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.”
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.”
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.”