Last looks: Quarterbacks

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When Everett Golson pulled the chute and headed south to Tallahassee, Notre Dame’s quarterback competition quickly cleared up. This is Malik Zaire’s football team.

Depending on how you look at it, that could be a very good thing or a very bad thing. Those in favor of having Golson stick around liked the idea of a three-year starter and a quarterback with an elite throwing arm. Those ready to see him go were sick and tired of watching him cough up the football, each mistake erasing a highlight that would’ve looked great on YouTube, but was erased as it derailed a football team that couldn’t withstand critical mistakes, especially with a second-half, swiss cheese defense.

The Irish move forward, with Zaire implanted as the unofficial leader of the offense, a quarterback with no fear being the face of a unit with great expectations. But with zero experience behind Zaire’s own limited snap count, it’ll be a bit of a tight rope walk.

So let’s take our last looks at the quarterback position, always the most critical spot on the field.

 

QUARTERBACKS
Position Coach: Mike Sanford

 

DEPTH CHART

QB1: Malik Zaire, Jr.*
QB2: DeShone Kizer, Soph.*
QB3: Brandon Wimbush, Fr.
QB4: Montgomery VanGorder, Soph.*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MAN

Malik Zaire. No kidding, right? Zaire now steps into focus, allowed to let his confidence and off-field leadership abilities mesh with the opportunity afforded to him. We’ve spent a few thousand words talking about Zaire this offseason. But I’ll be interested to see if they treat Zaire like Golson in 2012 or give him a full menu.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

DeShone Kizer. In a perfect world, Kizer is the world’s most boring kick-holder. But in case of injury—or if Zaire’s helmet pops off—Kizer’s number is going to be called, and it’ll be up to the sophomore to be ready to take over.

Watching the spring game, it sure looked like there was an ocean between Kizer and being ready to take over the quarterbacking duties. But with Golson gone and Kizer having a great offseason (I’ll choose to believe what Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford have said about him) and fall camp, there’s nobody this staff wants more as No. 2, especially with the preference to keep a redshirt on Wimbush.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS… 

Can Zaire keep the turnovers under control? There’s nothing more important to Notre Dame’s offense than limiting game-changing mistakes. So finding a way to run this offense in both an explosive way, but also one that limits potential mistakes, will be one of the critical balancing acts of the season.

There is too much talent on this offense to be overly vanilla. But all the talent in the world won’t help you win if you’re giving the football away. This is one of the largest big-picture questions I have for this season.

 

Can Zaire be a weapon in the running game… without getting hurt? Zaire is an elite option quarterback, based on a high school career that was almost exclusively triple-option until his senior season’s offense opened up. And add to that a rugged 230-pound frame that might make Zaire the most powerful runner in the stable, and you’ve got to wonder how the quarterback can be both a critical piece of the ground game, while also not getting hurt.

Early in Kelly’s time in South Bend, he seemed to put restrictions on Dayne Crist, knowing full well that he had nothing behind him. It didn’t matter, with Crist going down twice with season-ending (and career detouring) injuries. I expect Kelly has learned from that.

No, it’s not realistic for Zaire to run 22 times a game like he did against LSU. But finding a way to let Zaire impact the game on the ground while also limiting his “pitch count” makes sense.

 

What happens if things go wrong? Last season was ruined when Golson couldn’t pick himself up and revive his confidence. Zaire doesn’t look like he’ll have that problem, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll respond until he makes his first big mistake.

Building on this, things going wrong could also include losing the team’s starting quarterback. It’s a scenario that this staff has to be ready for, and if that happens, they need to be ready to not just take the redshirt off of Wimbush, but to potentially build him a package of plays that utilize his speed and big arm. This team is too good not to go all-in on salvaging the offense.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Does this offense need a game manager? Zaire is hardly a “game-manager” type, but is that what the Irish need?

I don’t think so, only because the Irish defense isn’t like the unit Notre Dame trotted out in 2012. But on a scale from “no-risks to full-throttle,” you’ve got to expect this staff to hand Zaire the reins slowly, keeping things as vanilla as they can until they need to outscore teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.

 

What will Mike Sanford’s impact on this position be? In Matt LaFleur’s single season in South Bend, he didn’t accomplish many of the things optimists expected, especially when it was clear that Golson was regressing down the stretch.

Sanford is a more polished offensive coach than LaFleur, who found himself a much better fit in the pro grame. And Kelly also likely looked hard at his arrangement last time around, where LaFleur focused on the guys behind Golson while the head coach seemed to work exclusively with the starter. Sanford wasn’t coming to South Bend to take a secondary role in this offense, especially after Urban Meyer offered him the keys to the Buckeyes offense.

But what changes should we expect at quarterback? We saw small tweaks—especially in the footwork in the zone read game—this spring. But expect Sanford’s DNA to be all over this offense (especially at quarterback), even as we wait to figure out how the offensive collaboration will work.

 

Can Zaire make progress in the red zone, especially near the goal line? While the Irish actually made great strides in converting opportunities to touchdowns (the Irish jumped from 100th to 45th in TD%), there’s still work to be done. And while Zaire’s decision-making in the passing game is still up for debate, his ability to run the ball near the goal line has to be a huge asset.

Stack the box and you leave guys like Will Fuller, Corey Robinson or Tight End X/Y/Z in single coverage. Respect the passing game and you’ve got a 230-pound quarterback barreling your way.

Even if we expect the special teams operation to get better, it’s still never good to rely on a freshman to get you three when you really want seven. The Irish can bury a lot of opponents by being opportunistic in the red zone, allowing Brian VanGorder’s defense to pin its ears back when an opponent gets down two scores. So cashing in on red zone opportunities is a key piece of the puzzle.

 

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.

Things We Learned: Wimbush’s and Claypool’s proven potential raises Notre Dame’s ceiling

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It may have just been an intrasquad scrimmage in April, but the Blue-Gold Game included the most-consistent performance seen by the public in rising-senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s career at Notre Dame. Looking through 2017’s game-by-game stats, no other showing comes very close to Saturday’s 19-of-33 passing for 341 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

His 57.6 percent completion rate was outdone only once, when he completed 70 percent of his passes, 14-of-20, for 173 yards and one touchdown at Michigan State. This weekend’s accuracy could have ended up a few points higher, too, if Wimbush had been allowed to scramble on broken plays, rather than try to force a pass into tight coverage.

Yes, it may have just been the conclusion to spring practices, but Wimbush proved he physically can put together an accurate day with more than his coaches and teammates watching.

“Obviously, I wasn’t too accurate last year,” Wimbush said. “I missed some balls that should have been completed. It’s the fundamentals and my footwork, emphasizing urgency with my footwork that will help me.”

The minutiae of fundamentals and footwork manifest themselves by throwing behind receivers on drag routes, making Equanimeous St. Brown reach behind himself to pull in a five-yard throw intended to turn into 10 or 15 yards. They result in hitting Alizé Mack’s shoes in the flat against Miami (OH) on a first-and-10 in the red zone. The simple change in arm angle turns simple pick-ups into lost downs and torpedoes any hopes of a tolerable completion percentage and efficient drives down the field.

Throughout the latter half of 2017, Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged those mechanical mistakes, but put off rectifying them until the offseason, lest a week’s game planning be lost to rushed returns to basics. With an offseason working on those building blocks, Wimbush showed Saturday he can make those throws, finding Mack, Cole Kmet, Chris Finke and even Jafar Armstrong either crossing just past the line of scrimmage or in the flat. His completion percentage reflected it, and the offense moved down the field.

“Consistency in his mechanics was probably the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “His (arm) drop put him in a lot of compromising situations in terms of throwing the football, and so I think that was cleaned up. Started with his attention to those things, and being very coachable.

“Then repetition, doing it consistently, play in and play out. We’re not there yet, but we made a huge jump forward.”

Ian Book finished the Blue-Gold Game 17-of-30 for 292 yards and a touchdown, trailing Brandon Wimbush in all categories and likely solidifying the quarterback competition in Wimbush’s favor. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

This may all read as if through rose-colored lenses — and it needs to be again acknowledged this was in front of a generously-announced crowd of 31,729, far from the Stadium’s capacity of 80,795 — but the numbers are unprecedented in Wimbush’s tenure. He gained 10.33 yards per attempt. The closest he managed last season was 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest, when he completed only 50 percent of his passes. Even last year’s Blue-Gold Game saw only 9.47 yards per Wimbush passing attempt, although it did include a 68.75 percent completion rate.

Then things changed in the season. Wimbush’s muscle memory vanished. He had it once. He may have it again.

“It was [committed to muscle memory] coming out of high school and going through a couple years of college,” Wimbush said. “Then, sometimes you just lose sight of what got you to where you are, and I think that happened to me last year. I went back to the details and the fundamentals and got it right.”

None of this means a thing if Wimbush returns to aiming at Mack’s shins against Michigan on Sept. 1, but it is now clear he should be able to avoid that habit. Another four months of this trend-line, and perhaps some of this spring Saturday’s stats could become figures seen on a fall weekend.

Of course, Wimbush had help. Two of his passes went to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool for 25 yards, part of Claypool’s six total receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns.

For a rising-senior with only 12 catches for 253 yards last season, Miles Boykin is rather established as Notre Dame’s top receiving option. One could be forgiven for assuming Claypool would have had those honors after catching 29 passes for 402 yards last season. Instead, he spent much of the spring working with the second set of Irish receivers, while Boykin, rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke took the starting reps.

That did not sit well with Claypool.

“I was starting with the 2s there, and I kind of wanted to show that’s not my position,” he said. “… I think my potential is limitless. I like to think of it that way, that I’ll never peak.”

If Claypool’s potential has a limitation, it is due to his emotions, something Kelly has spent the spring harping on. When Claypool makes a first-down grab, his focus should be on the rest of the drive, not celebrating moving the chains. Likewise, after a dropped pass, he needs to ready himself for the next down, not dwell on the missed opportunity.

“He wasn’t one of our cool, calm and collected guys last year, but he’s really worked hard on that and the way he’s practiced has allowed him to be much more focused,” Kelly said. “… Since he’s found where that optimal zone is for him to be when he plays, he’s been so much more consistent.

“If he continues to trend this way, we’ve got another big, rangy, physical wide receiver that we can put on the field.”

Remove Claypool’s afternoon against Wake Forest to start November, in which he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, and the then-sophomore never topped 60 yards or four receptions last season. As physically gifted as he very clearly is, inconsistent was just as apt an adjective when discussing the Canadian product.

Finding that “optimal zone” against the Wolverines will be a challenge, but it is one Claypool knows is ahead of him.

“I think I can do that every time,” he said. “I told [rising-junior quarterback Ian] Book and Wimbush, the only way they’ll stop me — with all confidence, I don’t want to be cocky — is if they [pass interfere with] me. … It kind of showed I can make plays, but I have to still keep working until I can give myself the opportunity.”

How many times can “Aloha, Alohi” be used before it gets old? Oh wait, it already is? Fine. So be it. Anyway, welcome Alohi Gilman as a starting safety.

The rising-junior transfer from Navy totaled only six tackles and did not break up any passes, but he also did not appear to blow any coverages or outright miss any tackles. (He can thank rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride for cleaning up a takedown of Finke which Gilman was on the verge of mishandling.)

Alohi Gilman, left, made a heads-up strip of rising-sophomore receiver Michael Young to further cement Gilman’s status as a starting safety for the Irish defense. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

When Wimbush connected with Young off a play-action fake early on, Gilman made the instinctual play to swat the exposed ball out of Young’s hands and then recovered the fumble. That nose for the ball has been missing among Notre Dame’s safeties in recent years.

“If you look at every time [Gilman is] near the football, there is high contact with him,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re looking for at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player.

“He’s what we thought he would be. He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”

Unless incoming freshman Derrik Allen makes an immediate impression or early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith shows great development over the summer, Gilman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott will likely man the Irish backline against Michigan. It is no coincidence they created a turnover apiece Saturday.

Notre Dame will need that new indoor practice facility when it is finished next summer.

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game was one of only two practices the Irish held outdoors this spring, out of a possible 15. Such are the joys of a northwestern Indiana winter. The ceilings at the Loftus Sports Complex are too low to genuinely work on the kicking game, and it showed with fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome averaging only 40.5 yards per punt and rising-senior kicker Justin Yoon missing two of five field goals.

The new indoor facility is intended to have higher ceilings, allowing those specialists more offseason work.

Kelly was not concerned in the least by the kicking performances, and considering the veterans at his disposal currently, his calm makes sense. Nonetheless, the new practice facility is needed, even if it is another whole spring away from being completed.

Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting received another boost with the commitment of rivals.com four-star safety Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal High School; Alexandria, Va.).

Not much else needs to be said about Ajavon’s recruitment. Until further notice, safety play will remain a concern for the Irish, so pulling in a talent like Ajavon’s is vital. He is the fifth commitment in the Notre Dame class of 2019, following in the Friday footsteps of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead.

Wimbush’s mechanics, Notre Dame’s receivers shine in Blue-Gold Game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The 64-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the Blue-Gold Game will be memorable, and with good reason, but Brandon Wimbush’s shorter completions — such as a 12-yard gain to Alizé Mack, a 10-yard reception by Chris Finke and a seven-yarder to Cole Kmet — hint at even more promise for Notre Dame in 2018.

A year ago, the rising-senior quarterback missed those underneath crossing routes, hitting the checkdowns in the shoelaces, if at all. During Saturday’s conclusion to the spring practices, Wimbush finished 19-of-33 for 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, leading the Irish offense to a 47-44 victory over the defense.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have maintained the party line of an open quarterback competition this spring between Wimbush and rising-junior Ian Book, but Kelly acknowledged the writing is on the wall after this spring.

“It’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said. “That’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.

“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”

By no means did Book play poorly in the intrasquad exhibition, but Wimbush’s marked improvement in his accuracy and mechanics essentially ended any competition talk for the summer. Book threw for 292 yards on 17-of-30 passing with one touchdown, an 85-yard touchdown pass to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool to open Saturday’s scoring in which Claypool dismissed a tackle attempt from rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford with nary a concern, in part because Crawfrod’s ball-hawk instincts kicked in and he went for a strip as much as for a tackle.

Claypool led the receivers with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, while rising-senior Miles Boykin added three catches for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.

“We weren’t an explosive passing game last year,” Kelly said. “Miles changes that complexion. He’s very difficult to defend, and if you do, you have to roll a coverage up on him. You’re going to take a safety and borrow a safety. We think that’s going to give us the kind of running game that will be extremely effective, as well.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Already embedded above, Boykin’s shedding of fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins to pull in Wimbush’s pass, while maintaining enough balance to get to the end zone, showcases much of what could make Boykin a true all-around threat in 2018. He showed his leaping ability and overall athleticism in the Citrus Bowl dramatics/heroics. He also has the speed to get a step on a quality cornerback like Watkins, giving Wimbush the opening to launch toward.

While praising Wimbush’s short-game Saturday is pertinent and accurate, ignoring his ludicrous arm strength would be a mistake. From his own 27-yard line, Wimbush did not take a step into the throw, basically heaving it from his back foot, and still sent it 56 yards through the air on target to Boykin at the opposite 17-yard line.

RUNNER-UP PLAY OF THE GAME
The folly of an intrasquad scrimmage is every success comes as another teammate’s failure. Boykin’s and Claypool’s touchdowns did not result from blown coverages. In each instance, the cornerback had close coverage, but the receiver simply made an outstanding play.

Rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford may have gotten turned around a bit finding Book’s throw, but once Claypool came down with it, he simply broke Crawford’s tackle and headed toward the end zone.

“[Crawford] played, honestly, really good defense,” Claypool said. “He was right there with me. He never gives up on the play, which is what I love to see from the defensive guys. … No other defensive back really offers his hidden ability and his coverage ability with his speed.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
In the days to come, more time will be spent looking at rising-sophomore Avery Davis’ public debut as a receiver/running back hybrid who happens to spend some time at quarterback. In fact, pondering those possibilities will undoubtedly be a recurring theme of the summer. His performance Saturday guaranteed as much.

Davis took 11 carries for 30 yards with a long rush of 11, adding two catches for 24 yards and completing two passes, on two attempts, for 26 more yards. He may have never found the end zone, but his fingerprints were all over the game, including a five-yard reception in the flat from Wimbush, another example of the starting quarterback properly diagnosing and hitting the easy throw, taking the yards where they are available.

“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly said. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. [Davis and rising-sophomore Jafar Armstrong] give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position. What we saw from them in the spring kind of showed itself today. Both of them are going to be productive.”

Armstrong, another running back/receiver hybrid, took five carries for 48 yards including a 25-yard touchdown, and had one catch for 21 yards.

Between the two of them, Notre Dame opens up a much larger inventory of possibilities within its playbook, and creates opportunities to rest the backfield mainstays.

STAT OF THE GAME
Rising-junior safety Jalen Elliott recorded an interception in the spring finale for the second April in a row. Between the two interceptions, no Irish safety managed such a takeaway. On top of that, Elliot missed another interception earlier, letting one bounce right off his hands. For that matter, so did Watkins.

In a game with 65 pass attempts, some are going to find defensive backs’ hands. Throughout 2017, the Notre Dame safeties tested that hypothesis, seemingly averse to attacking the ball in the air. By pulling in one interception and breaking up a pass, as well, Elliott offered a glimmer of hope that trend may change. Those two pass breakups would have been nearly half of the five managed by all Irish safeties in 13 games last season.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Rising-senior running back Dexter Williams is known for his speed. His playmaking ability is why he sees the field despite deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver. When he breaks away, he is not supposed to be caught.

Unless the defender chasing him from across the field is also a track star, at which point, rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride had little difficulty at all.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Last spring, Wimbush played well enough, but not much better than that. He threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 passing, finding the end zone only on foot. Kelly remembered it well.

“Last spring, I told him I went home, I didn’t feel so good about the way you played,” Kelly said. “I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”

UNRLEATED TO THE ACTUAL GAME …
Even a cynic has to acknowledge the genuine happiness displayed by fifth-year left guard Alex Bars about being named the fourth Notre Dame captain early Saturday morning after a team vote Friday.

“I was just elated,” he said. “I was so happy. Highest honor I’ve ever received.”

Bars did not bother to tell his family about being named captain, instead focusing on the exhibition at hand and letting the natures of modern technology inform them in good time.

SCORING SUMMARY
No, let’s not detail how the defense scored 44 exhibition points, even if one of them came from a supposed sack by rising-sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell. Instead, let’s be rational and simply note the offensive tallies:

Book to Claypool, 85-yard touchdown. Justin Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 28-yard field goal.
Yoon 40-yard field goal.
Jonathan Doerer 20-yard field goal.
Armstrong 25-yard touchdown run. Doerer extra point good.
Wimbush to Boykin, 64-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Dexter Williams one-yard touchdown run. Yoon extra point good.
Wimbush to Claypool, six-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 46-yard field goal.