SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame certainly had its chances. Twice in the final four minutes, the No. 24 Irish had possession needing a score to overcome a one-point deficit to No. 15 Georgia. Instead, each drive stalled after three plays, including a game-sealing fumble with less than 90 seconds remaining to seal the Bulldogs’ 20-19 victory Saturday night.
“The credit should go to Georgia today,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “They made the plays in critical times. When they needed the big plays, they came up with them.”
The Irish led for the majority of the evening until Georgia junior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship hit a 30-yard field goal with 3:34 remaining in the game to bring the score to 20-19. Three incompletions from junior Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush later and the Bulldogs had the ball back with 3:08 remaining. The Irish defense held stout, forcing a three-and-out, but again the Notre Dame offense could not produce as needed.
After a 17-yard completion to junior receiver Chris Finke gave the Irish offense some forward momentum, the evening came to an abrupt halt. Wimbush dropped back, but before he could even plant his back foot at the end of his drop, Bulldogs senior defensive end Davin Bellamy hit Wimbush from behind, forcing a fumble recovered by Bulldogs senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter.
“It was a great play,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I actually was trying to get [Bellamy] out of the game, because I thought that they were a little winded. So we played I think two or three times that drive, and I always want to have fresh rushers.
“He gets out there and he outdid the guy.”
The guy Smart referenced would be Notre Dame fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. The Irish captain both credited the Georgia defense and Bellamy as well as faulted himself for the game-deciding play.
“They were quick, they were big, they were good with their hands, and they had a good game plan,” McGlinchey said. “They played their hearts out today, so did we. It came down to execution and we didn’t get the job done.”
Wimbush was sacked a total of three times on the day. He finished 20-of-40 passing for 210 yards while losing two fumbles on two of those sacks, including Bellamy’s. McGlinchey saw no reason for any of those mishaps to be attributed to Wimbush.
“I told him I’m sorry, I didn’t do my job at the end of the game,” he said. “That’s not on Brandon Wimbush. He had a hell of a game. It’s a tough atmosphere to play in. He had a great game for the most part all day. I told him I’m sorry because I blew it on the last play.”
As a whole, Notre Dame’s offense struggled mightily against the Bulldogs, gaining a total of 265 yards with only 79 rushing yards on 34 carries (when removing sack totals from rushing statistics). If not for 127 Georgia penalty yards and a fumble recovery giving the Irish a short field in the second quarter, the 19 points may have been far fewer.
That Bulldogs turnover came on the first play of their first possession starting in the second quarter. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm went to hand the ball off and instead deposited it on the ground. Notre Dame sophomore end Daelin Hayes jumped on it. A 32-yard Wimbush completion to junior running back Josh Adams got the Irish into scoring position and two plays later Wimbush ran into the end zone for the only Notre Dame touchdown of the day.
“[Wimbush is] a good player, he’s a really good athlete, he’s hard to get down,” Smart said. “But I know they were frustrated on offense tonight, too. Frustrated as our fans are, and I am, [with] the offense we had, think about theirs. They had a lot of three-and-outs, as well. It was one of those defensive struggle games, field position games.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Irish junior kicker Justin Yoon’s third field goal of the night gave Notre Dame a 16-10 lead midway through the third quarter. On the first play of the ensuing Georgia drive, Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner reached Fromm for a six-yard loss. An incompletion later brought up third-and-16 from the Bulldogs’ own 19-yard line. The Irish were posed to regain possession with worthwhile field position and a chance to go up two positions.
In a plodding game lacking any signs of offensive momentum, a two-possession lead would have been insurmountable. It felt that way at the time, and now knowing how the game played out, it is even more certain.
As Fromm rolled out of the pocket looking for sophomore receiver Riley Ridley along the sideline, Notre Dame sophomore end Julian Okwara gave chase. When Fromm released the pass a yard from the sideline, Okwara was half a stride away. A subsequent shove of Fromm out of bounds earned Okwara a 15-yard late hit personal foul penalty, turning a 14-yard Ridley reception and a fourth-and-two into a first-and-10 nearly 30 yards down the field.
The call seemed questionable, but Okwara also cannot put himself in that position. By now, every player on any football field has to know the referees will protect the quarterbacks at all costs. Sure, his momentum may bring Okwara up to Fromm no matter what, but extending his arms on the shove sealed the penalty.
If not for that, Georgia is likely to punt — it was still too early in the night to go for a fourth-and-two within its own territory. The Irish would have had that chance to go up by nine or 13 points. Instead, Georgia finished the 75-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown run from senior running back Sony Michel.
“We were off the field and subsequently they scored,” Kelly said. “Those are the things that when it’s a one-point game, you’ll go back, and we’ll learn a painful lesson from that. You hate to learn lessons in losses but sometimes you have to learn some painful lessons.”
OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
That Michel touchdown gave Georgia a 17-16 lead. Two Irish possessions later, Notre Dame faced a third-and-four from the Bulldogs 14-yard line. Only 11:08 remained. A touchdown would have put all sorts of pressure back on Georgia.
Suddenly, third-and-four became third-and-nine courtesy of a false start by freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey, his third such penalty in two weeks. Wimbush ran for eight yards, and Yoon trotted out for his fourth and final field goal attempt of the night.
The successful 28-yard kick did return the lead to the Irish, but by only two rather than six. If Hainsey had not jumped, the third-and-four may have been converted and a touchdown may have soon followed.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Yoon hit five-of-five kicks Saturday night. In order: a 39-yard field goal, a point after attempt, a 42-yard field goal, a 37-yarder and a 28-yarder to finish his work. All this comes after missing his two field goal attempts a week ago.
“I felt like the adjustments [from a week ago] weren’t going to be major,” Kelly said. “That’s where maybe I stepped out on the limb a little bit with him. We made some slight corrections during the week and he was hitting the ball really well.”
If the Irish had managed to move the ball downfield in the closing minutes, Wimbush was confident he did not have to go all that far before they would be within Yoon’s range.
“The confidence was there and we had no doubt that we were going to go drive down and at least get three points. That’s all we needed,” Wimbush said. “If we were able to get into his range, I’m confident that [Yoon] would have knocked it through.”
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame finished three-of-17 on third-down conversions and entered the red zone a total of three times but came away with only one seven-point trip. In fact, the Irish opened oh-for-10 on third-down conversions.
QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Wimbush was asked about the mood in the locker room following the defeat. In some respects, those questions are throwaway questions. A generic answer fills the bill. On the surface, that was what Wimbush delivered, but what was of note was how he slowly worked his way through it.
“It’s not the same mood as it was last week, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a loss, and we don’t play this game to lose. We don’t do what we do for nine months to lose a game.”
Wimbush paused. He was not about to break down, but he was clearly uncomfortable talking about losing.
“There wasn’t much going on. There wasn’t much excitement.”
OWNERSHIP OF THE EVENING
If anyone wants to criticize Mike McGlinchey for missing his block on the final Notre Dame offensive possession, there is no need. McGlinchey is more critical of himself than anyone else could be.
“It definitely hurts a little bit more when it’s [my] responsibility. We played our hearts out all four quarters. It just comes down to those couple plays of execution. I certainly didn’t get my job done.”
When asked how Wimbush responded to McGlinchey putting the blame on his own shoulders, McGlinchey praised his quarterback.
“Obviously he’s a good teammate and he said, no, it wasn’t [my fault],” McGlinchey said. “But anybody who watches football knows that it was.”
12:48 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon from 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Georgia 0. (7 plays, 53 yards, 2:12)
6:36 — Georgia field goal. Rodrigo Blankenship from 27 yards. Notre Dame 3, Georgia 3. (6 plays, 71 yards, 2:33)
11:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush one-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 3. (4 plays, 32 yards, 0:53)
6:45 — Georgia touchdown. Terry Godwin 5-yard reception from Jake Fromm. Blankenship PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 10. (12 plays, 62 yards, 5:39)
4:14 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 42 yards. Notre Dame 13, Georgia 10. (6 plays, 40 yards, 2:31)
6:22 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 37 yards. Notre Dame 16, Georgia 10. (9 plays, 33 yards, 2:16)
4:34 — Georgia touchdown. Sony Michel five-yard rush. Blankenship PAT good. Georgia 17, Notre Dame 16. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:48)
10:21 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 28 yards. Notre Dame 19, Georgia 17. (13 plays, 73 yards, 4:43)
3:34 — Georgia field goal. Rodrigo Blankenship from 30 yards. Georgia 20, Notre Dame 19. (9 plays, 63 yards, 3:13)