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irish insider

Irish defense passes test against top-15 Bulldogs

| Sunday, September 10, 2017

In a game that lacked excitement on the offensive end, the Notre Dame defense proved Saturday it has made massive strides since last season’s 4-8 ending. Despite the 20-19 loss, the Irish defense stood strong against a tough Georgia side, which was marked by a powerful run game.

Georgia entered the matchup with a 31-10 win over Appalachian State under its belt — a game in which the Bulldogs averaged 7.3 yards per pass and completed 11 of their 20 attempts in the air.

Notre Dame’s defense held up well against the Bulldogs’ offensive game, forcing two turnovers in the first half and coming up with big stops on several third downs.

Irish junior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery takes down freshman Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to the Bulldogs at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish junior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery takes down freshman Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to the Bulldogs at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

Compared to a defensive side that allowed an average of 182.4 rushing yards, 196.4 passing yards and 27.8 points per game in 2016, this Notre Dame team looked like a transformed squad. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart credited the Irish defense with a well fought battle, noting that the unit caused disruption in Georgia’s offensive rhythm.

“On defense, I can’t say enough about how hard they played — the toughness [and] effort,” Smart said. “All the words we talk about, they personified. We got sloppy at times on offense, and our quarterback got out of rhythm. This was a tough game.”

Sophomore cornerback Julian Love and junior safety Nick Coleman were especially consistent in coverage all game, coming up with big plays in the Irish secondary and near the line of scrimmage in the running game.

Although he said he noticed some defensive plays that were not executed as planned, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the tackling from his defense was very improved from last year’s defensive team.

“We had a couple of misfits on a jet sweep, and we didn’t get off a block here or there,” Kelly said. “But we played well enough defensively for us to go into a game like this and say, “We’ve put our defense in a better position that we can go and play with anyone.’”

Senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill, a leader for the Irish defense, was flagged for pass interference early in the second quarter in a drive that would result in a Georgia field goal, their first points of the night. Despite the slow start, Tranquill picked up his first interception of the season and third of his career late in the second quarter.

Tranquill also recorded his first tackle for a loss on the season in the second quarter, sending Georgia’s freshman running back D’Andre Swift to the turf for a four-yard loss.

The Irish defensive improvements were also on display when senior cornerback Nick Watkins broke up a pass on the goal line near the close of the first half, keeping the Bulldogs from finding the end zone. And it took a spectacular, one-handed catch from junior wide receiver Terry Godwin to get the Bulldogs into the end zone after that.

Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, who finished the evening with six tackles, said the Notre Dame defense has the potential to be one of the best in college football if it continues to work hard.

“There’s areas to improve on,” Martini said. “But we showed glimpses of the ability to be one of the best linebacker cores in the country as long as we keep working toward that goal every single week of being a solid defense.”

With a few minutes to go in the third quarter, Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was sacked and stripped, with the ball recovered by senior Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter. The turnover brought a momentum shift to the game, igniting the sizeable Georgia fan base in Notre Dame Stadium and testing the Irish defense once again.

The Irish got lucky as a long pass toward the goal line intended for Bulldogs sophomore wide receiver Mecole Hardman was dropped, keeping Georgia out of the end zone.

Irish senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner sacks freshman Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm in Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner sacks freshman Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm in Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

The only other time the Irish defense appeared to be outmatched was on a Georgia offensive drive in the third quarter, during which the Bulldogs rattled off a 40-yard run capped off by a facemask penalty against Irish sophomore safety Devin Studstill. The drive consisted of seven plays for a total of 75 yards of offense.

Martini said he thought the Irish defense did well in managing the Georgia run game, keeping in mind their errors as they prepare for the rest of the season.

“I think the defensive played really well,” Martini said. “They obviously have very special backs, but I think we handled our own. This feeling will allow us to dominate teams in the future because we don’t want to feel like this again.”

Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan, who came up with a critical sack on third down halfway through the third quarter to force a Georgia punt, said the team is aiming to keep pushing forward, looking ahead to next week’s game at Boston College.

“The best part about playing football is that there’s always a next game, and that’s been our mentality,” Morgan said. “Our defense played very well, and that’s a very good positive for the future. We’ll just keep pushing forward. Now, it’s on to Boston College.”

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