FOOTBALL

Notebook: Cole Kmet not enough to carry up-and-down Notre Dame offense

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

ATHENS, Ga. — Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly played coy earlier this week about the role carved out for Cole Kmet against Georgia.

Maybe that’s because the Irish wished not to reveal their intention of featuring the junior tight end in their game plan. In his Saturday return from suffering a broken collarbone in preseason practice six weeks ago, Kmet garnered a high volume of targets from quarterback Ian Book.

A game-high nine receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown from Kmet provided a bright spot in seventh-ranked Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to No. 3 Georgia at Sanford Stadium. All-American Ken MacAfee against Purdue in 1977 is the only other Irish tight end who tallied nine catches in a game.

The plan the Irish (2-1) envisioned for Kmet became evident early. He recorded three catches for 33 yards by play No. 4 of the game. His one-yard touchdown came on fourth-and-goal two drives later, putting the Irish ahead 7-0 early in the second quarter.

“Obviously we felt he’s a difference-maker as a player,” Kelly said. “He kind of set the tone for the game with a physical run early on. He got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game. He opens up a lot of things for us.”

Maybe Kmet’s best catch came on a 31-yard pass from Book down the seam late in the fourth quarter. The play helped set up a four-yard touchdown reception from wide receiver Chase Claypool to cut the deficit to 23-17.

“He’s a great player, you guys saw that tonight,” said Book of Kmet. “We want to get him the ball whenever we can. It’s my job to get the ball in all the play-makers’ hands. When he comes back, he just opens up our playbook even more.”

The Irish offense seemed to ebb and flow with Kmet's production. From 1:27 remaining in the second quarter until 6:43 left in the fourth, Kmet went without a reception on one target. The Irish did not register a first down in the second half until 11:39 left in the game.

The Bulldogs (4-0) adjusted to Kmet’s potent first half. He went quiet after receiving tighter defensive looks and more double coverage. Some opportunities were also squandered by ND's false-start penalties. Two of those blunders came on third down and resulted in punts. At one point, the Irish were 1-of-9 on third down.

“Penalties, drop balls and mistakes,” said Kelly on the third-quarter troubles. "Self-inflicted wounds. And Georgia’s good. They’re a good football team.”

The lower moments of Kmet’s night were not made up elsewhere on offense. With starting running back Jafar Armstrong still out with an abdominal injury, only one running back registered as much as a carry — senior Tony Jones Jr. His 21 rushing yards on nine attempts led all Irish rushers.

Claypool’s production on ND’s final two possessions — four catches for 41 yards and a touchdown — came too little, too late. The Bulldogs were without both of their starting cornerbacks, yet the Irish could not place their top receiver in favorable situations until late. Claypool caught just two passes for 25 yards through ND's first nine drives.

In the absence of needed assets, Kmet couldn’t carry the workload himself.

“We need balance,” Kelly said. “We need some guys to get healthy at the running back position. Tony Jones did a terrific job. We’re asking way too much from him — to do way too much. We need help for him. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get that in the next few weeks.”

Enough from Fromm

UGA head coach Kirby Smart won’t have to regret one of his more perplexing decisions.

Facing fourth-and-inches on the Notre Dame 26 with 6:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, Smart sent the field goal unit onto the field. Place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship connected on a 43-yarder, extending the lead to 23-10.

The Bulldogs would have never encountered their late scare had they converted that fourth down and eventually scored a touchdown. Their running game had come alive, and quarterback Jake Fromm had found a groove through the air.

Fromm’s 187 passing yards may not jump off the stat sheet. But he delivered more than a few back-shoulder and far-sideline completions under duress in important situations. All four of UGA’s third-down conversions came on Fromm completions of nine, eight, 14 and 15 yards — the latter of which went for a touchdown to wide receiver Lawrence Cager.

“The arm is a lot liver than when we saw him a couple years ago,” Kelly said. “And the decision-making. It’s outstanding. He doesn’t put the ball in a position where it’s going to be turned over. His back-shoulder throws were difficult for (cornerback) Troy Pride Jr. to defend.

“We stayed on the back hip of the (receiver). He put it low back shoulder. They had to make some great catches, and they did.”

Dime package

Fromm became the first quarterback this season to successfully dissect the Irish dime defense.

The defensive package used on obvious passing downs comprises four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs. The Louisville and New Mexico quarterbacks combined for 29 yards on 4-of-15 passing in 25 snaps against the look. The Irish defense recorded four pass breakups, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

All four of UGA’s third-down conversions came against the dime package. Fromm went 5-of-7 for 44 yards and a touchdown against ND's nine snaps in dime.

Squibs

• Receiver Braden Lenzy was the most notable player missing from Notre Dame’s travel roster. The Irish sophomore went into concussion protocol this week, Kelly said.

“We are limited in terms of the running back position, so we were hoping to be able to get on the perimeter with his speed,” Kelly said. “He got banged up in practice and wasn’t able to make the trip.”

• The Irish ceased their linebacker rotation against the Bulldogs. Starters Drew White (mike), Asmar Bilal (buck) and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (rover) lined up on all 10 drives for ND’s base defense.

• Wide receiver Michael Young remained out after suffering a broken collarbone in an Aug. 17 preseason practice. The junior dressed out and participated in pregame drills, though.

• Notre Dame’s 10-7 halftime lead marked the first time UGA trailed at home going at the half since Nov. 26, 2016 against Auburn.

• Wide receiver Chris Finke, right tackle Robert Hainsey and defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara represented the Irish as captains for the coin toss.

Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet (84) tries to hold off Georgia’s Divaad Wilson (1) during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.