News and notes from Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to Georgia.
Heading into the 2017 season, Notre Dame’s offense was expected to be the team’s dominant unit, but through two games the defense has carried the Irish.
Notre Dame held Georgia to 326 yards on 72 plays (4.5 yards per play), and outside of two long runs kept the Bulldogs offense in check. For the second straight game, the Irish defense was disruptive, finishing with six tackles for loss and three sacks while forcing two turnovers.
“We played very well,” senior linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “Guys were where they should have been. Guys were executing our defense. Coach [Mike Elko] put out a great scheme for us, and we followed that to a tee.”
Morgan tied for the team lead with seven total stops and 1.5 tackles for loss, and he added his first sack of the season as well. He and senior rover Drue Tranquill were two standouts for the Irish defense, but the senior captain felt the play of the line gave the defense a chance to thrive.
“They held up pretty good,” Morgan said. “They were doing their job, doing their assignments. That allowed us as linebackers to come free. I think the front seven did very well.”
It is still early, but the hire of Elko to run the Irish defense has paid immediate dividends. Notre Dame gave up 397.2 yards per game and 5.7 yards per play under former coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Through two games in 2017, the Irish are allowing just 328.0 yards per game and 4.5 yards per play.
Offensive Line Underperforms
Notre Dame’s offensive line is considered the strength of the team, and the battle between the Irish line and the Georgia front seven was considered to be the premier matchup of the game.
Georgia certainly got the better of the competition. Notre Dame rushed for just 55 yards on 37 attempts (1.5 yards per rush), and the Bulldogs sacked junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush three times in the game, including a crucial third-down sack on Notre Dame’s final possession that forced a fumble Georgia recovered.
It was a poor offensive performance in just about every facet of the game.
“We didn’t protect as well as we’d like, we didn’t throw it as well as we’d like, we didn’t coach it as well as I would like,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the loss. “When you lose by a point in a really, really good game, a lot of great things happened, but a lot of great things didn’t happen for us when we needed them.”
Georgia’s defensive line proved to be too much for the Notre Dame offense.
“Georgia was better than us up front,” Kelly said. “We felt like if we could get the ball into the second level and into the secondary, we could have some success, but we didn’t have the chance to do that.
“They did a really good job up front. I’ve got to give them credit. They made it hard for us to establish a good rhythm offensively on first down and got us behind the chains.”
Fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, one of two preseason All-Americans up front for Notre Dame, also sang Georgia’s praises following the loss.
“They’re a great football team with a great front seven,” McGlinchey stated. “We knew they were going to try to stop the run, and they did that all day. We’ve got to execute better throughout the game. There are things that were there that we didn’t finish off on.
“They were quick, they were big, they were good with their hands and they had a good game plan. They played their hearts out today, and so did we. It came down to execution, and we didn’t get the job done.”
For McGlinchey and the Irish line it was all about finishing. There were moments when the Irish line was able to create initial movement, but the inability to stay locked onto those blocks limited the effectiveness of the run game.
“Just finishing off blocks, finishing off runs,” McGlinchey said of the failed offensive execution. “There were some passes that were there that didn’t happen. Just the little things.
“There were things that happened throughout the day that we just didn’t take advantage of, and we have to be better than that.”
McGlinchey gave up a sack on the final offensive play of the game, allowing senior outside linebacker Devin Bellamy to sack Wimbush and knock the ball out, which ended Notre Dame’s comeback attempt.
“We had them for the most where we wanted them all game,” McGlinchey said of the final play. “It came down to execution, and I blew it on the play. I got beat and caused the fumble, and there are no excuses.”
Growing Pains For Wimbush
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was one of the standouts in Notre Dame’s season-opening 49-16 win over Temple, passing for 184 yards and adding another 106 on the ground.
Against Georgia, Wimbush was far less effectively. The Bulldog pressures kept him from getting into a rhythm, and when the opportunities did come the talented junior came up short.
“There’s always going to be a few plays that really would have swayed the game in a different direction than it happened to go,” Wimbush said after the game. “Maybe my third down, maybe my third-and-two, understanding where the chains are, picking up that first down.
“I know there are a few others that I’ll go back and watch the film and want back.”
Wimbush is referring to a third-and-three play almost midway through the fourth quarter with Notre Dame holding onto a 19-17 lead. The Irish quarterback kept the ball on a read play and instead of cutting upfield for a potential first down, Wimbush bounced outside and was brought down short of the marker.
Despite that failure, and the inability of the offense to score a single point on its three possessions during the final 8:30 of the game, head coach Brian Kelly likes what he is seeing from his young quarterback.
“I love the way he goes out there and competes, but there are things happening for the first time that he’s getting a chance to grow with,” Kelly said.
Wimbush played in just two games as a freshman in 2015, and the former top-100 recruit did not take a snap in 2016. Kelly knows that he has a talented player that is learning on the fly.
“Our quarterback is learning the tools of the trade,” Kelly said. “He’s getting different looks and different reads. They brought a lot of pressure. They didn’t want to get him out on the edge. I thought he learned a lot tonight.
“This is a great game for him to grow from.”
Late Hit Penalty Proves Costly
Notre Dame led for much of the game, and it held a 16-10 advantage with more than six minutes left in the third quarter. Senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner started a Georgia drive off with a sack, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm threw an incompletion on second down.
On third-and-16, Notre Dame forced Fromm out of the pocket, and the freshman quarterback’s pass to sophomore wide receiver Riley Ridley was short of the first down, but it didn’t get the defense off the field.
Sophomore end Julian Okwara was flagged for a late hit on Fromm, which gave the Bulldogs a first down. Three plays later, Georgia senior running back Sony Michel scored to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game.
“We were off the field — and subsequently they scored,” head coach Brian Kelly said of that momentum-changing play. “Those are the things that [can’t happen] when it’s a one-point game.
“We’ll learn a painful lesson from that. You hate learning lessons in losses, but sometimes you have to learn some painful lessons.”