Notre Dame offensive line a letdown against Ball State

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s offensive line didn’t always protect Brandon Wimbush on Saturday.

But when the Irish quarterback saw a Ball State defender pushing left tackle Liam Eichenberg after the whistle in the second quarter, Wimbush came to his defense. The senior gave the defender a shove before left guard Alex Bars came over to make sure Wimbush didn’t do any illegal damage.

“That’s my guy,” Wimbush said after No. 8 Notre Dame’s ugly 24-16 win over Ball State.

“(Eichenberg) protects me. I have to protect him. Just trying to show some fire for the guys, get a little energy going. I’m going to protect my linemen.”

That fire never really ignited. Wimbush was under siege for much of the game as Ball State finished with four sacks, four quarterback hurries and 10 tackles for a loss.

In the first half alone, the Cardinals recorded two sacks and three quarterback hurries. That’s what Notre Dame’s statisticians gave Michigan’s defenders for the entire game the week previously.

Ball State didn’t have Wolverine stars Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich on its defensive line, but it didn’t seem to matter. Linebackers Christian Albright (6-2, 233), Jeremiah Jackson (5-11, 221) and Brandon Martin (6-0, 225) and defensive tackle Chris Crumb (6-0, 274) were able to sack Wimbush.

“They blitzed a lot,” said Bars, a fifth-year captain. “Just like Michigan, they blitzed a ton trying to close up gaps and seams, so the running back didn’t have a set area to run.”

Wimbush didn’t find room to run either. A week after leading the Irish with 59 rushing yards, Wimbush netted a loss of seven yards on 11 carries.

Ball State (1-1) threw a variety of looks at Notre Dame (2-0) out of its three linemen front. Stunts across the line caused confusion and left Cardinal pass rushers with clear paths at Wimbush.

“A couple times they did bring in some new blitzes,” Wimbush said. “You just have to adjust. You have to use your knowledge and the things you’ve been taught previously and get yourself protected.”

The Irish offensive line was prepared to handle the different looks from Ball State, Bars said. The results didn’t match the preparation.

“We’ve been put in the right position. Just execution-wise individually, we weren’t all there together tonight,” Bars said. “We’ll get back to work (Sunday) and definitely get after it.”

The improvements start with better communication across the offensive line. Even though the Irish are returning four linemen from significant roles last season, only two of them — center Sam Mustipher and right tackle Robert Hainsey — are playing in the same spot.

“We just need to make sure we’re all on the same page assignment-wise,” Bars said. “You just need to go back and look and teach and talk it out during plays.”

Simply put, Notre Dame’s offensive line let Wimbush down. Mustipher said as much after the game.

“When your quarterback’s under duress on multiple occasions, you feel bad for the guy,” Mustipher said. “He’s taking way too many hits. That’s something we take pride in. We didn’t get it done today.”

Wimbush didn’t put forth his best effort either. He threw three interceptions, fumbled once (Mustipher recovered), and at times rushed throws and scrambled when he didn’t need to escape the pocket. He’s willing to take accountability too.

There’s still a trust between Wimbush and the offensive line, even if the first two games haven’t shown it.

“We all have to do our part being better, me protecting myself, getting us in the right protection,” Wimbush said. “I have no doubt that my guys up front are going to do their job. That’s never an issue for me.

“Those guys are leaders up front. I know they take it as a responsibility go get better and improve each week.”

Improvements will need to be made. The pressure Wimbush faced against Michigan could be explained away with the talent on the Wolverines defense. Ball State doesn’t have the size or the speed. Notre Dame’s offensive line should be able to handle that.

Wimbush will protect his linemen and share the blame, but it’s up to his line to keep him standing. He shouldn’t be the one trying to light a fire.

“I have no question that Brandon Wimbush is going to back us up on every single snap,” Mustipher said. “That’s the type of man he is both on and off the field. It’s never a concern about him and his attitude and his competitive nature.

“It’s really just getting the job done for him that I’m most concerned about.”

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) gets tripped up by Brandon Martin (9) NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.