5 keys for Notre Dame against Vandy: How can Wimbush, WRs help the OL?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys for No. 8 Notre Dame when it hosts Vanderbilt at 2:30 EDT Saturday.

CHANGE IN STRATEGY

Notre Dame opted to play conservative football in the previous six quarters. It nearly led to a Michigan comeback, and Ball State made things interesting. Last week, quarterback Brandon Wimbush didn’t execute a designed run until the second half. He finished with -7 yards on 11 carries. In 2017, the Irish went 8-1 when Wimbush scored at least one rushing touchdown, 9-0 when he gained greater than three yards per carry and 4-0 when he tallied over 65 yards. Chip Long should return to playing to Wimbush’s strengths and limit his risky deep balls.

OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY

Some of Wimbush’s problems stem from his lack of help up front. Last week, Notre Dame’s offensive line allowed 20 quarterback pressures — seven of which came from an unblocked rusher. The Irish rank 105th in rushing offense, T-99th in sacks allowed and 106th in yards per carry. Vanderbilt’s defense poses much more of a threat than Ball State, who wreaked havoc at times. The Commodores rank 18th against the run and T-3rd in sacks. Reestablishing the run would open up the passing game for Wimbush, who has a 54.7 completion percentage and four interceptions thus far.

RELY ON THE DEFENSE

Senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur showed promise through two games, throwing four touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Commodore offense tends to crumble against proven competition, though. Last season, Vanderbilt ranked 104th in total offense, 101st in scoring offense and 124th in rushing offense. Star running back Ralph Webb graduated, and no one has since emerged from Vandy’s three-man backfield. Notre Dame could hold Vanderbilt in the single-digits if it reestablishes the running game, controls the clock and relies on a front seven loaded with talent.

LIMIT TURNOVERS

Ball State players admitted they knew Wimbush would often “throw it up for grabs” down the field. This strategy worked in the first quarter against Michigan, but it has not since. Wimbush heaved too many 50-50 balls when it wasn’t necessary, leading to three interceptions last week. Beyond taking fewer risks, Wimbush would benefit from more designed runs — which could help reestablish a running game that’s been lacking. Teams obviously aspire to mitigate takeaways, but a clean game from Wimbush could solve a good chunk of Notre Dame’s problems.

IMPROVEMENT FROM RECEIVERS

Pressure and poor decisions were not the only reasons for Wimbush’s troubles. He struggled against three-man rushes, too. When eight Cardinals dropped in coverage, Wimbush went 2-of-7 for 46 yards and two interceptions. Senior receiver Miles Boykin blamed himself for one of Wimbush’s picks. Although the pass was thrown behind him, Boykin still tipped it in the hands of cornerback Antonio Phillips. Improved play from the Irish receivers would lighten the burden on Wimbush and his offensive line.

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) talks to a receiver after a missed pass during the Ball State game.

At Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, IN

Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.

TV: NBC

Series history: Notre Dame leads series 2-0

Betting line: Notre Dame by 13½