Noie: Near-miss against Georgia ends Notre Dame margin for error in 2017
SOUTH BEND – Moving en masse it marched in silence up the north tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium.
Some stopped and waited to pass through the first door on the left. That would take them past the "Play Like a Champion" sign and up a flight of stairs. Others continued in a swift pace up the ramp before making a pair of left-hand turns.
Either route delivered them to the same place.
The locker room.
The losing team's locker room.
Able to compete with No. 15 Georgia for the better part of four quarters, No. 24 Notre Dame still couldn't find a way to make enough plays when they mattered. When they were needed. The result was a familiar one for the Irish (1-1). Close but not good enough. Again.
A 20-19 loss that saw all the feel-good narratives structured from the previous week fade into the cool night.
Some of the players who walked off the field all had echoed a similar sentiment in the days leading up to what many considered the premier game on the early-season college schedule.
“This is why you come to Notre Dame.”
To play in these games.
But what about winning these games? Competition points don't matter. Close doesn't matter. Figuring it out next time around doesn't mater. The Irish too often continue to lose these games. The other team on this or that particular night simply has been better. Quicker to the ball. More explosive. Able to overcome obstacles like penalties and turnovers and missed opportunities.
Always able to figure it out, while the Irish are still trying to figure it out.
“A lot of great things happened tonight,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “But a lot of great things didn't happen tonight when we needed them.”
Like on the final drive, after the defense held on third-and-2 and gave the Irish offense a chance to write a comeback chapter in what many wanted – hoped? – to be a special season. That drive dissolved in three plays. How? One Irish team captain pointed a finger in only one direction – right back at himself.
That Notre Dame wasn't able to close the contest out, or get into field goal range to let Justin Yoon kick what would have been field goal No. 5, materialized because of a Brandon Wimbush fumble on the final series.
A fumble that Mike McGlinchey took full responsibility for. And then some.
“I blew it,” McGlinchey said of the final play that saw outside linebacker Davin Bellamy blow in on a blitz from the right side and smother Wimbush, who lost the ball. “I got beat. No excuses. The last play was kind of my fault. I certainly didn't get my job done.”
Same can be said for the rest of the offensive line. Seven days after racking up 422 yards on the ground, the Irish couldn't run the ball. They finished with 55 yards. That was half a quarter's work the previous week.
They also couldn't establish something that it could do well each time it had it. Couldn't handle the looks and the depth and the speed – there it is again against a Southeastern Conference opponent – necessary to win a game.
Coming close but not being able to close it out has become all-too familiar for the Irish under coach Brian Kelly. Of the last nine football games that featured both of the teams ranked coming in, Notre Dame is 2-7.
Seven losses, each one a little more agonizing than the last.
Close, but when will close be good enough?
That Georgia was making its first-ever visit to Notre Dame Stadium gave this night game a little more juice. Maybe not on par as the game against Southern California in 2005 – the Bush Push game – but there was a buzz around this one that hasn't always been evident. Especially so early in the year.
Georgia fans were seemingly everywhere in the days leading up to the game. So much so that first-time visitors to the stadium may have wondered why school officials chose to paint the new bleachers all red.
But that red were fans. Georgia fans. By the thousands. While the Irish left the field in silence, they were left to celebrate in basically the whole south end.
Response from Irish faithful who saw their stadium overrun with red for the second time in 17 years (see Nebraska, 2000)?
There were so many Georgia fans in the stands that it was hard early to tell when a big play happened which team it favored? Home team? Visitors? The initial answer may not have always been right.
Kelly said late in the week that Notre Dame expected 16,000 Georgia fans. There may have been that many already in the stadium with 40 minutes before kickoff.
Playing this one at night was a good call – made it tougher to spot all the red.
In the end, the Irish were left green – with envy.
Again. Kelly and his players insist they're not far off. It's always been national championship or bust for a program that cherishes its independence. Guards it like gold. Won't relinquish it. Maybe ever.
Because of that, the margin error now has narrowed. To none. To get to where the Irish want to go, really the only place it can go every year — the national championship game — it's basically perfection or nothing the rest of the way. There's no other way. No conference championship game to get right. No league push-overs to get healthy on.
An unforgiving schedule for a school in an unenviable position. This year. Every year.
Win or else.
We're at else.
Maybe not, cautioned Kelly.
“When it all comes together,” the coach offered as midnight approached, “these press conferences will be a little different.”
For this season to be different, Saturday had to be different. To keep moving in the right direction. To keep winning.
Instead, it was more of the same.