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Irish offense stagnates, defense makes key plays in win

| Sunday, September 16, 2018

Following the lead of head coach Derek Mason, Vanderbilt hardly looked worried about coming into South Bend and taking on No. 8 Notre Dame.

Dysfunctional offense and undisciplined defense from the Irish (3-0) kept the Commodores (2-1) within striking distance all day, but Notre Dame was able to keep Vanderbilt at bay and seal a 22-17 victory.

The Irish elected to receive the opening kickoff after winning the coin toss, and the offense reeled off a 74-yard drive before stalling on the doorstep of the Vanderbilt goal line.

A defensive pass interference penalty gave the Irish first-and-goal on the Vanderbilt 2-yard line, but Notre Dame struggled to punch the ball into the end zone. After two failed runs, a false start and an incomplete pass, junior kicker Justin Yoon kicked a 26-yard field goal to cap the drive and give the Irish an early 3-0 lead.

The Irish defense allowed 41 yards on Vanderbilt’s opening drive but eventually forced a punt that pinned senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the Notre Dame offense to their own 6-yard line. Wimbush orchestrated a long drive to return to the Vanderbilt red zone and, on third down, Wimbush called his own number and scurried 12 yards for an Irish touchdown and a 10-0 lead.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush scrambles to avoid a defender during Notre Dame’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

“I think we did what we wanted to do,” Wimbush said in his postgame press conference. “We started strong. We started fast, and I think we finished strong.”

The Irish held on to their 10-0 lead until midway through the second quarter. Notre Dame started a drive at their own 35-yard line, and junior running back Tony Jones Jr. rushed 20 yards into Vanderbilt territory, and a Commodore penalty moved the Irish all the way to the 30-yard line. Another Jones rush carried the Irish into the red zone for the third time.

Following a short Brandon Wimbush rush, two incomplete passes forced the Irish to kick another field goal in the red zone. Yoon converted on the 33-yard attempt, giving the Irish a 13-0 advantage.

Following the Irish field goal, Vanderbilt put together its first sustained drive of the afternoon. Threatening to score, Commodores senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur connected with junior wide receiver Donaven Tennyson near the goal line. Irish junior defensive back Troy Pride Jr. met Tennyson at the 1-yard line, and junior safety Alohi Gilman entered the scene and stripped Tennyson of the ball. The fumble was batted into the end zone where Irish junior defensive back Julian Love recovered the ball for a touchback, promptly ending the dangerous Vanderbilt drive.

“I love the aggression of our safeties on that play,” Love said. “Troy did a great job to keep him out of the end zone. … You have all four members of the secondary in that play working … and that’s huge for us.”

Gilman was pleased with the forced fumble, which echoed a similar goal line turnover forced by senior Irish safety Shaun Crawford against Michigan State a year ago.

“I was channeling my inner Shaun,” he said. “Shaun’s my idol.”

Following the turnover, the Irish marched down the field, but their offense stalled in field goal range once again. Yoon launched a 46-yard kick through the uprights to give the Irish a 16-0 lead with 1:15 left in the first half.

With the kick, Yoon took sole possession of second place on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 297 points. He is now the highest-scoring placekicker in Notre Dame history.

Vanderbilt put together a strong drive at the end of the first half, marching down to the Irish 3-yard line. Shurmur tossed a pass into the end zone that fell incomplete, and junior kicker Ryley Guay converted a 21-yard field goal to get on the board as time expired.

Through the first half of play, the Irish racked up 247 yards compared to Vanderbilt’s 180 yards. The running game was effective as the Irish gathered 163 yards while averaging six yards per rush.

Vanderbilt received the ball to start the second half and put together another strong drive before stalling near the Irish 30-yard line. Guay pushed his 43-yard field goal attempt left of the uprights, keeping the deficit at 13 points.

The Notre Dame offense was sluggish to begin the third quarter. After the missed Vanderbilt field goal, the Irish were forced to punt after a 7-play drive managed only 16 yards.

Vanderbilt began its drive at its own 13-yard line but quickly found itself on Notre Dame’s end of the field. Shurmur unleashed a deep pass toward the end zone, but the ball came up just short and was intercepted by Pride in the end zone and returned to the 1-yard line. The Irish were unable to generate any offense after the turnover and was forced to punt after only three plays.

Following the Irish punt, the Commodores started their drive with strong field position at the Irish 47-yard line. Vanderbilt required only five plays to drive into the Irish end zone and cut the deficit to 16-10 at the end of the third quarter.

Following the Commodore touchdown, the Irish offense rediscovered its rhythm. Wimbush led the Irish down the field and converted a fourth down on a quarterback sneak to the Vanderbilt 2-yard line. Irish junior quarterback Ian Book capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to graduate student tight end Nic Weishar.

Facing a 12-point deficit, Shurmur led his team down the field with some help from Irish miscues. On fourth down at the Notre Dame 41-yard-line, Vanderbilt had to travel eight yards to convert. An incomplete pass from Shurmur seemed to end the Commodores’ drive, but a defensive pass-interference call on Pride gave Vanderbilt new life.

The Commodores found the end zone on an 18-yard pass from Shurmur to redshirt-junior wide receiver Jared Pinkney, cutting the deficit to 22-17 midway through the fourth quarter.

After a rare missed field goal from Yoon, Vanderbilt was back in business. Facing a fourth down at midfield, Shurmur fired a pass that fell incomplete, but a pass interference call against junior cornerback Donte Vaughn kept the drive alive for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt reached the Irish 31-yard line before confronting another fourth down. Needing four yards to convert, Shurmur released a pass for junior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb. Junior Irish defensive back Jalen Elliott followed Lipscomb the whole way and broke up the pass, effectively ending Vanderbilt’s night and sealing Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory.

“Jalen made a good play,” Gilman said. “We were drilling hard this week on what we can do to finish; finish in the fourth quarter and just finish in general. … In tough situations we were able to execute and make plays.”

Despite offensive deficiencies and defensive penalties, the Irish stepped up to make a critical stop in the fourth quarter, leaving them undefeated as they head into their matchup with Wake Forest.

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