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Football

Irish post first loss despite early lead against Bulldogs

| Sunday, September 22, 2019

Tradition, superstars, rivalry. A Georgia-Notre Dame pairing involves everything that’s good about college football.

It seemed like this matchup couldn’t have been hyped up more. With College Football Playoff implications on the line, game day in Athens and the painful reminder of a one-point loss two years ago in Notre Dame Stadium painted red for the Irish.

Even still, expectations were exceeded Saturday night. Cue the electric light show in Sanford Stadium and the bone-rattling chant of “We ready, we ready, we ready for y’all” — the energy was unlike many other matchups this Irish team has experienced.

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool sprints downfield during Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia.

 

Despite coming in as a two-touchdown underdog, the Irish managed to respond with every blow the Bulldogs delivered and led the entire first half. But the luck eventually ran out when Georgia took a 13-point lead that Notre Dame was unable to overcome, ultimately leaving Athens with a 23-17 loss and a lot of questions regarding the team’s playoff eligibility. 

“We were one possession away, one play away from winning the game,” senior wide receiver Chase Claypool said following Saturday’s loss. 

This back-and-forth play was filled with exciting moments established from the opening snap. In his first appearance for the Irish this season after suffering a broken collarbone at preseason camp in early August, junior tight end Cole Kmet corralled three consecutive passes totaling 33 yards.

However, back-to-back penalties on senior offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg and several incomplete passes eventually brought on freshman punter Jay Bramblett, who buried the ball within the 10-yard line, bringing on junior quarterback Jake Fromm and the Bulldogs offense. 

Two years ago, Fromm made his first career start as a true freshman in South Bend and posted 141 yards. While he got the job done back in 2017, Fromm proved experience has only made him all the wiser, earning a total of nearly 200 yards with no turnovers. The Irish defensive unit gave him some trouble, though. 

In the opening drive, Fromm earned a quick first down before the Notre Dame defensive line held junior running back De’Andre Swift to three short carries, bringing up 4th-and-long. 

“He’s a great running back. He’s explosive, big back, just a guy that’s competition as well,” senior safety and captain Alohi Gilman said of Swift. “He’s obviously tough for any matchup.”

These opening snaps set the tone for the remainder of the quarter, as neither team was able to gain substantial yardage. The Bulldogs relied primarily on the run game while Irish senior quarterback Ian Book kept his focus on the big targets on the periphery: Claypool, Kmet and junior running back Tony Jones Jr. in short yardage. 

With neither team on the board, the Irish finished the first quarter with Claypool picking up a key first down on 3rd-and-long to move the offense near the midfield stripe.

Returning to the field, the Irish were unable to immediately build on that momentum as Book struggled to connect with his receivers and Kmet picked up the fourth penalty of the game for Notre Dame. They got a second chance, however, when Georgia senior wide receiver Tyler Simmons dropped the punt and Claypool recovered deep in the Notre Dame red zone. 

“I was excited because this one actually counted as compared to last year against Clemson, which probably should’ve counted,” Claypool joked after the game.

Aided by a pass interference by Georgia, from the 8-yard line Book moved to the 1-yard line before hurling a high pass into the end zone for Kmet, who made a one-handed catch.

In many ways, the Irish striking first seemed a necessary response to the hostile environment. 

“We had crowd noise that was pretty defeaning, so we were ready for it,” Claypool said. “I don’t think the crowd noise really threw us off our game, other than just the false starts. Other than that, in terms of doing the plays the right way, I think we did that.”

But just like that, the celebration was over. Georgia came marching down the field, adding a touchdown of their own to the board. Starting at the 25-yard line, Fromm showed a variety of different looks, connecting with six different players and even rushing into the red zone himself before handing things over to Swift — who then sprinted three yards into the end zone. 

In the final minutes of the first half, Notre Dame kept their foot on the accelerator, intent on restoring the lead. Four straight passes, including 28-yard throws to both Kmet and sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys III, quickly put the Irish in scoring territory.

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Senior quarterback Ian Book looks to hand-off the ball during Saturday’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs.

However, with the clock winding down and after running out of timeouts, Book was unable to find the end zone, getting his pass blocked on a short-yardage throw. Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer took the field for the first time and added three points to the Irish score.

“When you call a play like that you’re either going to be a hero on the play or take a zero,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of the third-down block. 

While the play disappointed the Irish’s opportunity to punch in four extra points, Kelly was generally impressed with Book’s performance.

“The big picture was poise and patience in the pocket, delivering the football where he needed to,” he said. “There’s some things we’ll work on, but he’s getting to the level that he can begin now to ascend to a level where he can begin to take over the game.”

That poise and confidence showed signs of cracking early in the second half, as what little offense the Irish had managed to create virtually stalled. Georgia gained 131 yards throughout the third quarter, compared to Notre Dame’s 19. The Irish simply didn’t have a response for the Bulldogs’ dual offensive threat. 

The first time Book took the field in the second half, he got picked off on 3rd down on the Notre Dame 22-yard line. The Bulldogs were unable to capitalize on this location but did manage to grab three points of a 40-yard field goal by redshirt senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. A 3-and-out by the Irish was followed by another Blankenship field goal before the Irish found themselves in trouble again with two players picking up penalties on third and fourth down. 

As the lights came down on Sanford stadium and phone flashlights took over, the game was proving to be more exciting than the 10-13 score might reflect. 

Georgia struck first as Fromm connected on a series of four passes, including a 15-yard throw right into the end zone. 

For Kelly, high-speed focused drives like this are what make Fromm so threatening to opponents. 

“He doesn’t put the ball in a position where it’s going to be turned over,” he said “… They had to make some good catches.”

One of the players who found himself on the unfortunate end of one of Fromm’s dangerous throws was senior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. However, Kelly said that’s far more likely due to the ability of the Georgia receivers and Fromm to communicate than a lack of ability on Pride Jr.’s part.

“Troy’s a great defender, but he didn’t have much of a chance,” Kelly said.

With the game now a touchdown and a half, Notre Dame desperately needed to respond, but was unable to keep the ball for long when Book threw his second interception of the night — right into the arms of senior defensive back J.R. Reed.

The Irish managed to contain the Bulldogs and force Blankenship to take a 43-yard field goal, but the score still approached that two-touchdown loss prediction. 

Just past the halfway mark of the quarter, Notre Dame finally found its rhythm again by returning to the passing game. While all the receivers and running backs contributed throughout the drive, Claypool and Kmet once again were the go-to guys, recording a 31-yard and 23-yard catch to put their team in striking distance.

Claypool snagged a four-yard catch in the front-corner of the end zone to cut the Bulldogs’ lead in half. Georgia burned a minute of game clock before the Irish offense returned for one final chance at avenging their 2017 loss.

Taking the field just past the midfield stripe, Book connected with Jones and Claypool to earn a quick first down. Out of timeouts, Book looked to Claypool twice, throwing three incomplete passes. On fourth down, Georgia rushed along the edges of the pocket, forcing Book to scramble and throw a Hail Mary. Deep in Georgia territory, Claypool rose to make the catch but three Georgia defenders were there to make the play.

Notre Dame was forced to watch the Bulldogs run the clock out and claim the victory.

This loss stung, according to senior defensive end and captain Khalid Kareem.

“[The team] played well, it just came down to those small plays — turning the ball over, jumping offsides,” Kareem said.

Despite the narrative that Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff opportunities hinged on this matchup, Kelly is reassured that next week’s home game against Virginia could be more effective in defining the season.

“The defining game will be next week. We’ll know who we are truly next week,” he said. “How you come back on Monday will certainly define who this football team is. I know who you are tonight based upon what I saw, but you want to talk about defining games, it wasn’t tonight, it’ll be next week.”

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