ATHENS — Georgia football passed the test Saturday night, but just barely.
Coach Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs need the upcoming bye week after surviving Notre Dame by a 23-17 count at Sanford Stadium.
It was a case of home field advantage trumping the so-called luck of the Irish. UGA fans were loud enough to trigger six motion penalties and force Notre Dame to burn at least three timeouts.
As for the 4-0 Bulldogs, they were often their own worst enemies, from muffed punts to tight ends running wide open. Georgia just seemed determined to make this game harder than it needed to be.
Another issue here is this looked like a game plan with personnel decisions that were made without regard to the first three games of the season.
There will be a great deal of disparity where takes on this game are concerned. Some will consider Notre Dame a legitimate top 10 opponent, others will revert back to the Irish’s 30-3 CFP loss to Clemson last season.
The baseline here is that Notre Dame is a Top 10 football team, and the best opponent Georgia will see until the month of November when a trip to Auburn is on tap.
Jake Fromm was 20-of-26 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown, and once again he came through when afforded the opportunity to use UGA’s version of the hurry-up. Fromm put the ball in tight windows and used his legs for two rushes that netted 15 yards. Once Fromm passed downfield, the offense came to life, making one wonder why that isn’t the approach from the onset.
Running backs (B)
Brian Herrien had the longest run of the night, a much-needed 16-yarder that sparked a key scoring drive in the second half. D’Andre Swift had 18 carries for 98 yards, including a highlight-worthy 10-yarder during which he leaped a player. Neither Swift (5.4 yard per carry) nor Herrien (5.2) were able to take over the game. Meanwhile, James Cook only got one carry and Zamir White and Kenny McIntosh didn’t touch the ball.
Lawrence Cager was outstanding, likely playing himself into the 2020 NFL Draft with that 5-catch, 82-yard performance that included a gyrating TD grab. Demetris Robertson had 4 catches for 48 yards and Dominick Blaylock looked good (2-19) when afforded the opportunity. George Pickens, the most talented WR in the group, was only targeted twice. Eli Wolf is clearly the best TE target on the team and showed that again with a clutch third down grab.
Offensive Line (B-)
Notre Dame ranked 120th in the nation against the run, but you’d never know it by the way it held up against the Georgia offensive line. The Bulldogs averaged 4.6 yards per rush, but Fromm saw more pressure than he’d seen all season and took one particularly nasty shot when Cade Mays got beat off the edge. Isiah Wilson’s return for the third quarter provided a lift. Justin Shaffer filled in well, but he had a costly 15-yard personal foul after Solomon Kindley left the game with a left ankle injury.
Defensive Line (A-)
This much-maligned unit is starting to earn respect with its gritty and disciplined play. Notre Dame’s run game was non-existent (3.3 yards per carry), and for all the talk on QB Ian Book, UGA kept him contained for the most part. Georgia nearly made a goal-line stand thanks to the physical efforts of the Bulldogs’ D-Line, which forced four downs inside the 5. Tyler Clark, Justin Young, Michael Barnett and Jordan Davis stood tall.
It was Tae Crowder’s finest performance, as he came through with nine stops and the best open-field tackling performance of his career. Crowder had one of three TFLs for the Bulldogs as well. Monty Rice had seven tackles including what appeared to be a bone-jarring hit on Book that had to leave a mark. Outside backers Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson were in hot pursuit of Book on the final play, forcing a scramble that limited the effectiveness of the final heave.
J.R. Reed’s late interception was the sort of veteran play he’ll be looked to make in all the big games. Reed led the defense with 3 PBU and tied Richard LeCounte with seven tackles. The unit had to step up with cornerback Tyson Campbell out for the game and Eric Stokes missing from the second play until late in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. D.J. Daniel had 5 tackles at corner and provided mostly adequate coverage. Tyrique McGhee is another veteran who stepped up at corner.
Special teams (D)
If not for Rodrigo Blankenship’s steady field goal kicks — makes of 40, 31 and 43 — this unit was a fail. Sophomore punter Jake Camarda performed like a nervous freshman, shanking two kicks at critical junctures at the start of the game (25 yards) and again at the end (27 yards). Tyler Simmons is a tough guy and team leader playing with a shoulder brace again this season, but his punt return muff at the 8 was costly. The kick return game continues to disappoint despite all the big names in the group and Cook’s ability.
Credit to Georgia for halftime adjustments, but Notre Dame arrived with the better game plan and use of its personnel. The Irish coached to win and UGA coached not to lose, and the Bulldogs nearly gave the game away in the fourth quarter (Alabama, anyone?). Georgia’s reluctance to turn Fromm loose using tempo more often is curious considering the quarterback’s efficiency. The inability to account for the tight end (9-108) was mind-bogging. Cole Kmet was running wide open too many times. Some offensive personnel usage decisions will be worth reviewing.
The fans can pat themselves on the back for helping to decide this game, as they bailed out the coaches on a night when the Georgia players battled their guts out against a determined Notre Dame. Smart and his staff need to use the off week and review big-game and fourth quarter philosophies. It could be a matter of the Bulldogs underestimating the Irish. UGA appears a half-click off from performing at a championship level, and it’s not a matter of player talent.
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