NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame’s wide receivers held true to their spring performance in the annual Blue-Gold Game finale.
The reputation of Notre Dame’s offensive line with four starters returning – at least as it pertained to handling the pass rush -- did not.
Seven receivers caught passes of 28 yards or more while a leaky offensive line allowed 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in the Gold team’s 27-14 victory in the 15th and final practice of spring drills in Notre Dame Stadium.
“One thing that I’ve always wanted to do (in Blue-Gold Games) is create an atmosphere for competition,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly following his eighth Blue-Gold Game with the Irish.
“Guys locked in when they get into the building, really focused on a game-like atmosphere because it’s now no longer (just a) practice. They’ve got to do what they do as athletes so their athleticism has to take over in a coordinated pattern with the teaching.”
A majority of the athleticism the Irish displayed Saturday showed itself at the offensive skills positions, at defensive end and, in a couple of instances, the defensive secondary.
Between quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book, the Irish completed 39-of-54 passes (72.2 percent) with every pass-catching threat getting involved.
Fourteen players caught passes totaling 580 yards, led Miles Boykin (five catches, 102 yards). Alizé Jones - heretofore known as Alizé Mack now that Notre Dame is officially listing him as such – tied Boykin for the team-lead in grabs with five for 46 yards.
C.J. Sanders and Chase Claypool each caught four passes while Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown each had three.
Stepherson had the longest reception of the day – a 58-yarder – in which the sophomore-to-be, who missed large portions of spring drills with a hamstring issues and off-the-field responsibilities – beat capable walk-on cornerback Temitope Agoro, making it down to the two-yard line as the first quarter came to a close.
Boykin had the second-longest reception (38 yards), followed by Sanders (37), Chris Finke (36), St. Brown (32), Claypool (29) and Boykin (28).
Wimbush completed 22-of-32 for 303 yards with two interceptions. Book was 17-of-22 for 277 yards with a touchdown pass to Sanders.
“He’s learning our offense,” said Kelly of Wimbush, downplaying the two interceptions by Jalen Elliott (off a Nick Coleman pass break-up) and Nick Watkins. “He’s learning the reads. Every snap he takes gets him closer to prepared for where we want him. This is just the learning process for him. He continues to learn every single day.
“I loved everything that happened to him today. He’s just wide-eyed, listening, paying attention and just totally committed to the process of getting better.”
Wimbush was “sacked” seven times and Book four, although a quick whistle for the quarterbacks in red jerseys distorted the 11 total sacks.
But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that more than half of those sacks would have been legitimate in a real-game setting as the offensive line had difficulty blocking Daelin Hayes (three sacks) and Jay Hayes (two) in particular, with Drue Tranquill recording two tackles for loss on running plays.
Kelly insisted that he wasn’t down on the defense’s overall performance despite the bevy of big passing and running plays.
“I like the fundamentals showing up,” Kelly said. “The ability to spill the ball into the right locations, being in good position…We got the ball thrown over our heads a couple of times. We’re not there yet, but there were some really good signs in terms of physical play.
“That was a more confident group. They played with an expectation to make plays. They were not a group that was expecting bad things to happen to them, and that’s a big confidence step for our guys.”
All told, there were 114 yards lost by the offense on 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“No, not really,” said Kelly when asked if he’s concerned about the offensive line’s pass protection. “A lot of the stuff, we’re not really preparing to pick up and block particular fronts and schemes.
“When we get into game planning, we’ll pick up everything. There are some things that we’ve got to do better, no question, including picking up some looks. We missed one with a back. We should have slid the protection another time. But those don’t concern me as much as just good technique by our offensive line on a play-by-play basis.”
There were five touchdowns scored on the day – three by the Gold offense and two by the Blue offense. Wimbush scored the final touchdown of the day midway through the fourth quarter on a one-yard keeper.
Book’s solid performance was a continuation of the previous 14 practices.
“He did what we’ve seen all spring,” said Kelly of Book. “Consistency, throwing strikes, rarely missing an open receiver, and he sees the field very well.
“We all came into the spring talking about Brandon Wimbush and rightly so. The starting quarterback at Notre Dame is a big topic; it’s a big story. But the story beneath for me was who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback because if you guys have followed us, (you know) we’ve used our No. 2 here quite a bit.
“Having that No. 2 and seeing him perform the way he has this spring, for me, has been one of the big stories, and Ian has done this all spring.”
Kelly was quick to add that there is no question who the starter will be. It’s Wimbush.
A story even lesser known this spring was the work of walk-on kicker Sam Kohler, who has handled virtually every placekick as Justin Yoon tries to overcome some leg issues.
Kohler converted all five extra points while nailing 42- and 46-yard field goals with the 12 mile-per-hour breeze behind his back.
“I think I mentioned him here the other day,” said Kelly, “and you guys kind of snickered at me. He’s solid.”
Daelin Hayes and Elliott led all tacklers with seven. Four of Hayes’ stops came behind the line of scrimmage. Isaiah Robertson and Te’von Coney each had six tackles. Greer Martini broke up two of the seven passes deflected.