Vorel: Notre Dame suffers from familiar failure to finish

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — New season.

Familiar feeling.

When time ran out on No. 15 Georgia’s 20-19 victory over No. 24 Notre Dame on Saturday night, Bulldog players streamed giddily towards the south end of a storied stadium, where a sea of red stretched upwards from the brick wall to the video board — cheering and chanting as conquerors. The Irish, meanwhile, trudged in the opposite direction, linking arms to sing a sad alma mater.

Another sad alma mater.

And, really, it must be said: this team has been here before.

Yes, the appearances are a little altered now. Notre Dame Stadium is home to a video board, two ribbon boards and three buildings fused to its edges. The Irish have six new assistant coaches and two new coordinators. The starting quarterback is different. The captains, for the most part, are different. The program’s primary faces have changed.

Yes, it’s true: this is a different team, with different problems.

But the feeling. That feeling is something the Irish can’t seem to shake.

“A loss always feels the same,” said senior linebacker Greer Martini, who finished with six tackles in defeat.

Not just a loss. A close loss. Another one-score loss. Notre Dame is 1-9 in its last 10 one-score games. The Irish dropped seven of them last season — this onslaught of fatal errors, failed final drives and “close but no cigar.”

“Close” wasn’t good enough last season, and it shouldn’t be good enough now.

“We're really close to being the kind of football team that can play with anybody,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We were short on a couple things today. We'll shore them up and we'll get back at it next week. I like my football team.”

To be clear, there was plenty to like. Notre Dame’s defense, under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, continues to take positive steps. The Irish forced eight punts and two turnovers. They tackled well, too. Junior placekicker Justin Yoon — who missed both of his field goal tries against Temple — connected on all four of them on Saturday.

But the Irish failed to finish. Again. Their fans filed out en masse — again — and all that was left was red.

“I think that we played really, really hard today. I think that we never faltered,” said graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who allowed the strip sack that sunk Notre Dame’s final drive.

“I think that we were in it obviously until the very end. I think this team showed a lot of heart today. I think there’s a lot of positives, but execution-wise we need to clean it up.”

Execution errors, plural. Death by a hundred stinging paper cuts. McGlinchey’s was the last one, but it wasn’t the only one.

Take the late hit penalty, for example. Trailing 16-10 and pinned back to its own 19-yard-line, facing third-and-10, Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm rolled out to his right and found wide receiver Riley Ridley along the sideline for a 14-yard gain. After Fromm released the pass, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara drilled him.

And, instead of punting, the Bulldogs’ drive continued, leading to their first lead of the game.

Or, you could point to Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter’s strip sack of Wimbush late in the third quarter, where running back Josh Adams whiffed on the key block.

Or, you could point to a Wimbush rush on third-and-3 in the fourth quarter, where the junior quarterback failed to plant his foot and turn up field, instead falling a yard short and forcing a punt.

Or, you could point to a third-and-10 pass from Wimbush with less than four minutes left, which wide receiver Chris Finke bobbled and dropped.

Or, you could point to a fourth quarter third-and-1 pitch to Bulldog running back Sony Michel, who dodged Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes before the line of scrimmage and gained six yards, extending what turned out to be the game-winning drive.

This wasn’t one mistake, one play, one paper cut.

Make any one of those plays, and there might be a different result.

“We put ourselves in some tough situations,” Kelly said, “but I just liked their grit and resolve and going out there and competing for four quarters and having the chance to win a football game against a quality opponent in the University of Georgia.”

On Saturday, grit and resolve wasn’t enough. The feeling continued to fester.

But how about the response?

“I think this feeling will allow us to dominate teams in the future, just because we don’t want to feel like this again,” Martini said.

“We’re a different team. That’s not going to happen,” McGlinchey said, when asked if one loss might snowball. “There’s too much character in our locker room. There’s too many great people that are leading our football program, and coaches. This team has a different attitude, and it’s not going to be hard to do that.”

Now, if the Irish could effectively, constructively put a loss behind them?

Now, that would be different.

“It's not going to snowball,” Kelly said. “Next question.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown (6) stands with teammate during the singing of the alma mater following the 20-19 loss to Georgia in an NCAA college football game Saturday, September 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN