Welp. Here we are again. Just short in the most challenging, most important game of the year. In case you forgot, and you could be forgiven for doing so, losing big regular season games also hurts, even when the team puts up a hell of a fight against an opponent with objectively more firepower. It wasn’t a consistent enough performance to win, but it was tough and effective enough to prove damn near the entire college football media wrong. On a day where Michigan got mortally embarrassed by a team with comparable talent to its own — like, good lord, your prodigal son head coach and golden boy offensive coordinator and vaunted defensive staff all look like absolute frauds — the Irish took every punch the number three team had to throw and stayed in it for 60 minutes. Does losing suck? Absolutely. Does it make sense to feel better about where this season can go after watching that performance? You bet. There’s a whole lot still on the table for this group.
Good: It’s clear that the coaching staff had the team ready from the get go. This wasn’t Clemson ’15 or Oklahoma ’13, where the Irish were rattled at the start and had to claw their way back to make it a game. They never quite looked like the better team, but also never looked as outgunned as they were supposed to be. This is doubly true for the defense, who held one of the best rushing attacks in football to 152 yards on only 4.6 YPC. Jake Fromm was accurate but limited to 7.2 YPA. The Irish offense was less effective overall but still made plays when it needed to, buoyed by some creative play-calling by Chip Long that bodes well for when this unit eventually gets up to full strength.
Bad: If there’s one area the Irish weren’t quite prepared, it was obviously at the line of scrimmage, which stings. For all the talk about ND cranking up the volume in the practice facility and creating a hostile workout environment after the 2017 Miami disaster, the line was as jumpy as it’s ever been. A few issues are inevitable with a freshman center in a stadium that loud, but you simply can’t shoot yourself in the foot over and over and over in a game where the margin of error is vanishingly slim. It also served as a reminder of the power of home field advantage, and what little the Irish have in terms of crowd noise. For crying out loud, people, when you go to games at Notre Dame Stadium, CRY OUT LOUD. Stand up, yell, make life difficult for the opposing team. It matters.
Good: Cole Kmet, lord have mercy. 9 catches, 108 yards, 1 very weird touchdown reception. He was everything we hoped he’d be back in the preseason, but anyone who expected that performance against that defense in his first game back from injury is kidding themselves. He regularly looked like the best player on the field, and will be an absolute weapon for the offense moving forward.
Bad: The rushing attack was, to put it mildly, pretty fucking bleak. The Irish simply don’t have enough talent in the backfield right now, full stop. Back in our season preview, we asked if the offense would be able to effectively run the ball. My answer was that “if Jafar Armstrong can’t stay healthy, the answer to this question is certainly no.” Yeah. Tony Jones was ineffective, Kyren Williams was nowhere to be seen, and Avery Davis is clearly not the answer. I’m mildly surprised that Ian Book only logged three runs, but that wasn’t going to solve the problem anyway. For now, we wait for Jafar to return (hopefully in time for USC) and for Chris Tyree to enroll.
Good: Speaking of #RTDB, the Bulldogs ran the ball 33 times for 152 yards, with one touchdown, no 100 yard rushers, and a long gain of 16 yards. Pretty insane when you consider UGA’s all-world talent at running back and how porous the Irish front looked to start the year! Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was a stud in the middle of the line, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was all over the place (2.5 tackles for loss), and more or less everyone on the defense held their own. Clark Lea clearly had the exact right gameplan for the Dawgs’ ground game; even as they were gaining steam in the third quarter, the Irish were able to hold and not let the game get out of hand.
Bad: This is an unfortunate question to ask, but: who are the best and most reliable players on this team? Ian Book looked good, but made a handful of questionable decisions, most notably that flea flicker interception. Chris Finke let a crucial ball bounce off his hands into a Georgia defender’s waiting arms, and was largely ineffective otherwise. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem both accounted for one solo tackle each. Jalen Elliott was mostly solid but a step slow on several occasions. It reflects well on the rest of the team that it was able to hang with Georgia even when its leaders were only marginally effective, but it’s troubling to not feel fully confident in your captains. Alohi Gilman, who had eight tackles and noticeably lined up literally over center quite often, is probably the exception. If the Irish are to bounce back from a gutting loss and win out against a manageable remaining schedule, its veterans need to put their feet in the ground and be the best players on the team.
Good: This is a qualified good, but something I find mildly encouraging nonetheless. College football’s newest power, right up until they were a power, was a punch line, their name fashioned into a derogatory term for managing to lose its biggest games in heartbreaking and confounding ways. All they did was keep recruiting (at a level right in line with Notre Dame, mind you) and keep coaching up and keep grinding, until they stopped losing those games. Right now it feels like ND is in the midst of a comparable Clemsoning era of their own, usually knocking on the door but never able to finish the big one. You’re sick of it, we’re sick of it, everyone’s sick of it. But that Irish team belonged next to Georgia, win or lose, and all there is to do now is win as many games as possible and trust the dang process. The fight is there, 100% — they could have easily folded in the third quarter when the tide started to turn, but they didn’t, and had a genuine chance to win it at the end. It’s brutal that they didn’t. But they’ll keep on keeping on until they do.
Photo via Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald