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Football

After 12-0 start, Irish fall short in first College Football Playoff appearance

| Friday, May 17, 2019

After opening the year as the No. 12 team in the country, Notre Dame — and its starting quarterback — began the season with high expectations. Questions were raised after senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, despite leading the Irish to nine of their 10 wins in 2017, struggled toward the end of the season as the team’s playoff hopes collapsed. Junior quarterback Ian Book’s late-game heroics in the 2018 Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day added fuel to the flame of the quarterback debate. However, Wimbush earned the starting spot in spring practices and seemingly affirmed that decision in the season opener.

College GameDay came to South Bend for the first time since 2012 for a marquee home matchup against rival Michigan. The hype was amplified by the fact that the teams had not played since Notre Dame (12-1) defeated the Wolverines (10-3, 8-1 Big Ten) 31-0 in 2014. It was also a green-out game for the fans, the river lights were turned green, and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg temporarily renamed Michigan Street to “Fighting Irish Drive.” Senior slot receiver Chris Finke said that the atmosphere around the matchup permeated the team as well.

“The Michigan game was obviously a huge one; we’ve got the entire offseason building up to it,” Finke said. “We had Michigan on our minds for a really long time, and it was a home game to start the season against a really good team, and we had College GameDay there, so everyone was pretty jacked up to play. And I think it set a good tone for us to continue to the next week and … keep going.”

Wimbush went 12-22 passing for 170 yards, with one interception and one touchdown, a 43-yard bomb to Finke in the first quarter, as the Irish defeated the Wolverines 24-17.

Emma Farnan | The Observer

Irish graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill dives for a tackle as juniors Alohi Gilman and Julian Love attempt to get in on the action during Notre Dame’s 24-16 win over Ball State on Sept. 8 in Notre Dame Stadium.

Despite a strong season-opening win, concerns were yet again raised as the offense went stagnant in the second half, managing only three points. Those concerns were intensified as the offense still left much to be desired in the following games.

Notre Dame, jumping in the rankings to No. 8 following the win over Michigan, scored only 24 points against Ball State as Wimbush went 17-31 for a career-high 297 passing yards but also threw three interceptions. Junior safety Jalen Elliott had two key interceptions to help the Irish escape with a 24-16 victory over the Cardinals (4-8, 3-5 MAC), and the defense saved the team once more against Vanderbilt the following week.

After Wimbush’s early struggles, Ian Book took over the reins at quarterback and immediately invigorated the offense against Wake Forest, leading the Irish to a 56-27 drubbing of the Demon Deacons. Perhaps just as important though, according to Finke, was Wimbush’s gracious relinquishing of the quarterback spot, which allowed the offense to rally around Book.

“Obviously it was a little weird ’cause, you know, you’ve got a guy who was starting all last season and then won three games in a row, and they decided to take him out,” Finke said. “But … Brandon had a really good attitude about it, he didn’t complain about it once. And Ian the whole time when he was the backup was preparing as if he was the starter. So they both really had a really good interaction with each other and with the team — that made it a smooth transition and kind of took some of that awkwardness away from what happens when they bench a guy and put another guy in. Ian … seized the opportunity when it came, and the rest is history.”

The following week, the Irish faced No. 7 Stanford, but Book did not have to bear the weight of the offense alone. Running back Dexter Williams, who had been reportedly suspended for the first four games of the season, returned in emphatic fashion: on his first touch of the game, Williams ran 45 yards for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, with the Irish up one, Book threw two touchdowns less than 15 seconds apart as Notre Dame put the Cardinal (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) down 38-17.

No. 6 Notre Dame then faced what was expected to be their toughest road test of the year, traveling to Blacksburg, Virginia, to face No. 24 Virginia Tech. Lane Stadium was raucous to start, but a 97-yard touchdown run by Williams — one of three rushing scores on the day for him — and a fumble recovery for a touchdown by cornerback Julian Love helped silence the home crowd as the Irish pulled away to win 45-23. Of note in the victory over the Hokies (6-7, 4-4 ACC) was senior kicker Justin Yoon becoming Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer on a point after attempt during the game.

While the Irish were rolling behind Book, the following week saw the Irish nearly fall to popular upset Pittsburgh, who was leading Notre Dame at home through three quarters. However, the Irish managed to scrape past the Panthers (7-7, 6-2 ACC) by the skin of their teeth as wide receiver Miles Boykin caught a 35-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give the Irish their first lead of the game and the 19-14 victory.

A much-needed bye week to recuperate helped the No. 3 Irish defeat Navy 44-22 in San Diego despite an injury to Yoon. The Notre Dame running game ran over the Midshipmen (3-10, 2-6 AAC), with the first four touchdowns of the game coming on the ground for the Irish. The following week the team prevailed over a scrappy Northwestern team that would go on to face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Book persevered through a rib injury to throw for 343 yards and two TDs. With a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter, he faked a hand-off and ran the ball into the end zone to seal the 31-21 victory over the Wildcats (9-5, 8-1 Big Ten).

The next game would see the Irish make their final homestand of the year. In fitting fashion, senior Brandon Wimbush led the Irish to a 42-13 victory over Florida State as Book recovered from his rib injury. In frigid conditions that may have actually helped the Irish against the warm weather-inclined Seminoles (5-7, 3-5 ACC), the seniors showed out as Boykin scored once and Williams and senior tight end Alize Mack each scored twice.

Notre Dame wrapped up their season with back-to-back trips to the coasts. They first defeated No. 12 Syracuse (10-3, 6-2 ACC) 36-3 in Yankee Stadium in the Shamrock Series game. Notre Dame then found themselves in the same position they were in six years earlier: at 11-0, facing USC in Los Angeles with a chance to compete for a national title.

The Trojans’ (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) speed gave the Irish problems to start, but a huge 24-yard touchdown pass from Book to Finke gave the Irish a much-needed spark, and Williams and junior running back Tony Jones Jr. added a rushing and passing touchdown, respectively — both for more than 50 yards — as Notre Dame all but sealed their spot in the College Football Playoff (CFP).

“That was a fun game. It was closer than had been expected … we had to come from behind, so that was a little different,” Finke said. “But it felt really good to show some resilience and bounce back and come back to win that game. Just understanding that we had gone 12-0 in the regular season and we were going to have a chance to compete for a championship [was great].”

The No. 3 Irish were scheduled to play No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl in Notre Dame’s first ever CFP appearance. Finke said the team‘s mindset heading into the game was focused on advancing beyond the semifinal round.

“The mentality of the team was obviously that this is not the culmination, that we want to play one more after this,” Finke said.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, its season came to a premature end. Yoon scored the only three Irish points, and a defense known for not surrendering big plays gave up four such ones, each resulting in a touchdown. After Love suffered a head injury and his replacement, junior cornerback Donte Vaughn, was forced to take over despite a shoulder injury, a competitive start turned into a rout. The Irish fell 30-3 to the eventual national champion Tigers (15-0, 8-0 ACC). Finke believes however that, like the Miami loss in 2017, the team can grow from the experience.

“We obviously didn’t get the job done, and I think we can take lessons from that and go into this season with it and hopefully do a little better next time around,” Finke said.

Despite the disappointing conclusion to Notre Dame’s season, there were several individual accolades for the Irish. Love was a First-Team AP All-American, senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was a Second-Team selection and senior linebacker Te’von Coney made the Third Team. Graduate student Drue Tranquill also received the Wuerffel Trophy, given annually to the academically and athletically achieving athlete who also exemplifies community service. Finally, Brian Kelly was honored with the AP Coach of the Year award.

While the end result was not ideal for the program, and the team loses many veteran contributors, Finke — who is returning as a graduate student for his fourth year of eligibility — believes the team will be successful again next season.

“We got a tough schedule, we got some really good players leaving that we’re going to replace, and we had [all of] spring ball to figure some stuff out, and I think we’re looking pretty good,” Finke said. “We’re just going to have to go one opponent at a time and worry about the task at hand and make sure everyone’s on the same page with what their job is and the commitment level and all that. So, we’ve got a little time, a little growing to do, but I think we’re going to have a good team.”

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