Moored in lonely golden helmets under the horrifying noise of a bloodthirsty 93,246 in the American Southeast, No. 7 Notre Dame announced itself as the physical equal of No. 3 Georgia, playing its part in a taut, gooey contest before a slow, deep-red wave engulfed it.
Forced to make difficult, intricate plays, the Bulldogs showed they could do so in a 23-17 win to which their crowd absolutely contributed. Steadily and assuredly, they wriggled from a 10-7 halftime deficit, from a 10-10 tie and from a precarious 13-10 lead after three quarters, and then from some closing palpitations. “I definitely think that there was a sigh of relief there at the end,” said Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, his three second-half field goals essential to the outcome.
In a tussle Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly called one of the most physical of the 328 he has coached — “You could hear it out there,” he said — Georgia worked long and hard before treating their blaring fans to less-labored breathing. Relative ease came only after an an eight-play, 82-yard drive for a 20-10 lead with 13:19 remaining, a march that brimmed with refined skill. Not only did it include running back D’Andre Swift’s leap over a Notre Dame defender to thrill fans on a 10-yard run, but it had two primo catches by Lawrence Cager from the pinpoint quarterback Jake Fromm, one for 36 yards on the left sideline, and one for 15 yards rich in gymnastics on the left edge of the end zone.
Careful students of game film might have spotted Cager snaring two receptions for 45 yards for Miami (Fla.) against Notre Dame in an alleged showdown in November 2017, but if that 41-8 bludgeoning roiled among the evidence that Notre Dame couldn’t handle the really big boys, this game did not. Notre Dame fell to 1-18 against top-five teams this century, but only after a turn as — pardon the expression — a revelation.
“So much emotion in that locker room, so much effort,” Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said even as he said he did “hate” the outcome for Notre Dame, whose tough quarterback, Ian Book, said, “It was a great atmosphere. This is why you come to Notre Dame, to play in big games like these.” It featured a 12th man of 90,000-some people chipping in so profoundly that Smart said, “They impacted the game tonight more than I’ve ever seen a game impacted, here or anywhere.”
Their names didn’t turn up on the stat sheet, but their lungs did: Notre Dame had six false starts and four premature timeouts, two in each half, which absolutely limited the way Notre Dame could play the finish, when it reached the Georgia 38-yard line with a minute left before fading.
“We’re very disappointed that we didn’t handle it better,” Kelly said, before noting that Notre Dame’s “repetition on the clap, which is our cadence, was so ingrained that when we went to silent cadence, they forgot and went back to the clap. And so I should have taken that into consideration and just forced them to be in it (silent) longer. So I’ll take responsibility for that.”
Only through a slow procession could Georgia wrench much sway over the game. Holes didn’t open much until late for Swift, who gained 98 yards. Georgia outgained Notre Dame by only 339-321, by 225-158 in the second half, by 152-46 on the ground. For much of the night, Notre Dame’s front looked meaner and nimbler than 21st-century, big-game custom. Eventually, the Irish (2-1) wore down just enough opposite Fromm’s 20-for-26 precision, interceptions by Bulldogs Divaad Wilson and J.R. Reed, some intricate catches and the fourth-quarter Georgian depth of which Kelly said, “It just seemed like in waves . . . It’s more depth than we’ve seen in a long time.”
Before those waves, here came Cole Kmet, a tight end poor in vowels but rich in talent. After 15 catches last year and a fractured clavicle on Aug. 13 this year, Kmet materialized as if unknown in Georgia film study, as Smart called him “a hell of a player” whom Notre Dame deployed with “boots, nakeds, waggles, all kinds of things.” A left-handed baseball closer last season with a 2.89 earned-run average and a save in eight appearances, Kmet amassed 7 receptions for 68 yards by halftime, 9 for 108 by the end, starting right from the get-go. “He kind of set the tone in the game with the physical run early on,” Kelly said. “I think he got everybody feeling like, ‘This is the way we can play this game.”
Later, after Georgia helped itself to both a 23-10 lead and perhaps an excess of merriment, Notre Dame lent more merit to this home-and-home series agreed upon in 2014, back before Georgia became the Georgia it envisioned. The Irish went 75 yards in 10 plays, including a big 31-yarder to Kmet, with Book’s four-yard pass to Chase Claypool to close to 23-17.
Then they got a stop to cause a scare.
Then they gave way 38 yards from something really frightening, their timeouts drained crucially.
The concept of the nation’s No. 8 rushing attack (Georgia) versus the nation’s No. 120 rushing defense (Notre Dame) had failed to materialize, bolstering Kelly’s view that early-season numbers don’t matter much. The teams slogged along at 0-0 through one quarter. Then a mistake came, involving two seniors.
One, Georgia’s Tyler Simmons, muffed a punt, and another, Notre Dame’s Claypool, recovered it at the Georgia 8-yard line. Notre Dame seemed to take 15 plays to score from there but actually took only five, rewarding Kelly’s fourth-down confidence from the 1-yard line when Book finished an endangered play with a hopeful pass into the end zone, and Kmet hauled it in improv-style.
Notre Dame led, and Georgia knew a situation it doesn’t know much in its considerable home, where it tends to host the overmatched.
The Bulldogs did go 75 yards in 13 plays right then, but even that path was strewn with trouble while revealing Notre Dame’s upgraded front. The tying score, Swift’s three-yard run, traded on two masterful third-down plays: a hard catch by tight end Eli Wolf with an enemy squarely in front, and a left-sideline timing play where Fromm found Cager for 14 yards on third-and-9.
But even after Georgia’s defense seemed to inhale some energy from that score, Notre Dame got going again with a 28-yard pass up the deep middle from Book to Kmet. Book would hit Lawrence Keys III on the left against a marooned corner for 28 more. That put Notre Dame at the Georgia 12-yard line, knocking again rapidly and ending up with Jonathan Doerer’s 26-yard field goal for 10-7.
Of course, Notre Dame had reached almost all the way to halftime last December in the Cotton Bowl national semifinal while trailing Clemson only 9-3, and that game had turned into something different, something lopsided. This one changed far less graphically, beginning early in the third quarter when Georgia, having granted a cheap touchdown, picked up a cheap field goal. Wilson ripped a possible reception up the middle from Notre Dame’s Chris Finkel, then took the excited patrons on a carnival ride of an interception return before finally fumbling out of bounds on the left sideline of the Notre Dame 22-yard line.
It enabled Blankenship’s 40-yard field goal, which set things at 10-10. The slow, deep-red wave had begun.
FINAL: Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17
After an evenly matched first half, the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs surged ahead and began to dominate Notre Dame in the second half. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm played with poise, completing 20 of 26 attempts, and finished the game with 187 passing yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. When Notre Dame managed to climb back late in the game, Georgia’s defense came up with the stop on fourth down to extinguish what could have become the Irish’s game-winning drive.
Georgia hangs on: After a dominant second half from Georgia, the Irish climbed back into the game with the late score and key defensive stop. With just over two minutes to play, Notre Dame had an opportunity to drive down the field for the winning touchdown. But without any timeouts and against a solid Georgia defense, the Irish ultimately couldn’t convert a fourth and 9. Georgia’s pass rush forced Ian Book to lob the ball downfield, and his receiver was covered by multiple defenders. (Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17 with 0:48 left in the 4th quarter)
Notre Dame scores: Ian Book threw a touchdown pass to Chase Claypool, cutting Georgia’s led to six points. Notre Dame decided not to try an onside kick, hoping its defense can stop the Bulldogs from getting a first down. (Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17 with 3:08 left in the 4th quarter)