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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Syracuse 33

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After making the most decisive move of his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly’s team responded. And while the 50-33 win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty, there’s no need for a 2-3 team to display style points.

The Irish won with an offense that marched up and down the field and with a defense that did a good job—after a very rough start—of limiting the damage the Orange offense could do. They won by scoring on special teams, by making explosive plays and by getting some critical red zone stops.

With a month that may have been one of the worst of his coaching career, Kelly challenged his team and they responded, beginning October on the right track, earning an absolutely critical win that gets the Irish out of a funk.

“I just liked the way the kids played and prepared all week. It was a tough week. They came out here with a purpose and that’s a tough team to prepare for, when you make a change as we did on defense,” Kelly told ESPN after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys played today, in particular, the basics of football were held up. We’ve got to do some things better in special teams and finish off some drives, but all in all it’s good to get a win.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

The defense found its footing. 

It didn’t start out pretty. Syracuse marched down the field on its first series, scoring a touchdown on just eight plays in just over two minutes, covering 75 yards in big chunks. Making things worse, star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo made Julian Love his latest victim, the Orange matching Notre Dame score for score as the 72-yard touchdown catch had fans bracing for the worst.

But the defense recovered. And even after Devin Studstill was ejected on a questionable targeting call, the young Irish defense rallied. They forced punts on five of the next six possessions. They got after quarterback Eric Dungey. And they made Syracuse earn their yards and points, holding up in the run game.

Greg Hudson provided a needed spark and the Irish came out in the second half looking like a different unit. They held the Orange to just seven second-half points, a shocking performance that helped make the victory feel downright comfortable. After battling back from the fast start, the mental toughness displayed by the defense was absolutely impressive.

 

Equanimeous St. Brown broke the game open. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver made the game’s first five minutes feel like a track meet. Taking his first two catches to the house, St. Brown’s afternoon was one of the most explosive in school history—and he didn’t catch a ball in the second half.

The lanky sophomore continues to emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, with Kizer targeting St. Brown in one-on-one coverage and making Syracuse pay. With good enough deep speed to get behind the Orange defense, St. Brown continues to develop his skills, all while building some much-needed chemistry with his starting quarterback.

St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson supplied three touchdowns of 54 yards or longer, two underclassmen providing the deep-threat firepower to a passing attack that is finding its footing without Will Fuller in that role. The ability to score quickly—something St. Brown is showing he can do—will be key to the team’s success moving forward.

 

Dexter Williams provided the game’s big play on the ground, and avoided what could have been a big injury. 

A week after Kelly credited Williams for being the only player on his roster who was playing with passion, the sophomore back took another step forward when he made a game-breaking run midway through the third quarter. The 59-yard touchdown was the longest of his career, and showcased his ability to make something from nothing, not to mention some elite speed as he ran away from the Syracuse defense and into the end zone.

Williams earned the No. 2 job at running back, taking over for senior Tarean Folston. He also avoided what looked like a potential big leg injury, walking off the field under his own power and even returning to the game, avoiding anything major.

While Josh Adams did have a 100-yard afternoon, it was Williams that helped make the ground game more than just okay. And in doing that, he showed his teammates that the coaching staff was willing to award opportunities to the players who earn them.

 

Even putting up 50 points, the Irish offense left a lot on the field. 

Coaching hard after a win is much easier. So expect Brian Kelly to do just that this week, knowing that his team managed to gain 654 yards of total offense and still didn’t look all that efficient.

Notre Dame failed to punch in a touchdown inside Syracuse’s two-yard line. They settled for three Justin Yoon field goal attempts. And the Irish’s struggles on third down were masked by their four explosive touchdowns.

Even quarterback DeShone Kizer sounded like a guy unsatisfied, crazy considering he threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s the sloppiest 50 point performance I’ve ever been apart of,” Kizer said postgame.

Brian Kelly spent most of his time this week working with the defense, a rare appearance on the other side of the LaBar practice fields. With a true road game set for next weekend in Raleigh, expect Kelly to wander back to the offensive side of the ball, with Irish offense needing to be more efficient.

 

After a bold program-shaking weekend, Notre Dame’s head coach proved he can still pull the right strings.

Last weekend’s press conference outburst had many wondering how the Irish roster would react. Could a team already sporting a major confidence problem withstand a leadership shakeup on the defense and a head coach who took dead aim at his players?

The answer turns out to be yes.

Because any worry that Kelly could’ve lost his roster by speaking critically of their effort was eliminated when the Irish went out and played like a different team. The passion was there. The excitement was as well. And the team rallied around Greg Hudson, the new full-time assistant earning the game ball at his alma mater, an honor that reportedly had him so proud that he was near tears.

To think that Kelly, a man who built this program brick by brick, would misread his team’s response was kind of silly from the start. But after seeing the team get big plays from players young and old, from his offense, defense, and special teams, it’s clear that Kelly’s rare public outburst, one that likely was rooted more in frustration and candor than any motivational tactic, hit its mark.

Because his roster responded. And probably more importantly, his defensive tweaks paid off.

The Irish flashed their depth, with previously underutilized defenders like Jay Hayes, Asmar Bilal and Elijah Taylor seeing plenty of time. In the secondary, the Irish continued to get younger, yet came together after a rough start, holding the Syracuse offense to just 4.3 yards a play on the Orange’s last 52 snaps after giving up a harrowing 14 yards a play on the first 11.

One winning Saturday certainly doesn’t fix everything, and there’s more work to be done. But with a scheme that had already exposed the flaws in Brian VanGorder’s system and a must-win game on the line, Kelly rode his roster hard and they responded.

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.