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Things We Learned: Notre Dame one play(er) away from 2019’s best

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ATHENS, Ga. — If a scoreless first quarter and a first half averaging 5.26 yards per play waylaid by five penalties for 35 yards can be considered perfect, that’s what No. 7 Notre Dame (2-1) offered to start Saturday night. The Irish avoided turnovers, capitalized on the one it snagged, and held No.3 Georgia (4-0) to only three plays longer than 10 yards and just 4.75 yards per play.

Notre Dame needed that spotless of a performance to compete against a genuine, bona fide, undeniable national title contender. At halftime, a 10-7 lead was the reward. But the Irish could not keep up that efficient of a showing, even with as many qualifiers on that efficiency as were distinctly on hand.

“We were a little sloppy today, uncharacteristically,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the 23-17 loss. “That goes to coaching. We have to coach better. We have to clean up some mistakes that hurt us today. Those are correctable.”

Two-thirds of what Kelly said was accurate. The miscues Notre Dame made were a deviation from the usual, and they are correctable moving forward, as much as they will be an issue at all. But it was not because of coaching. The game plans put forward by Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Clark Lea kept Notre Dame in a physical game until the final minute.

Lea’s, in particular, limited a high-octane offense.

“Stopping the run was huge,” Irish senior safety Alohi Gilman said. “Dealing with their adjustments, as well. Continuing to get to the ball level and cutting off the perimeter. I think we did a pretty decent job of that, but we have to do better. It wasn’t good enough.”

Through three quarters, Notre Dame won the line of scrimmage when the Bulldogs had the ball. And while Gilman denied it being an issue, fatigue simply caught up to the Irish defensive interior. It was an inevitability, both foreseen and in retrospect. On the final Georgia scoring drive, 26 of its 41 yards came on rushes. The Bulldogs were content to pound forward, both burning clock and inching toward a field goal that would put even more pressure on an ineffectual Notre Dame offense.

Perhaps “ineffectual” comes across as harsh when facing a program known for its defense playing in front of a record-setting crowd intent on not having the capacity of speech on Sunday. But, frankly speaking, it was ineffectual, and the Irish needed to be near perfect.

They needed to not stymie three promising first-half drives with false start penalties, no matter how loud the crowd was, or …

They needed to not foolishly risk a tight pass on a trick play and thus give Georgia a chance at an interception, a chance players that talented would not let pass by, or … 

They needed to have a full array of playmakers available, an unlikely reality in a sport such as this.

Note those were joined by “or”s, not “and”s. Only one was needed.

Notre Dame was quite literally one play or player away from pulling off the upset between the hedges.

That play was not senior quarterback Ian Book’s desperation toss for senior receiver Chase Claypool in the final minute, though that will be the one remembered. If any part of that play is the item to pinpoint, it was the Irish offensive line failing to pick up two blitzers — after an otherwise impressive day of blocking. That pressure forced Book to roll out on a play that needed time to develop.

“I thought the whole game the coaches put us in a really good protection plan, so I was really happy with how the O-line played today,” Book said. “The last play, obviously you want to take a shot, so whatever happened up front, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to take a sack, so I rolled out, gave our guys a shot.”

One of Book’s 18 incompletions, it was not a mistake. His only glaring mistake of the day was not throwing the ball away on a misguided flea-flicker. That ambition truncated yet another decent drive when Notre Dame could least afford it.

“Defense did a great job,” Book said. “It’s frustrating. It’s our job to put points on the board every week. That’s on us.”

Notre Dame junior tight end Cole Kmet made his presence known from the outset Saturday, “He kind of set the tone in the game with a physical run early on and then he got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

On the whole, Book kept the Irish in the game, with impressive work from Claypool and junior tight end Cole Kmet.

“[Book] stepped up to the level necessary for us to have a chance to win this game,” Kelly said. “… Poise and patience in the pocket, delivering the football where he needed to. There’s some things he will work on, but he’s getting to the level where he can begin now to ascend to a level where he can take over a game.”

Claypool’s back-to-back catches late in the fourth quarter got Notre Dame back within one score, neither catch an easy one, both requiring stellar body control along the sideline. Kmet’s 2019 debut smashed all lofty expectations, finishing with nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s a great player,” Book said. “You guys saw that tonight. We want to get him the ball whenever we can. It’s my job to get the ball in all the playmakers’ hands. When he comes back, he just opens up our playbook even more.”

But Kmet’s return alone could not open up the playbook enough for Long to survive an uneven offensive performance repeatedly set back by noise-induced penalties. Notre Dame needed to either avoid that one crucial interception — Book’s first pick, off a bobble by fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, is just part of football; those plays happen — or have one more playmaker on hand.

“Obviously, we need balance,” Kelly said. “We need some guys to get healthy at the running back position.”

Notre Dame senior running back Tony Jones could do only so much as the primary Irish ball carrier, finishing with 21 yards on nine carries. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Specifically, the loss of junior running back Jafar Armstrong hamstrung Long’s offseason plans. Kmet’s return revealed some of those possibilities; the combination of him with a true multi-purpose running back could have legitimately put Kirby Smart’s defense in a bind. The Irish intended to scheme around that missing piece with sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy.

“We know we’re limited at the running back position, so we were hoping to get out on the perimeter with his speed,” Kelly said. Alas, a concussion this week in practice kept Lenzy from even making the trip to Athens.

Without Armstrong, without Lenzy, with senior receiver Javon McKinley once again shrinking into the background and thus suggesting last week’s two touchdowns were an anomaly, Notre Dame was one player short.

Its run defense largely held up, despite a shallow interior. Its quarterback did all he could, at one point to a costly extent. The Irish were simply one play away from joining college football’s elite, a difference again marked by depth, or a lack thereof.

That should be good enough for Notre Dame to finish the season with this sole blemish, though that was of little consolation to the Irish on Saturday.

“I honestly left that field thinking that we beat ourselves and not that we got beat by another team,” Claypool said. “If we take away those penalties, it’s a different ballgame. If we get a couple first downs in the first quarter, I think we win the game.

“We were one possession away, one play away from winning the game.”

 

No. 3 Georgia outlasts No. 7 Notre Dame’s late rally

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ATHENS, Ga. — In place of the regularly-scheduled blowout of Notre Dame against a top-tier opponent, the No. 7 Irish (2-1) made sure a game worthy of two top-10 teams broke out Saturday night. Despite a late rally, a hopeful heave hitting the grass meant the night’s end result was the same as has usually been the case for Notre Dame against the elite of the sport, falling to No. 3 Georgia 23-17 in front of a record-setting crowd at Sanford Stadium.

Trailing 23-10 halfway through the fourth quarter and having found no offensive traction since the first half, the Irish suddenly put together a relatively quick 75-yard touchdown drive. On the previous drive, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart opted to kick a 43-yard field goal rather than attempt a 4th-and-1, thus keeping Notre Dame within two possessions. Irish senior quarterback Ian Book’s 4-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Chase Claypool therefore put them within one touchdown of a lead. If its defense could hold the Bulldogs for the first time since the second half’s opening drive, then Notre Dame just might have a chance. And it did.

“I certainly know a lot more about my team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s hard to measure your team early in the season. We played good teams, but we didn’t play the No. 3 team in the country, so you clearly learn a lot more.

“We’re a physical team, we’re a fast team, we’re a team that is persistent that will play for four quarters. … The core of this team is one that’s gritty, it’s hard-nosed, it’s physical.”

The two-minute drill ended quietly when pressure flushed Book out of the pocket on a 4th-and-8 and his jump ball for Claypool harmlessly fell to the field (pictured above).

“This is why you come to Notre Dame,” said Book, who finished with 275 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-47 passing.

Book’s first touchdown pass came after Claypool recovered a muffed punt in the second quarter at the 8-yard-line. The Irish needed a 4th-and-goal conversion, featuring Book freelancing to buy time, to turn the turnover into points, but doing so gave them the early lead when Book finally found junior tight end Cole Kmet in the end zone. Kmet finished with nine catches for 108 yards in his first action of the season, returning from an August break of his collarbone.

That lead was short-lived as the Bulldogs immediately responded with a 13-play touchdown drive, culminating with a three-yard rush from junior running back D’Andre Swift.

“It was a physical game on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “You could hear it out there — the physicality was real. It was probably one of the most physical games that I have coached, against any team that I have competed against.”

Notre Dame took a 10-7 lead into halftime, only for Georgia to break through an exhausted Irish defense — evidenced by multiple players collapsing with apparent injuries to slow the Bulldogs’ hurry-up offense — in the second half, reeling off 16 unanswered points highlighted by two Jake Fromm-to-Lawrence Cager completions which gave Georgia a 23-10 lead.

Given Notre Dame’s third quarter featured all of 19 yards gained and no first downs, overcoming a two-possession deficit in the final frame seemed unlikely as soon as Cager tapped his toe in the end zone, and it became outright implausible when Book threw an interception, off a flea-flicker, on the ensuing possession.

Yet, the Irish had the ball in the final minute with a chance to win.

Irish senior receiver Chase Claypool finished with six catches for 66 yards and this score late in the fourth quarter which kept Notre Dame’s hopes alive Saturday in a 23-17 loss at Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It was only fitting for Notre Dame’s visit to Athens to become a game-to-remember, perhaps doubly so as one with pain inherent to it. The home-and-home series’ first leg was the 20-19 nailbiter in 2017, a game that arguably launched both the Irish and the Bulldogs out of doldrums and into the top levels of the sport. Since then, the two programs had combined to go 48-8 before Saturday night, each appearing in the College Football Playoff once.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When Cager’s score put the Bulldogs ahead by 10, Notre Dame’s production since halftime consisted of nine plays for 19 yards, minus 10 yards in penalties, and one turnover. The idea of scoring twice in the final 13 minutes was somewhat outlandish, so Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long got creative, calling for a flea-flicker.

Rather than a momentum-sparking result, it led to Book’s second interception of the day — the first coming when fifth-year receiver Chris Finke bobbled a pass right into a defender’s grasp.

“They blitzed the corner,” Kelly said. “They had the perfect call on for the flea-flicker.

“We go zero or hero on that play, so when you call a play like that, you’re either going to be a hero on that play or take a zero. They had the perfect call, they blitzed the corner off the flea-flicker. We’ve got to be zero on that.”

Book should have thrown the ball away, the zero, rather than forcing it toward Finke on the sideline, only for Georgia senior safety J.R. Reed to slide in for the pick. It was a 1st-and-10 and Notre Dame had already crossed midfield; the potential was there to put drama back into the game before the frantic final minutes. Instead, the Bulldogs were gifted a chance to force the Irish to forgo field goals moving forward.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish rushed the ball only 14 times, gaining 46 yards, while Book attempted those 47 passes. That was not dictated by the game, nor was it a mistake in Long’s game plan. It was a reflection of a reality of the Notre Dame injury list.

Junior running back Jafar Armstrong remains out with an abdominal muscle tear. Sophomore Jahmir Smith’s sprained toe had not recovered enough for him to play. Even sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy — whom Kelly and Long had hoped to use on end-arounds with his top-end speed — entered the concussion protocol this week.

“We’re short a number of playmakers that we’re going to get back here in the next few weeks,” Kelly said. “So we feel pretty good about our football team, even though we’re disappointed with what happened today.”

Those injuries left senior running back Tony Jones to not only carry the load, but to carry all of the load. He finished with nine rushes for 21 yards and four catches for 24.

“Tony Jones did a terrific job; we’re asking way too much from him,” Kelly said. “Way too much. We need some help for him. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that.”

It did not help matters that Georgia’s depth was most-evident along the defensive line, exacerbating a rough night for the Irish offensive line.

THAT SHOULD BE ANOTHER STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s offensive line, if including Kmet, committed seven penalties for 55 yards, low-lighted by five false starts. The effects of the crowd noise could not be denied, even if Kelly tried to put that onus upon himself.

“We practiced in louder environments,” he said. “We’re very disappointed that we didn’t handle it better. … We needed to do a better job of silent cadence longer. They handled it so perfectly and so easily (in practice), but repetition on the clap, which is our cadence, is so ingrained that when we went to silent cadence, they forgot and went back to the clap. I should have taken that into consideration and forced them to be in it longer (in practice).”

Whether the Irish should have practiced silent counts more, whether the offensive line should not have flinched, or whether Book mistakenly resorted to default at inopportune moments, the penalties cost Notre Dame repeatedly.

“Penalties and dropped balls and mistakes, self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said.

Notre Dame knew it risked Jake Fromm, left, beating it when the Irish defense focused on stopping D’Andre Swift, right. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PLAY OF THE GAME
Irish fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford may be only 5-foot-9 ⅛, but he is also one of the most instinctual players on the field on any given Saturday. Seeing him somewhat embarrassed for a moment is a testament to the opposition, and such was the case when Bulldogs junior running back D’Andre Swift hurdled Crawford in the third quarter for a first down.

One of the best backs in the country, Notre Dame held Swift to 98 rushing yards on 18 carries and two yards on three receptions. A 100-yard day may not seem minimal, but it was a needed focus for the Irish.

“We knew what we needed to do in this game,” Kelly said. “If you give Georgia the opportunity to run the football, you have no chance of winning the game. The game plan was set, they’d have some one-on-one shots on the perimeter, but the extra hat was going to be committed to the run. They hit some one-on-one shots on the perimeter, but we had to be effective against the run or we had no chance.”

For a vaunted rushing attack, and deservedly so, Notre Dame held the Bulldogs to 152 yards on 33 attempts with a long gain of 16 yards.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Cager’s highlight-reel catches changed the game. He finished with five for 82 yards, but three of those, for 61 yards, came on the touchdown drive which provided the winning points. As Kelly said, the Irish felt they had no choice but to play man coverage against him, and Fromm found those holes.

The decision making is outstanding,” Kelly said. “[Fromm] doesn’t put the ball in a position where it’s going to be a turnover. His back-shoulder throws were very difficult for (senior cornerback) Troy Pride to defend. We stayed on the back hip of the [receiver], and he put it low back shoulder. They had to make some great catches, and they did, to Georgia’s credit.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“This one stings a little bit, but it’s only one loss. It doesn’t define our season. The next opponents coming up this season, best of luck to you, because we’re coming.” — Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem

SCORING SUMMARY
Second Quarter
10:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 1-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia 0. (5 plays, 8 yards, 1:43)
2:27 — Georgia touchdown. D’Andre Swift 3-yard rush. Rodrigo Blankenship PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia 7. (13 plays, 75 yards, 8:12)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 27 yards. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 7. (8 plays, 66 yards, 2:27)

Third Quarter
8:31 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 40 yards. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 10. (4 plays, -1 yard, 1:27)
4:21 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 31 yards. Georgia 13, Notre Dame 10. (7 plays, 53 yards, 2:36)

Fourth Quarter
13:19 — Georgia touchdown. Lawrence Cager 15-yard pass from Jake Fromm. Blankenship PAT good. Georgia 20, Notre Dame 10. (8 plays, 82 yards, 3:59)
6:54 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 43 yards. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 10. (7 plays, 41 yards, 4:17)
3:12 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 4-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:42)

 

No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Georgia.

WHAT? The conclusion of a home-and-home series, the first game of which serves as the common reference point as to when these two programs proved they had turned around their trajectories. The Irish were a game removed from an offseason ripe with criticism and staff turnover following the 4-8 debacle of 2016. The Bulldogs had just gone 8-5 in head coach Kirby Smart’s first year, going a paltry 4-4 in SEC play.

Immediately following that 20-19 Georgia victory, it was simply seen as a great, dramatic game with a colorful sidebar of how many Bulldogs fans filled Notre Dame Stadium. It was not necessarily seen as a positive referendum on either team until they kept winning. Neither lost until the Irish collapsed in Miami in November. In fact, since that second week of the 2017 season, Notre Dame and Georgia have gone a combined 48-8 with two Playoff appearances between them.

“I don’t know that we were thinking about anything other than putting our football team in position to be successful for that season,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was early in the year. We were certainly feeling as though we had done the things necessary to get our program back to where it needed to be, but we weren’t thinking into the future about anything else.

“… Looking into where it’s taken us is where certainly, I’m sure, if we were to take a moment to think about it, that is where we want it to be. At that moment, we were just thinking about that week, that game.”

In some respect, the second leg of this series should provide another data point for Notre Dame more than for Georgia. The latter has faced Alabama three times in the last two seasons, not to mention dates this year against No. 9 Florida, at No. 8 Auburn and vs. No. 17 Texas A&M.

If the Irish can be competitive with the Bulldogs, they will establish another sign of progress in Kelly’s already-successful rebuild following 2016.

WHEN? 8 ET, the latest kickoff at Sanford Stadium in 34 years, a 1985 Labor Day tilt against Alabama. Oddly enough, that was a game of two unranked teams, one which the visitors won 20-16.

WHERE? Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga., which will add 500 seats to its usual capacity of 92,746 to accommodate a few hundred extra Irish fans.

CBS has the broadcast. To be completely honest, this space has no idea how to access the eye on anything but a television. That is not a bucket of company water in hand or a shot at a competitor; this scribe has just never needed to find CBS via anything but a TV.

WHY? This series marked the first foray into the SEC from Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick in his pursuit of getting data points against four of the Power Five conferences each season. This year, the Irish will also face the Big Ten (Michigan), the Pac 12 (USC, Stanford) and the usual five ACC opponents.

Why Georgia in particular? That was both self-congratulatory and self-serving, understandably so.

“We were looking for an SEC opponent, one that shared at least some commonality,” Kelly said. “We liked the fact that we were going to be in that area, in the state of Georgia recruiting.

“We have a lot of alumni in that area, so that was a draw for us, as well. It’s not only the school itself, but there’s some geographical concerns that we look at it in terms of putting the schedule together, as well.”

BY HOW MUCH?
The band in this Athens dive bar said it would begin its set at 8 p.m. It is currently on its second or third song, so as of approximately 8:06 ET on Friday night, the Bulldogs remain 14.5-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 57.5. That math equals a 36-21 Georgia victory.

Simply enough, if the Irish do not reach 30 points, they have no chance. Their rush defense, at its best, will not be able to keep the Bulldogs to a lower threshold than that, though there is reason to think that rush defense’s best has not yet been seen.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has mixed-and-matched defensive tackles and inside linebackers through two games, both to find the right combination and to get experience across the board. That has played a part in the Irish ranking No. 120 in the country in rushing yards allowed per carry at 4.96, despite opening the season against the lackluster offenses of Louisville and New Mexico, far cries from the running back stable featured by Georgia.

Lea will not be able to afford an evaluation process between the hedges, instead committing to whatever pairings he is most confident in at this point. That should help shore things up, but only to a point.

A more likely deterrent would be sending senior safety Alohi Gilman crashing toward the line on more snaps than not, perhaps giving him a chance to match his Cotton Bowl total of 18 tackles. Gilman is physical enough to match up with any running back and quick enough to stand a chance against D’Andre Swift in a gap.

Presume Lea takes that route, that could also lead to more playing time for freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. Is it risky to give a freshman his first extended playing time in a hostile environment like this will be? Absolutely. Would Hamilton relish a chance to shine in his homestate? Assuredly. Between Hamilton and senior safety Jalen Elliott, not to mention fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame would have its best ballhawks on the field, looking to build on its current +6 turnover differential.

That all could, theoretically, maybe keep the Bulldogs to a reasonable point total, at which point the question would be if the Irish can score four touchdowns against a stout Georgia defense. Unless sophomore Lawrence Keys breaks loose on a kickoff return a la his debut’s near-miss in that role a week ago, 30 points from Notre Dame would be a surprise.

Georgia 35, Notre Dame 24
(2-0 in pick, 0-2 against the spread, 1-1 point total)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
On Notre Dame’s continued struggles running the ball & stopping the run
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s greatest challenges facing No. 3 Georgia
Notre Dame’s dime: ‘One’s gotta give’
Shaun Crawford’s return sparks ‘party’ on Notre Dame sideline
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Proving moments arrive for USC, Michigan
And In That Corner … No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs await
Javon McKinley makes most of second chance at Notre Dame, first chance on field
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense, good against weak competition or outright good?
Friday at 4: Past trends not necessarily indicative of Notre Dame at Georgia

OUTSIDE READING:
Becoming the Leprechaun
Georgia, Notre Dame carry playoff frustration into showdown
Notre Dame’s first visit to Georgia bringing Super Bowl atmosphere to Athens
Big names with prove-it games
That anger-sparking Notre Dame on NBC camera angle is worth another look ($)
How national title race has changed through Week 3
2019 college football predictions from 538
Jets waive Bennett Jackson
The death of paper tickets and the stories they leave behind

 

Friday at 4: Past trends not necessarily indicative of Notre Dame at Georgia

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ATLANTA, Ga. — This is not about Notre Dame. It’s not about Brian Kelly. It is hardly about Georgia.

It is about logic, about common sense, and how they should not be discarded in favor of narrative as they so often are, including this week.

The “trends” have been recited repeatedly this week, by some of the voices with the broadest reach, some respected and others not: The Irish are 3-7 against top-10 teams in Kelly’s 10 years; Notre Dame has not beaten a top-5 opponent since topping No. 3 Michigan in 2005.

This all ignores a basic tenet of any sport, but particularly college football: It is supposed to be hard to beat top-5 teams, one of the hardest things in competition. They are at the top of the polls for a reason.

Yes, the Irish feel they were closer to Clemson than a 30-3 Cotton Bowl score indicated — though senior defensive end Daelin Hayes rejected the notion facing No. 3 Georgia could “validate” that claim — but even if they weren’t, that was an all-time Tigers team, one that will be looked back upon with the likes of 2002 Miami and certain other storied teams over the decades.

Falling to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game was a faceplant on a national scale, but the real shock should have simply been Notre Dame making it to that game. For that matter, how different would opinions be these days if Kansas State had not choked at Baylor that November and the Irish had beaten the Wildcats for a crystal football? Should that really influence current evaluation? Absolutely not, but it shows how easily-manipulated these cockamamie narratives are.

The claim that Kelly cannot push Notre Dame to win big games on the road fails to hold water in a similar manner. In a sport played by 18- to 22-year-olds, one with arguably more rabid fan bases than any other, one played with an oblong ball designed for fluke occurrences, winning on the road is notoriously difficult.

Should it be as bad as a 41-8 mishap at Miami? No, but Kelly began taking ownership for that debacle the next day.

“I’ve never given [big games] too much thought, because we play in a big game atmosphere at Notre Dame, but this one was a little bit different,” he said Nov. 12, 2017. “A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude, since maybe the Clemson game (in 2015). I don’t know if there were many defensive players on the field for that. We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

By citing Clemson, Kelly inadvertently reminded those on the teleconference that the Irish have been competitive in those environments during his tenure. They came within a two-point conversion of a dramatic comeback in Death Valley that night, a year after a questionable offensive pass interference call cost them a win at defending national champion No. 2 Florida State. The Farm remains a winless landscape for Kelly, but Notre Dame fell by one possession in genuinely-close games in 2013 and 2015 against top-flight Stanford teams.

The Irish were not expected to win any of those games, yet each enthusiastically reminded why this berserk sport is so absurdly enjoyable, well, perhaps with the exception of the visit to Hard Rock Stadium. (Even in that blowout, being there was something to remember. The Hurricanes fans started a party 30 minutes before kickoff the likes of which is usually seen only in clubs with flashing lights along South Beach, and any honest observer had to give them credit for it, perhaps credit with a touch of envy.)

Every so often, some will claim winning on the road should not be that much more difficult than winning at home. Again, a failure in logic. Whether it is the comfort of known surroundings, the support of boisterous fans, or some deeper layer of young men’s psyches, home-field advantage is a known and proven reality. Consider just Thursday night: Houston went to Tulane as five-point underdogs, despite widely being considered the better team. An averaged set of half a dozen power rankings from national sharps ranked the Cougars the No. 65 team in the country, eight spots ahead of the Green Wave. Some of that contradictory spread tied to Houston’s schedule, featuring four games in 19 days, only one of which was against a patsy. But some of it also tied to the innate home-field advantage of renowned Yulman Stadium’s 30,000 seats.

Sure enough, Tulane won by a touchdown.

Georgia’s Sanford Stadium is actually renowned, no tongue needs to be placed in cheek, and it will seat more than 93,000 tomorrow evening, setting a new stadium record.

Setting a second college football stadium record in its second road game of the season is part of being Notre Dame. It will make for the 10th such record held by the Irish, not even counting their own home, rather notable when remembering there are only 129 such stadiums in the country. And yes, all nine stadiums currently fitting this description are still in use.

“It’s a lot of the reason why [players] come to Notre Dame,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play. It’s on national TV. … They know they’re in that spotlight and they choose to come to Notre Dame because they want that. They relish that opportunity …

“They don’t see it as pressure. They see it as a privilege. And they enjoy it.”

Kelly is right, Saturday’s matchup was always destined for a national audience, at worst relegated to basic cable. But there is an argument to be made the widely-held narrative around Notre Dame’s chances would actually be more complimentary if it had not enjoyed such success last season and in 2012 before that. If it had not beaten No. 14 Michigan with little trouble, No. 7 Stanford with utter ease and No. 12 Syracuse without breaking a sweat … if it had not knocked off No. 10 Michigan State — on the road, mind you — in 2012, had not beaten No. 18 Michigan and No. 17 Stanford in defensive struggles, had not gone to No. 8 Oklahoma — again, on the road — and routed the Sooners late … then the Irish would not have been blown out by Clemson in the College Football Playoff or by Alabama in the 2012 title game.

The national lampooning of Kelly’s and Notre Dame’s big-game follies hinge on those two pegs. Presume, as a theoretical example, both those wins against the Wolverines flipped by a touchdown into losses, and the Irish never made a title game, but were instead seen as still-so-close. This season would be viewed as a chance to break through and prove the strides made, not one portrayed as a chance to reaffirm shortcomings.

See the nonsense baked into that logic? The Irish would be given a better chance in Athens if they had been worse in recent years. This rhetoric is a direct corollary to that used to lampoon Kelly’s 3-7 record against top-10 teams and Notre Dame’s lack of a top-5 win in 14 years.

That logic is flawed. The narratives built on such are misguided at best, aggravating in reality, and intentionally inaccurate, at worst.

Beating the best teams is supposed to be hard. Winning on the road in college football is undeniably difficult. Doing so just once should stand out.

That is, after all, how many times Georgia has won on the road against a notable opponent under Kirby Smart, now in his fourth season as head coach. The Bulldogs lost 36-16 as touchdown favorites at No. 13 LSU last season, 40-17 as two-point favorites at No. 10 Auburn in 2017, 24-10 against No. 14 Florida at a neutral site and 45-14 as touchdown favorites at No. 23 Ole Miss in 2016. Their one distinct road win in this rise to national prominence did not even come at Notre Dame in 2017, that fraught 20-19 victory against a team ranked only No. 24 at the time, hardly all-that applause-worthy in many’s eyes, despite this week’s poetic waxing about that night.

Rather, Georgia beat Oklahoma in the 2017 Rose Bowl in a game to remember, then falling a play short of the national title, but imagine if that blown coverage happened to the Irish. Oh wait, it did in late December.

Past losses brought about by preceding success should not influence perception now.

This is not about Notre Dame, and it is not about Brian Kelly — tomorrow morning’s prediction will indeed lean toward those accustomed to the hedges. They are simply the latest subjected to narratives wrought with little logic and an absence of sense.

*Ends rant, heads to an Atlanta bar to catch up with a friend of more than two decades who moved to Georgia just a week ago. He’s an Auburn grad, and was at that ‘17 rout of the Bulldogs*

 

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense, good against weak competition or outright good?

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Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was supposed to have it all figured out this season, more a reflection of a stable and loaded offense than of any struggles in his first two years in the role. The Irish returned seven starters, had two other established playmakers stepping into leading roles, plausibly found their center before 2018 even ended, and had a number of young receivers to step in as the final piece of the puzzle.

Then junior tight end Cole Kmet broke his collarbone. A week later, so did junior receiver Michael Young. All along, sophomore receiver Kevin Austin remained unavailable. By the end of the first Notre Dame drive of the season, junior running back Jafar Armstrong was lost for a considerable chunk of time, and the following week’s practice cost Long his newfound goal-line presence in sophomore running Jahmir Smith (“doubtful” this weekend, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, with a sprained toe).

So much for having it all figured out.

Yes, Long still had four experienced offensive linemen flanking sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, and senior quarterback Ian Book can still look to senior receiver Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke for reliability. But on a team hoping to return to the Playoff on the back of its offense, the dramatic dropoff in expected contributors caused understandable concern.

Notre Dame now finds out how much of that concern has been soothed, how much will linger, and if enough of the former exists to survive the latter.

It will start with Book, all along the presumed catalyst to an efficient and explosive offense. While he may not have been that just yet, he has also not been as lackluster as the first half at Louisville inspires memories to insist. Even if removing the two shovel passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns last week against New Mexico, Book is averaging 9.78 yards per pass attempt. Across a season, that would be second-best in Irish history. (His actual rate of 11.77 yards per attempt readily outpaces the record of 10.06 set by John Hurate in 1964.) To give that further context, Book averaged 8.37 yards per attempt last year.

There is a sample-size aspect to that number, as well as an opponent qualifier, but it is simply one illustration that the reports of Book’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. On passes that traveled more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in the air against the Lobos, Book went 3-of-7 for 78 yards with two touchdowns, plus another attempt which drew a pass interference call and thus 15 yards. Of the four incompletions, another (to Claypool at the goal line) arguably should have drawn a flag; Claypool leaned inward instead of toward the sideline for Book’s pass in the first quarter; sophomore Lawrence Keys mistimed his jump on a third attempt; and the fourth was more a ball thrown away than an incompletion, avoiding a sack.

On eight deep balls from Book, the Irish gained 93 yards, avoided a sack, and were never outright out of a play. All this just a game after Book did not attempt a single 20-yard pass on Labor Day.

“All of these guys needed to make a play,” Kelly said after the 66-14 victory. “Ian Book needed to make a play. I think he needed to make that throw to Chase Claypool (for a 37-yard touchdown), and all those things needed to come together. We thought they would, and we saw them come together this afternoon.

“… To get this game under our belts going into Georgia, it was really big for us and to get Ian into a rhythm really helped today a lot.”

Of course, that was against New Mexico, now No. 7 Notre Dame faces No. 3 Georgia (8 ET; CBS). The former boasts the No. 126 defense in the country, per SP+, while the latter has the No. 7 defense. Those ratings factor in opponents, as best as can be done. If differing to the NCAA’s passing defense efficiency metrics, the Lobos rate No. 121, and the Bulldogs come in at No. 16. While Book was moderately successful against New Mexico, life is about to get much more difficult for him.

“There is no doubt, the competition will be greater,” even Kelly admitted Monday. “But you need to make some plays to build that inner confidence that you can do it all the time.”

Book may have two “new” pieces of help Saturday, with each theoretically amplifying others on the offense, as well.

Senior receiver Javon McKinley’s two touchdown catches against New Mexico — the latter of which being one of those three deep completions by Book — assuredly put him on Georgia’s radar. One could rashly make an argument McKinley should have been kept in the figurative back pocket, but some aspect of instilled confidence trumped that strategic possibility.

“He’s a physical presence,” Kelly said. “He got on the field in a first-team rotation, so we’re starting to get it here, and figure it out. He’s not a No. 2. He can play as a No. 1.”

RELATED READING: McKinley makes most of second chance at Notre Dame, first chance on field

Notre Dame senior receiver Javon McKinley’s emergence as a contributor may do more for the offense than even his stats could show. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If McKinley is a genuinely-viable receiving threat against a defense like Georgia’s, that alone is notable and something to be, well, learned. But it also creates a positive domino effect for the Irish.

When Young was injured, Finke moved to the field position from his usual slot work. The move put Finke against more traditional cornerbacks rather than safeties and linebackers. His skillset better exploits the mismatch gained with speed and agility in tight spaces, not one at its best running a precise route against a cornerback accustomed to such. Remove Finke’s 54-yard “reception” of a shovel pass, and he has two catches for five yards this season.

“He’s had to do a little bit more than just his normal slot,” Kelly said Sunday. “He’s had to get out on the perimeter and do some different things and block. A little more pressure on him, but he’s handled it well.”

Insert McKinley, though, and Finke can return to the slot, be it with Claypool flanking him and McKinley working alone along the boundary or vice versa.

“[Finke] certainly loves having Chase next to him because he picks up a lot of the dirty work for him,” Kelly said. “What really has helped has been the emergence of Javon McKinley because now you can flip Chase out there and it gives us great flexibility with the group of receivers.”

Another option in the slot is junior tight end Cole Kmet, expected to make his 2019 debut in Athens. There is no way to know how effective Kmet will be after more than a month on the shelf, but if he is a decent semblance of himself, suddenly Notre Dame is nearing a full array of offensive options, as Long once expected. Claypool, Finke and McKinley make up a facsimile of last year’s leading trio, with speedsters Keys and sophomore Braden Lenzy offering a change of pace, while Kmet and sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble create physical mismatches for Book to rely upon, all with a receiving threat out of the backfield in senior Tony Jones, even if he is not as dynamic as Armstrong.

“We know we have some guys that can make plays and now after [New Mexico] it allows us to put the pieces together as to how we want this offense to move forward knowing we have guys that have the confidence to go out there and make plays,” Kelly said.

It is not the group Long spent the offseason planning for, but it might just be similar enough for him to find success between the hedges.