Notre Dame slammed at the finish by Georgia

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a night when Brian Kelly desperately needed a perceptual victory, the Notre Dame football coach might have gained more critical ground in the real world, for the long term.

Fifteenth-ranked Georgia gouged 24th-ranked Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s first attempt to take a step into Irish lore, blindsiding the junior with a wicked, fumble-causing hit that preserved the Bulldogs’ late rally and a 20-19 escape in a strangely divided Notre Dame Stadium.

An estimated 30,000 red-clad Georgia fans in the 77,622-seat facility looked on — and never quietly — as sophomore kicker Rodrigo Blankenship provided the winning margin with a 30-yard field goal at the 3:34 mark of the fourth quarter. And he did so a day after being converted from walk-on to scholarship player.

The final two Irish offensive possessions ended in heartache. Not that ND (1-1) ever found a consistent groove offensively in the second-ever meeting between the two schools and the first since a 17-10 Sugar Bowl victory that capped Georgia’s 1980 national championship run.

“I love the way he goes out there and competes, but there are things happening for the first time that he's getting a chance to grow with,” Kelly said of Wimbush, in his second collegiate start. “I'm glad he's on my team. We're living through a couple things here and there, but man, when it all comes together, these press conferences will be a little different.”

Perhaps lost in all that was a Notre Dame defense that showed signs of coming of age. It’s been the missing piece since the last time the Irish were ultra-relevant in the national title picture, in 2012, and kept the promising 2015 squad from taking a more serious run at doing the same.

On Saturday, they faced a true freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start, in Georgia high school legend Jake Fromm. But he was flanked by two prolific senior running backs, in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom have pro scouts enthralled.

Georgia (2-0) labored for 326 yards, four fewer than Temple amassed against ND on opening weekend in a 49-16 Irish rout. The Bulldogs converted just 4-of-17 third-down conversion attempts.

Discounting the final possession in which Georgia was kneeling to run out the final 87 seconds, the Bulldogs had 16 drives in the game. Eight of them resulted in three-and-outs. Two others were terminated by turnovers — an interception by Drue Tranquill and a fumble recovery by Daelin Hayes that led to ND’s only offensive touchdown.

Michel had 73 yards on 13 carries and a TD. Chubb had 63 yards on 13 carries.

Roughly half of Georgia’s 43 rushes as a team went for two or fewer yards.

“We played well enough defensively for us to go into a game like this and say, ‘Look, we've put our defense now in a better position that we can go and play with anyone,’ ” Kelly said.

And they certainly gave the Irish offense a chance for redemption late after ND elected to put the ball away with just over three minutes left in regulation.

The ND defense then forced a three-and-out with only 1:11 coming off the clock.

The Irish stopped Chubb for a two-yard gain on second-and-3, then stonewalled 6-foot-1, 242-pound fullback Christian Payne to bring up a fourth down and a punt.

Notre Dame took possession on its 19-yard line with 1:57 left and no timeouts. Wimbush threw the ball away on first down, with senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy in strong pursuit. That was followed by a 17-yard completion to wideout Chris Finke.

But on the next play, Bellamy came hard from Wimbush’s blind side and jarred the ball loose, with fellow linebacker Lorenzo Carter recovering on the Irish 25 with 1:27 left. Carter had earlier pulled the strip/sack/recovery himself late in the third quarter.

The Irish defense made sure that one didn’t materialize into Georgia points. In fact, the Bulldogs went backwards six yards on the ensuing possession.

The ND offense spent a lot of time in reverse as well — or stuck.

A week after flaunting a powerful running game that amassed 422 rushing yards among the 606 total they pinned on the Temple defense, the Irish couldn’t even muster 300 total yards (265) and managed just 55 on the ground with a long run of eight yards.

They missed on their first 10 third-down conversion attempts, finishing 3-of-17, and rode four Justin Yoon field goals in four attempts. His shortest, a 28-yarder, gave ND its last lead, 19-17, at the 10:21 mark in the fourth.

Wimbush finished 20-of-40 through the air for 210 yards with no TDs or interceptions. His 16 rushing attempts netted one yard.

“It was everything I thought it would be, but I never played against a team with speed like that,” Wimbush said of Georgia. “All 11 positions — all the guys were really physical and had speed.”

ND junior running back Josh Adams had a modest 53 yards on 19 carries rushing, but added a career-high six catches for 60 yards. Neither of his tag-teammates, Dexter Williams or Tony Jones Jr., got a chance to carry the ball.

“I don't think we ever went into the game thinking that's the kind of offense we were thinking we were going to be,” Kelly said. “I don't think that's the kind of offense that we're purported to be.

“We want to run the football. We want to be able to get Brandon out of the pocket a little bit, and we want to take shots down the field. When we got them out, we didn't protect as well as we'd like. We didn't throw it as well as we'd like. We didn't coach it as well as I would like.

“So I mean, look, when you lose by a point in a really, really good game, a lot of great things happened tonight but a lot of great things didn't happen for us when we needed them.”

Meanwhile, Fromm, the seventh Georgia freshman quarterback in school history to start a game but only the second to debut on the road in his first start, was 16-of-29 for 141 yards and an interception. His five-yard TD pass to Terry Godwin was originally ruled out of bounds when the receiver gained control of the ball.

Replay overturned the original ruling.

And after the game he and his teammates had plenty of fans with whom to celebrate.

A week after drawing its lowest TV rating (1.0 ratings points, 1.6 million viewers) on NBC in the history of Notre Dame’s relationship with its personal network, there was no shortage of interest in ND’s first regular-season game with an SEC opponent in 12 years.

Particularly from Georgia fans, a day after they took over Wrigley Field in Chicago for a Cubs-Brewers game.

Per Georgia coach Kirby Smart, they provided more than an emotional advantage, but even a tactical one.

“We never felt like it was so much of a road game,” Smart said. “There were times, our quarterback was able to go on his own cadence which you don’t usually get to do on the road.

“You definitely don’t get to do it on the road in the SEC. The fan base doesn’t let you do that. We were able to go on ours. A lot of it had to do with the red and black that was in the stadium.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Chris Finke (10) can't hold onto a pass as Georgia’s Richard LeCounte III (2) defends him during the Georgia at Notre Dame NCAA College football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA