Sept. 17, 2017
By John Heisler
For all the gaudy, glossy, record-setting, touchdown-scoring numbers put up Saturday by the University of Notre Dame offense against rival Boston College, Brandon Wimbush wasn't having any of it.
Despite the Irish quarterback rushing for 156 yards in the second half alone and becoming the first Notre Dame signal-caller to rush for four touchdowns in a game and run for more than 200 yards, Wimbush wanted to talk about the Irish defense.
As he stood with a towel around his waist about to lead his team in singing the Notre Dame Victory March after head coach Brian Kelly presented him with the game ball in the visiting locker room, Wimbush first referenced the Notre Dame fourth-down defensive stop midway through the third period. At that point, the Irish lead was a sparse 14-13 and the Eagles were starting to make believers of their home-standing fans in Alumni Stadium.
"That fourth-down stop turned the whole mentality of the game around," he said, holding the ball aloft.
And, wow, did the Irish make the most of it from there.
Notre Dame put five touchdowns on the board in the final 20 minutes and that enabled the smiling Irish to walk away with what turned out to be a commanding 49-20 victory.
"We've got to be able to start with the energy we talked about," Kelly told his players before kickoff.
"It's the group -- not one person, not three persons -- it's the entire football team, the sideline, everywhere. That's how the game starts and that's how the game finishes -- with our energy. We've put in too much time and worked too hard. We are coming here with the energy necessary to dominate our opponent.
"Physicality is the word today -- physical football for four quarters. It's four seconds a play and then we regroup and go to the next one. You're trained for this, you've put in the time. You've earned the opportunity to be on this stage – now go take advantage of it.
"Let's go seize the moment."
It wasn't easy early.
The home team kicked a field goal midway through the opening period, and three minutes into the second period Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown found Charlie Callinan on a nifty 22-yard TD pass and the Eagles led 10-7.
Notre Dame's first TD had come mostly because of a 65-yard run by Josh Adams and its second (both of those scores by Wimbush) two minutes before the halftime intermission came mostly via Adams' 64-yarder. Adams had 167 yards by halftime on his way to a 229-yard day that marked the fourth-best single-game rushing effort by an Irish player any time in history.
But if Adams paved the way for this victory, Wimbush took care of painting all the stripes in the right places. He flat stole the show down the stretch, often in spectacular fashion.
If Adams and Wimbush and the rest of the Irish wanted to make some sort of statement coming off last week's one-point loss to Georgia when yards were tough to come by, consider it mission accomplished.
On a 76-degree afternoon that came warmer than advertised, Adams began by taking advantage of a drawn-up Boston College defense to break through the line and, after stumbling twice, outran the defense all the way to the two. That made him the 17th Irish back to surpass the 2,000-yard career figure.
But by midway through the second period, Boston College had run twice as many plays and totaled twice as many yards as the Irish.
No one in the Notre Dame camp ultimately could complain about 271 first-half yards (218 on the ground) -- yet Wimbush completed only seven of 16 first-half throws for 53 yards. The Irish simply hadn't figured out a way to seize the momentum or control.
And Kelly sensed that at halftime as he made clear to his team what needed to happen. A week ago against Georgia Notre Dame led 13-10 at the break. This time the Irish led 14-10. So what would the final two periods bring this week?
"We've got to play with a sense of energy," Kelly said. "We've got two quarters and it's now or never. We've got to break out. We have to win a football game today.
"Give it up for Notre Dame. Give it up for your teammates. Give it up for a football program that is trying to break out. Let's do it today, let's do it together. We need to get this victory.
"We don't need to do anything different. We don't change who we are because we built those traits for eight months and we're not changing anything.
"We're going to leave this field victorious. We're winning the third and fourth period and we're winning this football game. There is no other way we're coming back in here."
Added Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko to his secondary: "We're in a football game. We've got to make some plays to win it. It's all about us."
The start of the third period did not quite go as planned. The Irish took the kickoff and went three and out. After the Boston College field goal cut the margin to one, Notre Dame went three and out again after Adams lost 13 combined yards on consecutive plays.
Then came the series Wimbush loved.
The Notre Dame fourth-down stop actually set the Irish up with their second-best starting field position of the day at their own 30 (among first-half possessions, Notre Dame started at its own 14, 11, 11, 8 and 10).
This time it was Wimbush with the keynote run, a 46-yarder to the Boston College nine. Three plays later Tony Jones Jr. found the end zone for a 21-13 Irish edge.
After a Shaun Crawford interception, Adams ran for 36 yards on first down and Wimbush on the next play found tight end Durham Smythe for 33 more to the Eagle nine. Wimbush's third TD run pushed the lead to 28-13.
The Irish went four of five on third-down conversions in the third period -- after going only three of nine in the opening half. The Eagles converted only twice on third down on their first 13 attempts through three periods.
The fourth quarter was a testament to the Notre Dame rushing attack, as the Irish ran for 183 yards and three TDs in the final period alone (and 297 in the second half).
Wimbush started it less than two minutes into the final stanza with a 65-yard scoring run. Boston College drove 70 yards to make it 35-20.
But Crawford zapped the next Eagle drive with a fumble recovery, and after Wimbush rumbled for 32 yards Dexter Williams took it the final three into the end zone. A second Crawford pickoff set the Irish up at the Eagle 33 -- and Williams' 15-yard run completed the scoring.
"We said we needed to dominate the second half. We needed to show our physicality and take over the football game," said Kelly after it was over. "It was a classic case of just banging that wall until it crumbled. You had the mental and physical endurance and you broke your opponent.
"I told you a story after Ara Parseghian passed about how his teams would never break -- they broke their opponents. You did that today with that mental and physical endurance. You just kept after your opponent play after play after play and that's what you did.
"That's a Power 5 team, on the road, and you beat them by 29 points. You should feel good about that win. You had to work for that and you had to sacrifice for that.
"We also have to be critical and look at some of the soft spots along the way and where we need to shore them up. We had a couple of series where we did not have that toughness.
"But when you win on the road you need performances, collective and individual. You need guys who bounce back. We call it grit around here. It's sustained effort even through adversity."
The Irish proved a quick-strike team Saturday, requiring an average of just more than five plays on their seven TD drives.
Of Boston College's eight second-half possessions, only one lasted more than five plays and only one traversed more than 26 yards. By then the Irish ground attack had sent many of the home fans home early.
Never until Saturday had the Irish had two 200-yard rushers in a game (229 by Adams, 207 by Wimbush).
Never had a Notre Dame quarterback run for four scores in a game -- and no player had done that since 1984 (Allen Pinkett versus Penn State.)
Wimbush broke the Notre Dame record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game, a mark that had stood since 1969.
Notre Dame's 515 team rushing yards (one short of the most allowed by Boston College in a game) marked its most in one contest since that same 1969 outing against Navy.
The Irish set a record by running for 10.1 yards per carry.
"Did a lot of good things in the game," said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, a former Irish assistant coach.
"We didn't stop the run. We did not stop the run. That was a huge deal in that game."
The Irish are now one quarter of the way through their regular season, and Kelly twice has seen his team win with dominant running efforts.
When it comes to establishing an identity, that's not a bad way to start.