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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)

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.