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(Chip Towers/DawgNation)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly observed the Blue-Gold Game from just a few yards behind the Irish quarterbacks.

Gold team out-duels Blue in Notre Dame’s ‘high-scoring’ spring game

Chip Towers

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The 58-45 final score of Notre Dame’s 90th annual Blue & Gold Game might raise some eyebrows. But there wasn’t as much actual scoring going on as it might appear.

Playing before an announced crowd of 30,070 at Notre Dame Stadium, the Fighting Irish used a special scoring system developed last year by coach Brian Kelly for their spring scrimmages. Touchdowns, extra points, field goals and 2-point conversions carry their tradition values. But Notre Dame utilizes a sort of Stableford scoring system that rewards the defense for good plays as well. It gets:

  • 3 points for forcing a turnover;
  • 3 points for a three-and-out;
  • 2 points for a third- or fourth-down stop;
  • 1 point for a sack or tackle for loss.

If not for that, Saturday’s outcome would have been a runaway victory for the Blue Team, which featured the members of the No. 1 offense that Notre Dame will bring to Athens on Sept. 21 for what is anticipated as a Top 10 matchup. Piloted by second year starting quarter Ian Book, the Blue jumped out to a 45-0 lead through two quarters by traditional scoring standards.

Based on the enhanced points system that was being utilized, the score was 47-45, Gold, at halftime. That meant the Blue team led by No. 1 offense was outscored 26-0 to end the game.

Though the defensive-oriented Gold team won the game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the Blue team probably held the overall edge. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)

Asked if the final score was telling in some way, Kelly shrugged and said, “no, not really.”

“Most of those points were scored when we had made a bunch of substitutions,” he continued. “Our offense was efficient when our first team was in there, and then when our second group was in there we weren’t quite as efficient. It was pretty easy to evaluate it.”

Kelly’s assessment provided a fairly close reflection of the narrative for the Fighting Irish in 2019. Ranked as high as No. 6 in some of the “way-too-early” polls, Notre Dame is expected to be a powerful offensive team that is going through a bit of a rebuild on defense and on special teams. The Irish will have to replace more than 600 career tackles from their inside linebacker corps  alone with the graduation of Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney.

For the purposes of Saturday’s scrimmage, fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal and junior Jordan Genmark Heath were on the No. 1 defense as Mike and Buck linebackers, respectively. Both seemed to perform well with 10 tackles between them, 5 apiece. But the Irish also recruited linebackers heavily and played a lot of them. They had nine in spring camp, including freshman Jack Kiser, one of 10 early enrollees.

“We’re in a very different place,” second-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. “That’s part of the evolution of the unit. Experimentation is the wrong way to put it but the strategic moving of parts and pieces is what we’re doing to find the best combination. I think that’s the right thing, coaching wise, and, conceptually, the ability to move people around becomes an advantage. We’re better equipped and better skilled than where we started (the spring).”

‘Touchdown Jesus’ was looking majestic as it overlooked Notre Dame Stadium under clear blue skies of Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)

Balancing that deficiency is a strong and deep defensive front led by senior Julian Okwara. The Irish are strong at safety as well, but are searching for a replacement for All-America cornerback Julian Love. A brief glimpse of what the future might look like didn’t go well in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson. When Love was sidelined with a concussion in the second quarter, the Tigers and quarterback Trevor Lawrence went right after the fill-in Donte Vaughn, to great effect. Vaughn has been sidelined this spring with a shoulder injury and returns for sophomore Houston Griffith have been lukewarm, at best.

Meanwhile, Book looked really good at quarterback. That was very much expected as the 6-foot, 218-pound senior took over the position from Brandon Wimbush in the second half of last year’s 12-0 regular season and has had very strong spring camp, by all accounts.

Last year, Book took over as starter in Game 4 at Wake Forest and became the first the FBS quarterback to win his first five starts in a season with a completion percentage over 70 percent in each game since Russell Wilson at Wisconsin in 2011. Book finished the regular season 197-280 (70.4) for 19 TDs passing, while rushing 78 times for 250 yards and 4 TDs. He ranked sixth nationally with a 70.4 completion percentage and eighth in pass efficiency at the end of the regular season.

Saturday, Book started out by completing his first six passes and one touchdown against the No. 1 Irish defense. That gave him a QB rating of 267.0 at the time. That got pared down to 179.9 by the end as he finished 16-of-21 passing for 220 yards and a touchdown.

“It felt like spring practice, really long and hard,” Book said afterward. “But even though we’re playing ourselves, you’re trying to put it all together in a game situation like it’s going on Saturdays (in the fall). I’m proud of the way the guys played and glad it worked out like it did. Nobody came out with any injuries and the whole offense was generally having a lot of fun. There were a lot of smiles on everybody’s faces and that’s what we were trying to do.”

There were few surprises among the production leaders. Senior Chase Claypool had a 43-yard reception and led the receivers with 92 yards on 4 catches. The most buzz was created by junior running back Jafar Armstrong, who led all rushers with 85 yards on 9 carries and scored a touchdown. Sophomore Jahmir Smith provided a tough-running alternative and finished with 56 yards on 8 carries and two scores.

The Irish currently have four Georgia kids on their roster, at least three of whom are in position to earn playing time between now and the game in Athens. C’Bo Flemister, a redshirt freshman from Williamson (Pike County), was running third team at tailback and had eight carries for 13 yards. Mick Assaf is a senior walkon out of Pace Academy and had 7 carries for 43 yards, including one 18-yard run.

Redshirt freshman safety Derrik Allen of Marietta may have helped his cause by leading the Gold team with 7 tackles and 3 solos after what had been characterized as only a so-so spring. Conversely, redshirt freshman tight end Tommy Tremble, who had created a stir with his strong play in spring camp, did not have a catch despite getting a lot of snaps with the No. 1 and 2 offenses. He should’ve been credited for what would have been a reception of more than 20 yards. But the officials blew a quick whistle for a sack even though the defender didn’t actually even get a hand on backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

Three more Georgians will join the Irish roster in late June in safety Kyle Hamilton, cornerback K.J Wallace and linebacker J.D. Bertrand. All of three were 4-star prospects, all are expected to contend for playing time this fall, and all seven Georgians are expected make the trip to Athens on Sept. 21.

“The good news: no injuries. Always happy about that,” Kelly said, echoing every coach’s post-spring game sentiments. “We were looking for competition, for opportunities for guys to grow and learn after a month of practice. This was about how they react when it’s a game-like situation. That’s why you play a spring game. They’re different than practice. It’s a big deal and it gives you a different measuring stick.”

We’ll find out how Georgia’s measuring stick compares when the Bulldogs play the G-Day Game next Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN).

TOMORROW ON DAWGNATION: A retrospective from Notre Dame’s perspective on Georgia’s monumental win in 2017.

DAWGNATION IN SOUTH BEND