ATLANTA – The enduring memory for many, when it comes to Georgia’s win at Notre Dame in September, might be the crowd. The red-clad fans and their near takeover of Notre Dame Stadium stand out. For Quenton Nelson, who was supposed to be playing in his home stadium, it was “definitely a shock.”
It didn’t have an effect on how Nelson, Notre Dame’s star guard, played. But it might have, he theorized, affected some of the younger Fighting Irish.
“It wasn’t a factor in them being loud. But it was a factor in seeing half the stadium be red,” Nelson said. “It was pretty crazy. It was a first for me, ever having a home game that felt almost like an away game.”
Nelson spoke this week while attending the College Football Awards show in Atlanta. He was nominated for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s top interior lineman; Houston’s Ed Oliver won it. For a time, it appeared Georgia and Notre Dame might be on a collision course for a rematch, but the Fighting Irish stumbled near the end to a 9-3 record and will play another SEC team, LSU, in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.
“I would say that early in the season we just weren’t prepared for [Georgia]. I think if we played them later in the season it would have been a lot more fun for us,” Nelson said. “After that game we felt like we could stick with anyone in the country and beat anyone in the country. And we left a lot of plays on that field. So we just felt if we cleaned up the details we could dominate some teams. Which we ended up doing – but we ended up with two more losses.”
Notre Dame was routed at Miami and lost to Stanford, Before that, the Irish easily beat Southern Cal, the eventual Pac-12 champion. And they fell one point shy, losing 20-19, to a Georgia team that ended up winning the SEC championship – and perhaps more.
Asked about the Bulldogs, as they head to the College Football Playoff, Nelson has obvious respect for them, especially the defense and its star linebacker, Roquan Smith.
Nelson broke down how difficult it is to stop Smith, even after intensive prep work and planning.
“On most guys, before every play, you make an angle of where you’re going to go to go get someone. Usually my angle’s always good in terms of getting to the second level,” Nelson said. “But with [Smith] you have to widen it more because of how fast he moves laterally and gets to the ball.”
Smith had a sack and 7 tackles in that game, which ended up being one of his lower totals on the season. He has been named to several All-America teams and won the AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year award.
Georgia’s defensive line also earned a lot of respect from Nelson, who had to deal with it all game. The Fighting Irish had very little success running up the middle, and Georgia’s interior defense did so well to swallow blocks that there weren’t many running lanes on the outside either.
“What’s great about Georgia’s D-line is the depth that they have,” Nelson said. “They kept switching guys in and out. That No. 13 – Jon [Ledbetter] – he was a great player. Very strong, good technique. And then their nose guards did a pretty good job. …
“Their D-line, everyone was so big. strong, good technique. Their linebackers were very athletic. Roquan Smith and their other guys just getting to the ball.”
The Notre Dame game may have been the turning point of Georgia’s season, even if it came in only Week 2. When Kirby Smart appeared Thursday night at the joint news conference for the four playoff head coaches, he was asked what moment made him think he had something special. After initially hedging, Smart talked about the trip to Notre Dame, which was also the first career start for freshman quarterback Jake Fromm.
In that game, Smart said, the team’s leadership and character were revealed.
“There were a lot of opportunities in that game for us to [fold]. Bad things happened. They just kept responding, kept responding, kept giving him an opportunity with some mistakes he made in that game,” Smart said. “I thought from that point forward, ‘Look, we’ve got a good football team. If he continues to grow as a quarterback, we get better defensively, keep improving on special teams, we’ll have a shot to win the games we play.’
“Ultimately you try to get to Atlanta in our conference so you have an opportunity to get up here on this stage. We were very fortunate to do that. That was kind of the moment.”