Tony Rice likes the way Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush is evolving

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Tony Rice will be somewhere in the parking lot at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, tailgating with friends and likely talking up Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush somewhere along the way.

“I’ve never gotten to meet him or even talk on the phone with him,” said Rice, the last Notre Dame quarterback to start against the Miami Hurricanes on the road, back in 1989 — until Wimbush does so Saturday night (8 p.m., ABC-TV).

“I would give him a handshake and a hug and say, ‘Welcome. And if what you’re doing is working, don’t try to fix it.’

“I’ve listened to other people critique him all year. But I didn’t expect things to click for him until the middle of the season. He’s really showing a lot of poise for a first-year starter. What I like about him most, he’s the kind of quarterback who will do whatever it takes to win.”

Rice, in Miami this weekend serendipitously because of a work assignment, won’t actually go into the stadium to watch when No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1) and No. 7 Miami (8-0) clash in a matchup sodden with both playoff implications and nostalgia.

He’s long ago branded himself a jinx of sorts, and cites four straight losses with his fanny in the stands at Irish games as proof. So instead the now 50-year-old Rice will find a nearby pub and cheer for Wimbush to break his ND single-season record for rushing yards by a QB (884 in 1989).

“It’s about time, right?” Rice said.

Wimbush is on pace to do so, with 639 yards on 101 carries and 13 rushing TDs, the latter number the most ever by an Irish QB and four short of the school record by any position (shared by running backs Vagas Ferguson and Allen Pinckett).

Where the angst in the ND fan base and the skepticism from some media originates is with Wimbush’s evolution as a passer in college.

He stands 85th nationally in passing efficiency at 121.7, but his rating has improved each of the past five games and there’s not a quarterback in the FBS who has attempted at least 200 passes who has fewer interceptions this season (2).

Overall, Wimbush has completed 103 of 200 passes for 1,286 yards and 11 TDs. He’s coming off a career-high 280-yard passing performance.

Saturday night he faces the third-ranked pass-efficiency defense in the country, but a unit that has struggled at times against running quarterbacks, in particular Syracuse’s Eric Dungey and North Carolina third-stringer Nathan Elliott in recent escapes.

“He’s got the arm to be a really good passer,” said Rice, who threw for 2,961 yards in his three seasons as ND’s starting quarterback (1987-89) with 20 TDs, 11 interceptions and a career pass-efficiency rating of 117.1.

“With the poise he has, he has a chance to do big things. I’m not sure people understand the pressure there is when you’re the Notre Dame quarterback.”

And the pressure was amplified for Rice in both of his road trips to play the Hurricanes. Both in 1987 and 1989, it was the regular-season finale for the Irish.

Both games were in the old Orange Bowl, razed in 2008 and where Major League Baseball’s Marlins Park now sits.

Miami in 1987 handed the Irish a 24-0 loss in a battle of No. 2 vs. No. 10 on the Hurricanes’ way to a national title. In 1989, Notre Dame came in as the No. 1 team in the nation and left with a 27-10 defeat to the nation’s No. 7 team.

The Irish returned to the same facility 37 days later and smothered top-ranked Colorado, 21-6, but it wasn’t enough to keep the ‘Canes from the 1989 national championship and the Irish landing at No. 2.

The Irish won the home game sandwiched in between, 31-30, on their way to their most recent national title, in 1988. The series was truncated because of persistent bad blood after a 29-20 Notre Dame home victory in 1990.

The Irish have won all three of the meetings since the series restart — in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas in 2010 (33-17), in Chicago in 2012 (41-3) and last season in Notre Dame Stadium (30-27).

“Playing in Miami was just so different,” Rice said. “It was such a hostile place. I can remember in 1989, I figured I was going to tune everything out and just focus on my plays and put the team in the right situation.

“I knew if I got to them really fast, it would take the crowd out of the game and then we’d have a chance. But that didn’t work.

“It’s too bad. I think the 1989 team was even better than the 1988 team that went undefeated. We were a year older. We had learned a lot from 1988, but it just wasn’t to be.”

Rice has been living in downtown Chicago for the past five years and is a vice president for the insurance brokerage firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

On home game Saturdays, he’ll watch the game from Declan’s Irish Pub in Old Town, an establishment run by former ND and Penn High kicker David Miller.

“Pat Terrell, Tim Ryan and Chris Zorich are always there too,” said Rice of the fellow late ‘80s Irish football standouts. “I like to be with my friends and enjoy the time I have on this Earth.

“It’s like, ‘Here we are. It’s 30 years later, and we’re still together.’ ”

Tony Rice, left, is the last Notre Dame QB to face the Miami Hurricanes in a true road game, back in 1989. Current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush will do so Saturday night. (Tribune File Photo) (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)