FOOTBALL

Amid Notre Dame's waves of progress, there's nowhere to run for underwhelming rushing attack

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Alittle more than 12 hours removed from a 23-17 loss Saturday night at No. 3 Georgia that had enough pluck and panache to keep Notre Dame in the top 10 of the national polls, Irish coach Brian Kelly allowed himself to envision what his 2019 football team might become.

The reality is that what Georgia becomes is now tethered to that eventuality.

That’s life in the independent pool when you don’t go unbeaten, have no conference championship game for late-season schedule oomph and a 13th game, and have five November opponents that didn’t garner a single vote in the latest AP Top 25 among them.

It’s not just about finding an unlikely back door into the College Football Playoff — and that doesn’t happen for the 10th-ranked Irish (2-1) without the Bulldogs (4-0) remaining on a playoff trajectory themselves.

It might not happen anyway. One thing we’ve learned through the first five cycles of playoff selections is that “good losses” eventually carry less weight than “good wins.” And ND’s opportunities to even play in those types of games beyond this weekend are dwindling.

Still, the CFP selection committee also picks and places the other New Year’s Six teams. So Georgia’s evolution ties into Notre Dame’s postseason destiny as long as the Irish keep evolving into a complete and eventually dominant team.

“We play these games to measure ourselves nationally in terms of where we are,” Kelly said Sunday of the first regular-season games ever between the Irish and Georgia (2017 and 2019). “Our mission here is to win championships, so you want to measure your program against the best.

“We feel like we measured ourselves on the road and in a hostile environment.”

The biggest stride forward among several growth areas Saturday night was Notre Dame’s linebacker play. The most urgent shortcoming long-term, short-term … and in the rearview mirror, for that matter?

The Irish running game.

With 18th-ranked Virginia (4-0) coming to Notre Dame Stadium to play between the mums on Saturday (3:30 p.m.; NBC), with its 12th-ranked rushing defense nationally and No. 14 standing in total defense, the urgency can’t be overstated.

Against the nation’s fifth-ranked rush defense Saturday night, the Irish tried to improvise outside of a traditional running game instead of committing to it and potentially banging their heads against a wall as they did in 2017 against Georgia (55 yards on 37 carries).

Notre Dame’s 14 carries Saturday night against the Bulldogs ties a Kelly Era low for rushing attempts in a game, with its 31-17 loss to USC in 2011 — the only time in 12 games following a bye while at ND in which Kelly didn’t record a win.

And the 46 net rushing yards against Georgia are the fourth fewest of the Kelly Era. The only three lower figures all happened in double-digit losses, including the 42-14 smackdown by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game to cap the 2012 season. The 32 rushing yards in that game still represent the Kelly Era low.

In the two games against Georgia, Notre Dame’s longest run came from a wide receiver — sophomore Lawrence Keys III — and it covered nine yards.

Only nine of the 14 carries Saturday night came from the running back position, and senior Tony Jones Jr. garnered all of those, netting 21 yards.

When Notre Dame last played a top five team, eventual national champion Clemson in the CFP semis last Dec. 29, the difference in elite speed at the running back and wide receiver positions were the most glaring of all in a 30-3 Tigers victory.

That appeared to be the case again Saturday night, but only on the offensive side of the ball. The Irish defense didn’t give up a run longer than 16 yards and allowed only one pass longer than 19 — a 36-yarder to grad transfer Lawrence Cager.

If the 6-foot-5 wide receiver looked familiar, he should. Cager had two catches for 45 yards in Miami’s 41-8 rout of the Irish in 2017.

Against Clemson last December, the Irish allowed four passes of 32 yards or longer and a 62-yard TD run by Travis Etienne.

And dating back to the beginning of the 2017 season, only four teams held Georgia to fewer rushing yards and total yards than the Irish did Saturday night (152 and 339, respectively). One of those in the latter category was the 2017 Irish.

“We’re really seeing some strong improvement from (Asmar) Bilal,” Kelly said of the grad senior inside linebacker who finally may be translating some elite athletic ability into consistent production. “He continues to emerge as somebody we feel is not even merited with getting off the field.

“He’s played really well now in successive weeks. He struggled a little bit against Louisville, and since that time has played very, very good football for us.”

Kelly also lauded rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as having his best game to date (8 tackles, including 2.5 for losses) and middle linebacker Drew White (5 tackles, 2 TFL) in the first game the Irish didn’t employ a deep and heavy personnel rotation at the position group.

As for the offense closing the speed gap, the Irish have what appears to be three difference-makers in the 2020 class in running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Michael Mayer.

In the more immediate future, there’s good new on the injury front. Sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy (concussion, missed Georgia), running back Jahmir Smith (toe, missed New Mexico and Georgia) and wide receiver Michael Young (collarbone, out since Aug. 17) are all projected as probable for Virginia per Kelly.

And top running back Jafar Armstrong, out since the first quarter of the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville, has a more ambitious return date than previously reported.

“Jafar is making great progress toward coming back,” Kelly said. “We’re hopeful right around the USC game (Oct. 12).”

The Trojans are struggling against the run (81st nationally) as are the other three opponents that most immediately follow the Cavaliers on the schedule: Bowling Green (119th), Michigan (114th) and Virginia Tech (88th).

Virginia, like Georgia, adds the dimension of a relentless pass rush. The Irish managed to avoid a single sack against the Bulldogs. The Cavaliers, though, rank first nationally in sacks per game (5.0) and are fifth in tackles for loss per game.

“I don’t know that we’re all of a sudden going to run it 50 times, but we’re going to have to display a running game that keeps a defense honest,” Kelly said. “And I think that that’s the most important thing right now as we continue to work toward getting guys healthier.

“Jahmir will definitely help, and then trying to get these younger guys up to a point where we can keep them in the game for a more extended period of time along with, of course, Tony.

“It’s a work in progress for us. We know where we need to be in terms of what the running game needs to look like, but it’s going to take some time until we get all of the assets back into place.”

In the meantime, the Irish coaches are going to have to develop and trust one of the other options, whether it be converted cornerback Avery Davis, freshman Kyren Williams or sophomore C’Bo Flemister.

“When you look at it in its totality, even though we lost the football game,” Kelly said, “there’s a lot to take away from this, feeling good that Notre Dame’s football program — and particularly the 2019 team — has a chance to do a lot of great things this year.”

Behind the scenes

• The Georgia-ND game on CBS Saturday night became the highest-rated college football game on any network this season, with an average metered market rating/share of 6.2/13. That’s also the best showing on CBS in the month of September since 2013 (Alabama vs Texas A&M).

• While the Irish offensive line took some heat on social media for its five illegal-procedure penalties (special teams picked up a sixth), Kelly clarified Sunday that it was quarterback Ian Book who contributed the most to the false starts.

The Irish had practiced silent counts all week, including a Saturday walkthrough, but in the actual game Book reverted to an old habit at times of clapping to get center Jarrett Patterson to snap the ball.

“He just went back to muscle memory and what he had done with the clap, and it cost us,” Kelly said when pressed about it. “Obviously, very unfortunate, but we’ll have to continue to work on it and clean it up so it doesn’t happen again.”

• Though neither player registered a tackle, freshman linebackers Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau graded out among the highest of ND’s special teams players Saturday night and drew praise from Kelly on Sunday.

Liufau made his ND debut against Georgia.

“We learned that he’s a guy who can get out there and play with anybody,” said Kelly, who said the 6-2, 213-pounder may play himself out of a redshirt season.

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Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. (6) gets tripped up by Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari (13) during ND’s 23-17 loss Saturday night at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
The Irish defense made some significant strides Saturday night in Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss at Georgia.

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) vs. No. 18 Virginia (4-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 11