Noie: Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush puts sub-par showing in rearview mirror - sort of

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

What happens after everything you’ve worked toward, everything you’ve planned to do and to be when this season’s spotlight is the biggest and brightest, goes so off the rails and shoves your season sideways?

After you’ve struggled at the start, get benched, then return, but still cannot connect into the same consistency to make it all look as easy as it seemed through earlier stretches this season?

After your skills have been downgraded from special to suspect in the college football court of (un)popular opinion? After a question mark has replaced a period next to the statement that you are the guy for this program today and tomorrow?

What happens?

If you’re Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, you set it all aside, understand that there’s no going back to fix anything and get back to work. Business as usual.

It was another typical Wednesday evening in and around the Loftus Center indoor practice facility. Outside, traffic crawled along Leahy Drive. Runners could be seen turning laps on the upstairs track at Rolfs Sports Recreation Center. At Bond Hall, the horns section warmed up in preparation for another band practice.

Campus life continued.

Inside Loftus, college football life continued.

Wimbush wore his customary red No. 7 practice jersey while going through the same set of drills for fundamentals and footwork that he had the previous 10 weeks. Work with his fellow quarterbacks. Work with position coach Tom Rees. Work not necessarily to forget what happened – or in his case, what didn’t happen – last week in South Florida, but to be better the next time out and the next time after that for the No. 9 Irish.

College coaches often keep to a 24-hour rule for their players. They get that amount of time to celebrate a win or to commiserate a loss. That rule remained as the Irish charter returned Sunday morning with their College Football Playoff hopes shredded following a 41-8 loss to No. 3 Miami (Fla.).

But 24 hours likely came and went with Wimbush still wrestling with his work back in Hard Rock Stadium. The throws he missed. The drives he couldn’t really start, let alone finish. The challenges that he couldn’t answer, for whatever reason.

Twenty-four hour rule? How about 48? Or 72? Wimbush admitted following practice Wednesday that the Miami game remains on his mind.

“Of course, you still think about it,” he said. “You’re the quarterback and the leader of a program that didn’t perform and execute to the standard that we normally do and want to.

“Obviously, it’s going to linger until you’re able to go out there the next week and execute to the standard that we know we’re able to.”

Looking ahead, back

While this week’s talking points centered on Notre Dame (8-2) closing out its 2017 home schedule with Navy (6-3) on Saturday, one massive question remained. What the heck happened to the Irish – and, more pointedly, to Wimbush – in what was billed as the biggest game for this program in years?

Was it the magnitude of the moment that got to the first-year starter Wimbush? That rattled him into completing a paltry 10 of 21 passes for 119 yards? To being sacked a season-high five times? To finishing with a quarterback efficiency rating of 91.89, his second lowest this season?

“I don’t think so at all,” he said. “It was a great atmosphere to play in. How many times will you play in an atmosphere like that? It was pretty exciting.”

Was it a lingering/more serious injury to Wimbush’s left hand? He had hurt it the previous week in a touchdown run against Wake Forest, but coach Brian Kelly stressed leading into the Miami game that Wimbush was healthy enough to play. The hand was not an issue. It sure looked like one. Wimbush played with a glove on it. It made it look as if it were inflated Mario Bros.-style. He had a hard time connecting at the mesh point of handoffs with the running backs. Tucking it away and running was not really an option. It rendered him one-dimensional.

But did it?

“I never let that affect me,” he said.

There are throws and plays he would want back. Poor mechanics on one. Too much zip – like a pitcher grooving a heater down the plate when taking a little bit off might have done the trick – on another. The angle of his throwing elbow – too high, too low, too hot, too cold – was all over the place. Everything Wimbush seemingly learned about the position went out the window.

Nothing worked.

Sometimes, an explanation as to why is pretty simple.

“Sometimes you just don’t have a good game,” Wimbush said. “That was one of those days.”

But one of those days can’t happen, not for this program, not for this quarterback. Not as a junior who’s supposed to get it. Still, it’s understandable that Wimbush might respond the way he did being in that type of position for the first time in his Notre Dame career. But acceptable? No way.

“He obviously didn’t perform at the level that he wants to perform at, and that he quite frankly needs to perform at,” Kelly said. “You take this as an opportunity to learn, how your preparation prepares you for big games.

“You never like to learn lessons in losses, but I think he gained a lot of understanding of what he needs to do to lead this football team.”

Being better

No way will Wimbush’s college career be defined by what he didn’t do against Miami. Yet the coming weeks will be key. He was nowhere near good enough when borderline greatness was required. But can he be against Navy? Against Stanford? In a possible New Year’s Six bowl game? When a lot of the eyes are on him?

Can he elevate his game when the stage is big?

When the time comes, he better be better.

“How is he going to handle adversity? Does he have the grit necessary? Does he have the passion and perseverance?” Kelly wondered. “I think he does, but we’re learning, as you are.

“We’ll find out a lot about him as he bounces back. I think he’s going to bounce back really well. He’s going to get a chance to show everybody on Saturday.”

It won’t be easy. Playing Navy is a unique experience on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the Irish have to be disciplined and attention to detail and focused to stop an option attack that likes to chew up yards and time on the clock. Defensively, other teams get worn down. As do opposing offenses, mainly because they have so few chances, and feel like they have to make a play right here and right now. A year ago, Navy allowed Notre Dame a mere six possessions. The Irish got the ball twice in the first and second quarters. Once in the third. Once in the fourth. That’s it. There was a lot of standing around and watching and waiting. When Wimbush and the offense finally gets their chance, they better be good. Have to be. A three-and-out may keep them on the sideline another three, four, five minutes.

“It’s paramount that we’re able to take advantage of every opportunity, every possession that we get and put points up on the board,” Wimbush said. “It’s back to the fundamentals and doing the little things.”

Coming off a big loss hasn’t changed Wimbush’s view of the big picture. With no conference championship game available, the main goal for Notre Dame every season is simple – win a national championship. The Irish have two losses with two weeks to play.

What’s the motivation?

“To win a national championship,” Wimbush said in all seriousness. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen (but) whatever happens, happens.

“This team is motivated. We still know we have a chance.”

Time for Wimbush to do what he didn’t do last time out – make the most of it.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI