QB Brandon Wimbush shows he can still carry the load for Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — The weight of an offseason filled with questions about his viability as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback had just been lifted off the shoulders of Brandon Wimbush.
But as he was celebrating the 24-17 victory over 14th-ranked Michigan Saturday night in the north end zone of Notre Dame Stadium, another weight replaced it. That’s when former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer jumped on his back.
Apparently, Wimbush wasn’t quite done having to avoid sacks.
“I told him to take it easy,” Wimbush joked after the game. “He weighs like 260, big boy. But he’s good.”
For the record, the Green Bay Packers list Kizer, who was wearing a retro San Francisco 49ers Joe Montana jersey, at 235 pounds. Later when Kizer walked past the postgame interview room, he yelled “Brandon Wimbush for Heisman.”
That kind of support from Notre Dame’s fan base won’t come as quickly. But Wimbush didn’t waste much time with an effort to sway public opinion.
Wimbush completed 10 of his 15 pass attempts for 148 yards and one touchdown in the first half. Less than eight minutes in, 5-foot-10, 180-pound slot receiver Chris Finke made a leaping catch over Michigan safety Brad Hawkins for a 43-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead for the 12th-ranked Irish.
Not that Wimbush was worried about proving to the fan base that he’s better than his performances to end last season, which culminated with a benching in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1.
“I think I made a statement but I don't think it was a necessary — that's not what I was trying to go out here and do,” Wimbush said. “I told (backup quarterback Ian) Book, whoever, whenever, whatever it takes, we're going to get this W. Him and I are on the same team and that's one of my best friends on the team.”
Book, who led Notre Dame to the bowl win in Orlando, Fla., replaced Wimbush twice on Saturday night. The first time, Wimbush left for a play after being poked in the eye. Book promptly handed the ball off to sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong for a 13-yard touchdown run, the first score of the game. Book coordinated another four-yard Armstrong touchdown run in the second quarter.
What’s the secret to Book’s handoff success? Wimbush mimed a simple handoff motion.
“He was excited,” Wimbush said. “He did a great job.”
The same could be said for Wimbush. He finished the night completing 12 of his 22 passes (54.5 percent) for 170 yards and one touchdown, and rushing for a team-high 59 yards. His biggest mistake came on an overthrown pass to Chase Claypool intercepted by Michigan cornerback Brandon Watson early in the third quarter.
“I thought he played with an edge to him, a confidence,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Wimbush. “He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”
When Notre Dame needed a big play in the third quarter, the senior delivered with his legs. One play after being sacked by linebacker Devin Bush, Wimbush sprinted ahead for a 22-yard gain on third-and-18. The drive ended with a 48-yard Justin Yoon field goal to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 24-10.
“I just thought we were backed up a little too often today,” Wimbush said. “That was on my mind, but every time you get in a third-and-long situation, you have to be smart. Obviously you want to make a great play, and the offensive line did a great job of opening it up and I went and got the first down.”
Wimbush made a point to block out all the distractions during the preseason. He avoided social media during August and even skipped an interview session on Thursday.
He let his play do the talking Saturday night. It was the only way he could show the work he’s put in to improve as a passer — even if there’s still work to be done.
“I think from coach (Brian) Kelly to (quarterback coach) Tommy (Rees) to the five other quarterbacks in the room, they have all taken a part in my development,” Wimbush said.
"And I think that's the best thing as the quarterback here is to have that support. Those guys want me to get better, and we want everyone in that room to get better.
That goes for Kizer, too. Even if his support may have been a little too physical.
“Some of the greatest feelings are coming back into the locker room and seeing people that mean so much to you — from the top of the university to Tommy Rees — just smiling,” Wimbush said. “Everybody is smiling and feeling great.
“It's one heck of a feeling and I hope this boat continues to roll. We'll do whatever we have to do.”