No. 8 Notre Dame stirs possibilities in 22-17 subduing of Vanderbilt

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune


The bottom line still looks a little crooked, the details sort of smudged, the destiny of this eighth-ranked Notre Dame football team absolute conjecture.

Yet there were enough strides forward, enough promising flashes, enough moments from a defense that’s creeping toward a 2012 vibe in a 22-17 subduing of Vanderbilt Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium that the biggest takeaway may very well be what the Irish could become.

“I think we’re still forming that identity,” said Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who extracted turnovers from his game and re-established his running prowess in an otherwise sometimes choppy personal performance.

“Coach (Brian) Kelly came up to me and said, ‘You know, week three is the time that you kind of form that identity.’ and I think just looking back on the first three weeks, I don’t think there’s something we can kind of hang our hat on yet.

“Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s not. But as we practice more and see who we become, I’m excited for it.”

Most exciting for the fourth Irish team in the past seven years to start 3-0, but only the fifth of the post-Holtz Era (1997-present), perhaps was the performance of the offensive line.

The follow-up group to the Joe Moore Award winners as the nation’s best line in 2017 had been gouged by a Ball State team last Saturday that encored its 24-16 near miss at Notre Dame Stadium with a 38-10 drubbing at Indiana this Saturday.

Against the nation’s No. 3 team in sacks per game, the Irish didn’t give up any for the first time this season. and matched against the No. 18 team in the FBS in rush defense, the Irish muscled for a season-high 5.1 yards a carry.

ND came into the game, 64th among the 65 Power Five teams in yards per carry, at 2.83.

“They learned from their mistakes last week,” offered junior running back Tony Jones Jr. of the O-line, after establishing career highs for carries (17) and yards (118) against the Commodores (2-1).

“Our whole team executed, and we did very well in the run game, better than last week. I feel like I’m in high school again — a lot of carries. Just reppin’ and all that.”

Jones’ total was the most for an Irish player since Josh Adams pummeled N.C. State for 202 yards on 27 carries in a 35-14 Notre Dame Stadium rout on Oct. 28. Wimbush was close to the 100-yard mark too, but took an intentional 10-yard loss late in the game on a planned run to help burn clock.

He finished with a season high 84 yards on 19 carries a week after a flawed game plan against Ball State largely removed that aspect of his skill set. Saturday, Wimbush’s first designed run came on the fourth play from scrimmage, a nine-yard keeper on first down.

“I think I had to use my feet more than I did last week,” said Wimbush, who moved past the 1,000-yard career plateau in rushing yardage and got his first rushing TD this season and 16th of his career on a 12-yard scramble in the second quarter.

“It’s one of my weapons and it’s deemed effective when we’re playing teams. So I think running lanes were there for me, and I had to take advantage of that.”

Wimbush finished 13-of-23 for 122 yards, with Jones snagging two of those for a team-high 56 receiving yards.

Junior Ian Book saw his most extensive playing time of the season, and scattered throughout the game. He finished 3-of-3 for 13 yards and ND’s first fourth-quarter points of the season, a two-yard strike to tight end Nic Weishar at the 11:04 mark that gave the Irish a 22-10 edge.

Book stayed in to attempt a two-point conversion, with that pass being off the mark.

“It’s something that we’re working on during the week,” Kelly said on how he’s able to keep rhythm at the QB position with the more constant switches. “Everybody’s alert, and there has to be a package (for Book) that you feel confident in.

“It can’t be wholesale on everything that you do. So there are specific things that we’re doing, and we’re drilling down that our whole offense is quite aware of, that these are the plays, this is the package that we’re working on.

“There is some intentionality, if you will, to what we’re doing when (Book) goes in, and I think everybody else knows what it is.”

A pass interference penalty called on Irish cornerback Donte Vaughn on a fourth-and-eight play, kept a drive alive that allowed Vanderbilt to close to within 22-17 with 7:22 left, on an 18-yard scoring pass from Kyle Shurmur to Jared Pinkney.

Vanderbilt would get the ball back two more times down five. The first time, the Commodores drove to the Irish 31, where on fourth down-and-4 Kalija Lipscomb couldn’t hold on to a high Shurmur pass with safety Jalen Elliott in tight coverage.

A 63-yard punt by Tyler Newsome, who set a school record with a 59.6 average (minimum five punts), gave Vanderbilt one play from its own 10-yard line. The lateral-fest ended with a fumble recovered by Irish cornerback Julian Love.

It was Love’s second recovery of the day, to go along with four pass breakups. He’s one away from Clarence Ellis’ school career record of 32.

There were plenty of other heroes on defense. Linebacker Drue Tranquill recorded nine solo tackles. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. had seven tackles, three pass breakups and an interception in the end zone.

Perhaps the defensive play of the game was started by safety Alohi Gilman and finished by Love, with ND leading 13-0 inside of six minutes before halftime.

On first down from the Irish 21, Shurmur found Donaven Tennyson near the goal line. As the 5-foot-10, 174-pound junior tried to bull past cornerback Pride and Gilman into the end zone, Gilman ripped the ball out of his hands.

The loose ball went high into the air, caromed into the end zone where running back Khari Blasingame had a shot at recovering it, but it squirted away. Love emerged from a scrum and ended up cradling it for a touchback.

“It was crazy,” Gilman said. “At that point, it’s like playing outside, playing party ball. I was surprised when the ball went up that high. It was fun.

“We call that strip the lawn mower, but I’m going to call it ‘The Shaun Crawford.’”

Crawford pulled a similar maneuver in a win at Michigan State in 2017, but has been lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason. The Irish defense has pushed on and evolved without him.

“If you’re a finished product after game three, you know, you’re destined for greatness,’ Kelly said, “and we’re not there yet. We’re not destined for greatness. So if anyone wants to write that greatness column, I would tap the brakes.

“But proud of their effort, proud of the way they competed. They played Notre Dame football. We’re still evolving. I mean, I’d like to say we’re a finished product, we’re just not.

“We’re trying to find our identity on offense. I think we’re a good defense. We’re not a great defense yet. We’ve got some things to clean up, but, boy, I really, really like our football team and the way they competed today.”

Notre Dame's Tony Jones Jr. (6) gets brought down by Vanderbilt's LaDarius Wiley (5) and Donovan Sheffield (21) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.