Notre Dame gives Florida State the cold shoulder with resurgent running game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Forget the mystique of the green jerseys. How about no jerseys?

Roughly 15 Notre Dame players flouted the 27-degree temperatures and wind-chill values in the teens by warming up — in the most figurative sense of the words — shirtless. Dozens of others did so with no sleeves.

The not-so-subtle psychological warfare, aimed at a mostly shivering Florida State team at the other end of the field, became less implied and more relentless when the game actually started and the Irish went green.

By the time third-ranked Notre Dame put the finishing touches on a 42-13 Senior Night smackdown of the Seminoles, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, the shakiest, most inconsistent piece of its big-picture, playoff-team ambiance showed a significant spark.

The running game.

“I talked about how important it was to run the football in November, when teams know you’re going to run the football, and exert your will,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, his Irish 10-0 heading to Yankee Stadium next weekend for a showdown with No. 13 Syracuse (8-2). “And I thought we were able to do that.”

In spades, actually.

Senior Dexter Williams saved his best for his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, with a career-high 202 yards on 20 carries and two long touchdowns (58, 32 yards) that felt like lightning bolts. In doing so, he became the first player to crack the 200-yard rushing mark on a Seminole defense in 36 years.

“We have a lot of thing to work on, so we’re just going to continue to work and continue to get better and be more effective,” Williams said. “But I’m definitely happy about what we did tonight.”

Especially when you consider the context.

Florida State is a self-destructive, baffling 4-6 team, now a loss away from its first losing season since 1976. But the one shining statistical staple throughout the season has been its ability to smother the opposition’s ground game.

The Seminoles came into Notre Dame Stadium 17th nationally in run defense, at 111.1 per game allowed, and sixth in yards per carry allowed, at 2.84. Notre Dame came in as the nation’s No. 53 rushing offense (181 yards per game), but flexed its muscle in the ground game to the tune of a season-high 365 yards.

The three previous high rushing efforts this season against FSU were Syracuse with 222, NC State with 177 and Clemson with 120. ND’s rushing total and yards per carry (7.3), in fact, were the best numbers posted against Florida State in nine seasons.

And it came with the nation’s leader in completion percentage and sixth in pass efficiency, junior quarterback Ian Book, on the sidelines, out of uniform and unable to complement the running game while recovering from a rib injury.

Senior Brandon Wimbush, who received one of the loudest cheers in the pregame Senior Night ceremonies, got his first start since Sept. 15 against Vanderbilt.

In Wimbush’s three starts this season, before Book flipped to the top of the depth chart, the Irish never scored more than 24 points. They exceeded that total Saturday night roughly 3 ½ minutes into the second quarter on the first of Williams’ TD runs, and had a 32-6 command at the half.

As has been the case in each of Wimbush’s four starts, the Irish scored on their first possession of the game. The offense had a little help this time from forgotten senior defensive back Nick Coleman.

Relegated largely to special teams play since early September, Coleman started at nickel against FSU and picked off quarterback Deondre Francois on the second offensive play of the game. His 27-yard return set up Wimbush and the ND offense at the FSU 3.

On second down, Wimbush connected with senior Mikes Boykin on a fade route for a 7-0 ND lead 75 seconds into the game.

“I’m so proud of him, everything he’s been through,” said Boykin, who had four catches for 30 yards. “He’s going to be successful at anything he wants to do. For him to go out there today like that against a team like this, I don’t think the fans understand how great a person he is and how great a player he is.”

Wimbush had by far the best quarterback rushing performance against Florida State this season — 68 yards on 12 carries, more than double what Syracuse QB Eric Dungey amassed. Collectively, the nine opposing QB starters coming into Saturday night had combined for minus-9 yards on 50 carries against the Seminoles.

In the passing game, Wimbush finished 12-of-25 for 130 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions. Once Wimbush threw his second pick of the game, at the 8:03 mark of the third quarter, the Irish didn’t attempt another pass the rest of the game.

The last 25 Irish offensive plays were runs, including all 12 plays in 97-yard drive, capped by Williams’ 32-yard burst with 13:10 left in the game that closed the scoring. Freshman QB Phil Jurkovec handled the last few handoffs and ran the ball himself, for two yards on the last play of the game.

“He's a great teammate.” Kelly said of Wimbush. “He's been that way all year, whether he's in a starting role or backup role.

“So that's why I took the timeout to take him out of the game, because he deserves that kind of recognition. He led our football team when we needed him.”

If it does turn out to be Wimbush’s final game at Notre Dame Stadium — and he does have a fifth-year option to play at ND or elsewhere in 2019 — there were some fitting poetic wrinkles in how it all unfolded.

FSU’s Francois was one of the three QBs Notre Dame went fishing for when initial 2015 recruiting class QB commit Blake Barnett decommitted. Travis Waller (now Jonsen) and Jarrett Stidham were the two others, before the Irish coaching staff re-engaged with Wimbush and poached him out of Penn State’s class.

Another connection was that four years ago, Wimbush’s only loss his senior season in high school on the way to a New Jersey state title was an out-of-state-matchup with IMG Academy and Francois. Wimbush threw for 377 yards in Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep’s 36-20 loss in a game played in Bradenton, Fla.

The past was definitely on Wimbush’s mind as he took the field Saturday night, just not that far back in it.

“It was really emotional. The six weeks (as a backup) were tough, but they were inspiring,” he said. “They did something to me. It allowed me to work through adversity and gave me a different perspective.”

Francois, meanwhile, labored behind a Seminole offensive line that has yet to gain any real traction this season. He finished 23-of-47 for 216 yards and an interception for a mediocre 83.3 efficiency rating.

“We dropped the pass, and they caught 'em,” FSU coach Willie Taggart said. “We've got to catch the football. The other one, hold onto the football. We gotta continue to work at it.

“Again, it's disappointing, because it's holding us back, but we can't stop. We've gotta keep working on it at practice, and then bringing the attitude to the game. I think that's one of our issues is mental toughness, discipline and execution.”

Kelly, who’s now 5-0 when his team is wearing green, had few issues to complain about in any phase of the game. He even joked about trying to stoke a quarterback controversy for the media’s benefit.

“You guys will be bored just talking about one guy,” he said with a smile.

And he smiled every time the running game was brought up, and brought up again, in part because Williams’ four-game suspension to start the season now looks like a blessing.

“He doesn't have a lot of miles on him, and I think that that helps as we go through later in the year,” Kelly said. “Hasn't played a lot.

“Backs that have a lot of carries that are banged up, especially here in the month of November, they have a tendency to wear down a little bit. He's got fresh legs and he's still learning.

“So I think we're seeing the effects of a back that is coming into his own and getting an opportunity now later in his career — certainly seeing things, learning things and tapping into his potential. Notre Dame is the beneficiary, and he will be, too. So it's a win/win situation.”

Florida State’s Cyrus Fagan (24) can’t stop Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) from running for a touchdown during ND’s 42-13 romp, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.