Kirby Smart’s Dawgs didn’t score many style points in a hard-fought win over Notre Dame. In a season where flashy offenses are running up big scores, this was an old-school defense-dominated throwback to the Dooley era, complete with a scoreless first period.
Still, considering key injuries to the Dawgs’ offensive line and secondary, and the important fact that this was a battle of two Top 10-ranked teams, Georgia’s down-to-the-wire victory should look good on its resume if the Dawgs find themselves in contention for a College Football playoff spot at season’s end.
No. 3 Georgia trailed 7th-ranked Notre Dame 10-7 at the half, but the Irish allowed 16 straight Georgia points in the second half before a late touchdown made it a one-possession game. Georgia got the ball back with a little over 3 minutes left, but couldn’t kill the clock. A poor punt set up the Irish at their own 48. However, the Bulldogs’ defense stiffened, and Georgia killed the final 58 seconds with Jake Fromm taking a couple of knees.
It was a tough battle — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said afterward it was “probably one of the most physical games that I have coached against any team” — and many Georgia fans left the game thinking what we saw Saturday night was a very good Fighting Irish team that’s going to win lots of games this season. Just not this one. After the loss, Notre Dame dropped just three spots to No. 10 in the latest AP and Coaches polls. Georgia remained No. 3, and even picked up a first-place vote in each poll.
I think it was probably all those rushing yards the Irish gave up to Louisville earlier this season that fueled those unrealistic expectations among media types and some fans that the Dawgs were going to dominate the Irish and win this game by three or four touchdowns.
However, many of us figured that a largely untested Georgia team that had faced one SEC doormat and two cupcakes might have a much harder time with the guys in the sparkling golden helmets. During a neighborhood coffee shop sports discussion a few days earlier, I was asked how I thought the game would turn out. I said I expected Georgia to win, but that I thought it likely the margin of victory would be less than the 14.5 points by which the Dawgs were favored. A guy I didn’t know chimed in, “Georgia will win by 6 points.” He hit the nail right on the head.
Actually, if not for an uncharacteristic fumble of a punt by Tyler Simmons that set up Notre Dame at Georgia’s 8-yard line — and the tendency of the ACC officiating crew not to call blatant pass interference or holding by the Irish — the Dawgs might well have covered the spread. (Georgia’s punt coverage team needs to learn not to nearly interfere with their own returner.)
That doesn’t change the fact that Georgia has much it needs to correct if it hopes to keep company with the likes of Clemson and Alabama this year. As Smart said after the game, “We’ve got a lot of things to work on.”
The banged-up offensive line continued to underperform. It allowed too much pressure on Fromm for him ever to consider a long throw downfield, and, on quite a few drives, the OL failed to open up holes for D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien as the Irish stacked the box, with Georgia averaging only 4.6 yards per run.
Georgia’s offense was admirably balanced (187 yards passing, 152 yards rushing), but it is going to have to be a lot more dynamic in order for the Dawgs to live up to their advance billing this season. Too many Georgia drives still are ending in field goal attempts.
Yes, Rodrigo Blankenship is practically a guaranteed 3 points whenever he’s called on, but the Dawgs’ short-yardage game remains troublesome. The fact that Smart went with a field goal because he apparently didn’t think Georgia could convert on a 4th-and-1 at the Notre Dame 26 with 7 minutes left in the game is concerning. It nearly cost Georgia the win. Notre Dame answered with an Ian Book touchdown pass and then, trailing 23-17, forced a punt to give itself a chance to win by 1 point late in the game.
The Dawgs also continued to be mediocre on third down, converting on only 4 of 11 tries.
Defensively, the Dawgs were hampered by missing both their starting cornerbacks for most of the game. The Georgia D came up big at the end, but the lack of pressure on Irish QB Book, especially in the first half, coupled with the soft coverage the Dawgs secondary was playing, allowed the Irish short-passing game to flourish. (Another factor was the lack of holding calls on plays where Book seemed to have unlimited time to find a receiver.)
Georgia had trouble all night figuring out how to cover the Irish’s Cole Kmet, who matched a Notre Dame record for catches by a tight end in a single game with 9 receptions for 108 yards.
And, while Hot Rod is money in the bank with his placekicking, Georgia’s punting game (on both ends of the ball) is in dire need of improvement. In addition to the fumble on the punt-receiving end that led to an Irish score, Jake Camarda averaged only 35.2 yards per kick, and shanked one badly late in the game, giving the Irish great field position.
On the plus side, the defensive front mostly contained the dual-threat Book, who’s known to do quite a bit of damage with his running. In fact, Notre Dame’s running game was held in check, with the Irish rushing for only 46 yards Saturday night, and the Dawgs held the visitors scoreless in the third quarter. The Irish were even less successful than the Dawgs on third down, making only 4 of 13 attempts, and converted 1 of their 3 fourth-down tries (a 1-yard touchdown pass).
And, the Dawgs’ goal-line defense was impressive. After the Irish recovered that muffed punt, a pass interference call gave them first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, and it took that fourth-down pass for them to score even from there.
The Georgia defense again rose to the occasion on Notre Dame’s final drive, which ended with a fourth-down end zone pass batted down to the turf.
Georgia also got two big interceptions from Divaad Wilson and J.R. Reed, ending Book’s streak of 80 pass attempts without a pick.
Offensively, Georgia got off to an extremely slow start, but the Dawgs made some key adjustments on both offense and defense at halftime. Fromm had a solid night. While he overlooked some open receivers at times, it was his pinpoint passing that allowed the Dawgs to take control of the game, and he kept his cool. Highlights included third-down completions to Eli Wolf and Lawrence Cager.
Fromm completed 20 of 26 passes for 187 yards and a TD. Also, he nearly got a first down on a QB keeper.
While Swift almost always had Irish defenders on him as soon as he got the ball, either through handoff or receiving a pass, the tailback showed toughness, often getting more yards than it initially looked like he would simply due to second effort. He wound up with 98 yards and a TD on 18 carries.
And, Georgia’s receiving corps continues to be the pleasant surprise of the season, with transfers Wolf, Cager and Demetris Robertson all making big-time catches. Cager led the Dawgs with 5 catches for 82 yards and 1 TD.
In fact, when Georgia went hurry-up, it appeared Notre Dame’s best defense was faking injury to slow things down, which they did twice.
All in all, Saturday’s game in Athens was an early-season clash that had the feeling of a playoff game. After a week of incredible build-up, game day was electric with anticipation, with tens of thousands of Georgia fans without tickets making their way to Athens just to soak up the atmosphere.
And, what an atmosphere it was, aided by the stadium’s new LED lighting system, which dimmed at the end of the third quarter to make the fans’ Light Up Sanford even more impressive, and then turned everything red. Even Book called “a great atmosphere.”
That atmosphere even figured into the game’s final result, with the record crowd of more than 93K serving as the Dawgs’ 12th man.
The roaring fans appeared chiefly responsible for Notre Dame having 6 false starts and, more importantly, having to burn four premature timeouts, two in each half. That factored into the Irish failing to capitalize on their great field position late in the game.
As the Indianapolis Star put it: “How loud is it at this place? Loud enough to wonder how those famous English privet hedges, the ones that ring the playing field, refuse to wilt beneath the roars of 93,000 wild-eyed fans.”
Said Smart of the UGA crowd: “They impacted the game tonight more than I’ve ever seen a game impacted, here or anywhere.”
It might not have been the flashiest game of the week, but Georgia’s prime-time showdown with Notre Dame was college football at its best.