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Missed block, failed third downs doom Notre Dame in loss to Georgia

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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.

Irish coach Brian Kelly (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“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.”

Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams rushed for only 53 yards on 19 carries Saturday night. (Getty Images)

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

Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon kicks one of his four made field goals Saturday night. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“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.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
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)

Second Quarter
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)

Third Quarter
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)

Fourth Quarter
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)

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

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.