ATHENS, Ga. — Breathing hard and none too happy when it ended, Notre Dame senior wide receiver Chase Claypool followed the 45-yard-line marker up toward the middle of the field, helmet in his left hand, looking for no one in particular.
Behind him, offensive coordinator Chip Long stalked down the sideline, play sheet in tow and headed right for the tunnel. Long left for the locker room muttering something to himself. Maybe about having just one more play to call or, more likely, one more guy available to make a play.
A key play. A winning play.
Seventh-ranked Notre Dame offered everything it could muster against No. 3 Georgia on a warm late-summer’s Saturday night in the Deep South. The Irish believed. They made some plays. They gave themselves a chance to win. But in the end, the lack of a go-to guy — or make that, another go-to guy or two — left Notre Dame on the wrong end of a 23-17 score in front of 93,246 at Sanford Stadium.
How did the Irish measure up? Quite well in a lot of areas, but short in the difference-maker department.
The Irish (2-1) kept it close. The Irish gave themselves a chance. The Irish didn’t get blown out, or get embarrassed by a big-time opponent in a big-time atmosphere. But they brought back only an atta-boy for their effort. Not nearly enough for what they came to get.
“You don’t come down here to play these games and feel good after a physical game like that when you fall short,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We gotta make a couple more plays.”
This was another loss to an elite outfit, much like back in December against Clemson, when it seemed Notre Dame was outclassed and overwhelmed in every area. This one seemed different. Felt different. Looked different.
Until the end. Again.
That it came down to one frustrating final offensive possession with 58 seconds remaining was fitting for this program. For who it is now. For who it’s been for years. Absent those one or two true difference-makers. On both sides of the ball.
Doesn’t matter, as Kelly said afterward, that the Irish get a pair of play-makers back in the coming weeks, when running back Jafar Armstrong and wide receiver Michael Young return from injuries. That’s for down the road. Maybe for USC or for Michigan. Notre Dame needed them Saturday. Against Georgia (4-0).
They needed them now. For then.
In this game, there were a plethora of play-makers for one team and at a premium for the other. It mattered. In the passing game. In the running game. In the, I’m-going-to-do-this-in-this-game game.
Last week’s play-makers — Avery Davis and Javon McKinley — were non-factors against Georgia. As expected. Young dressed in full uniform but never stepped off the sideline as his broken collarbone continues to heal. Armstrong wore his No. 8 white road jersey, but with a pair of sweatpants, not game pants.
Both will help when they return. Help like tight end Cole Kmet did in his return. Back from a broken collarbone suffered in August at Culver Academy, Kmet contributed nine receptions for 108 yards, both game highs, and a score. The offense looked a whole lot different with Kmet available.
Coming in, the Irish tight ends had combined for eight catches for 83 yards and one score the first two games. Kmet gives the offense another dimension. But it remained rather one-dimensional. The Irish were going to go as far as Book would take them.
He couldn’t carry them past the finish (goal) line on that last-ditch drive, one where you never thought the Irish would find a way. Close? Yes. Close it out? No.
Account for Kmet. Account for Claypool. Rush Book and make someone else beat you. Nobody did after Book’s heave toward a double-covered Claypool fell harmlessly to the turf.
If Book (29-for-47, 275 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) couldn’t connect with Kmet, he couldn’t connect. Claypool disappeared from the game plan for long stretches, others really weren’t options and the run game, well, best not to talk about that. Not after the Irish mustered 46 yards on 14 carries.
Get Armstrong back on the field. Get Young back on the field. Get somebody else on the field that could keep a Georgia defense that attacked in waves just a little more honest, and maybe Notre Dame wins this one.
Maybe the Irish finally silenced critics who again surfaced as soon when this one went final, those who point to this finish and proclaim that, “See, yet another example of how Notre Dame can’t win a big game when a big game is there for the taking.”
This one was there, as poorly as it all went. The Irish defense had done enough against the high-powered Bulldog offense and quarterback Jake Fromm to take a 10-7 halftime lead. But when the game was there for the taking in the third quarter, Notre Dame ran nine plays (ugh) for a total of 13 yards (double ugh).
You’re not beating Georgia State much less Georgia.
“Self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said.
“Sometimes things go our way; sometimes things don’t go our way,” Claypool said. “Third quarter wasn’t going our way. I just told them if we get a first down, we can get things rolling and we did that in the fourth quarter.”
In the end, everything that the Irish said earlier in the week wouldn’t matter — the crowd noise, the heat, the environment — did matter. Notre Dame let the crowd noise affect its effort. The Irish were whistled for 12 penalties, so many of those false starts because of the crowd noise. The tight end moved. The tackles moved. The quarterback couldn’t stay settled.
It was so hard to hear, that even a few writers on the second level of the open-air press box were flagged for illegal procedure. Something about jumping in the halftime food line a little prematurely, but we digress.
The Irish insisted afterward that the crowd wasn’t a factor, that they embraced everything about the environment, that it didn’t really matter. But it did.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Book said. “It’s why you come to Notre Dame to play in games like this.”
Play in them? Sure. Sign Notre Dame up for another couple of these somewhere along the line this season. Those guys compete. Hard. Four four quarters. The effort’s there. They execution? Not so much Saturday.
The Irish can play in games such as these. But win them? With this current roster? Not yet. Need more.