights on another inconsistent night

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The bright moments are there for Brandon Wimbush.

Watch Notre Dame’s quarterback throw a fade pass in the end zone, where no one can catch it other than Chase Claypool, or a deep strike to Miles Boykin as he beats single coverage, and it’s easy to see the potential of the redshirt sophomore signal-caller.

But the struggles are just as apparent. Quick tosses to the flat are sometimes off target, balls that sail over his receivers’ heads, and the timing of finding open receiver that runs off rhythm.

None of those mistakes mattered in 22nd-ranked ND's 52-17 drubbing of Miami (Ohio), Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. But Wimbush knows he can be better than 7-of-18 passing (39 percent) for 119 yards.

“I have another level of my game that I haven’t hit yet,” Wimbush said. “I know I’m on the way to doing that. I have so many great players around me, so it’s not all on myself.”

Wimbush has seen his offense succeed when he’s not his sharpest. Blowout victories over Miami and Boston College have proven as much. A running game that racked up another 333 yards Saturday night will likely be the strong suit of Notre Dame’s offense all season long.

Yet there will be a time when Wimbush has to play a significant role in a tight contest. For the Irish, they have to hope those moments lead to the good from Saturday night — three passing touchdowns — rather than the bad — incompletions on 61 percent of his passes.

The possibility of progression for Wimbush was part of the reason Notre Dame (4-1) continued to throw the ball with regularity in the second and third quarters with a commanding lead already in hand against Miami (2-3).

“We wanted to get through some passing-game things that we hadn't got to in the last couple of weeks,” Kelly said. “So it was really delving into some of the playbook for Brandon and some across-the-board reads that we hadn't really got to.”

The progression peaked for Wimbush in the second quarter. He completed four of his seven passes for 96 yards, with touchdowns passes to Equanimeous St. Brown (14 yards) and Boykin (54 yards). Wimbush’s first touchdown throw came on his last pass of the first quarter, a seven-yard connection with Claypool.

The best throw of the night may have been Wimbush’s long toss to Boykin.

“He threw a great ball, great read on the last play before the half,” Kelly said. “We went empty, no back. He checks the protection, finds the one-on-one matchup down the middle of the field.”

That eight-pass stretch from the end of the first quarter to the end of the second quarter was clearly Wimbush’s bright spot. Outside of that, he completed only two of his other 10 passes. His lone completion in the third quarter went to running back Deon McIntosh for a five-yard loss.

While many of Wimbush’s passing numbers are unappealing, he finished his second straight game without a turnover. He was sure to point that out during his postgame press conference.

Allowing Wimbush to continue to throw the ball through his struggles could serve as a reassuring message from Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long. Wimbush realizes the need for game reps and is taking them all in stride.

“I think coach Long just wanted to run some of the plays that we practiced throughout the week,” Wimbush said. “Some of it was new stuff. Some of it carried over from Michigan State. They kind of ran a similar defense.

“To be able to go out there and throw the ball against any defense is good practice. Obviously we can run the ball pretty efficiently, so that was good for us.”

Boykin, whose only reception of the night came on the 54-yard touchdown, isn’t worried about Wimbush. He believes in his quarterback’s ability to deliver the football to the receivers.

“Brandon’s a baller in the purest sense,” Boykin said. “Brandon is a baller, and he’s a great leader. Every time we step out there, none of us are worried about him. We know when it comes down to it, he’s going to get the job done. We don’t have anything to say about him and his play, because it’s always going to be tremendous in the end.”

Wimbush’s easiest touchdown throw was the completion to St. Brown. It may have been the most important one for him, too. That’s because it was St. Brown’s 21st birthday. Wimbush had plenty of time to find St. Brown streaking across the field for a short throw and let his roommate do the rest.

“I told him, ‘Buddy, I’m going to get you the ball, and I want you to go score here,’ ” Wimbush said. “We did that, and he’s pretty excited. We’re going to go celebrate.”

The rotation at wide receiver and tight end has been a bit of a carousel through the first five games for Notre Dame. Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson was added to the mix Saturday night, but his two targets from Wimbush fell incomplete. Only four different players caught passes from Wimbush with St. Brown leading the way with three receptions for 42 yards.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and EQ,” Kelly said. “We're still a work in progress with some of the other receivers, you see Chris Finke making a fabulous catch. We need to make a catch earlier in the game. We're still evolving. I think we're getting closer, but no, I'm not ready to tell you that we're solid in our first three guys yet.”

Some stability at those positions could help Wimbush’s progression. Kelly said having so many different targets to consider is part of Wimbush’s learning curve.

“He knows where sometimes he's looking for one guy a little bit too much instead of coming off of it, and I think that has a little something to do with it,” Kelly said. “He wants to feel comfortable with one guy instead of coming off it. That's part of the process there, as well. There's no question.”

The chance to make a play for someone like Boykin can be limited with a shrinking rotation at wide receiver. Yet when a pass should be coming his way, Boykin has to be ready.

“You just have to make the most out of your opportunities,” Boykin said. “Brandon’s going to throw a perfect ball every time. We don’t doubt him in any way. It’s just my job to go out there and make a play when he puts it up there.”

The confidence, through the highs and the lows, still comes from within for Wimbush.

“I’m able to make every throw that the coaches want me to make,” Wimbush said. “Obviously those guys are able to go make plays. A lot of the offensive plays that we ran this week kind of carried over from last week. Michigan State and Miami of Ohio did play a similar defense. We felt comfortable with our game plan. The guys executed it really well. The throws are there for us.”

But can the good throws keep outshining the bad throws? It’s a test Wimbush will have to answer every week.

“Things can be clicking at a higher level,” Wimbush said. “You really just feel that as a quarterback. You know when your offense is clicking.” | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) throws the ball during the Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA