ATHENS, Ga. — In place of the regularly-scheduled blowout of Notre Dame against a top-tier opponent, the No. 7 Irish (2-1) made sure a game worthy of two top-10 teams broke out Saturday night. Despite a late rally, a hopeful heave hitting the grass meant the night’s end result was the same as has usually been the case for Notre Dame against the elite of the sport, falling to No. 3 Georgia 23-17 in front of a record-setting crowd at Sanford Stadium.
Trailing 23-10 halfway through the fourth quarter and having found no offensive traction since the first half, the Irish suddenly put together a relatively quick 75-yard touchdown drive. On the previous drive, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart opted to kick a 43-yard field goal rather than attempt a 4th-and-1, thus keeping Notre Dame within two possessions. Irish senior quarterback Ian Book’s 4-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Chase Claypool therefore put them within one touchdown of a lead. If its defense could hold the Bulldogs for the first time since the second half’s opening drive, then Notre Dame just might have a chance. And it did.
“I certainly know a lot more about my team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s hard to measure your team early in the season. We played good teams, but we didn’t play the No. 3 team in the country, so you clearly learn a lot more.
“We’re a physical team, we’re a fast team, we’re a team that is persistent that will play for four quarters. … The core of this team is one that’s gritty, it’s hard-nosed, it’s physical.”
The two-minute drill ended quietly when pressure flushed Book out of the pocket on a 4th-and-8 and his jump ball for Claypool harmlessly fell to the field (pictured above).
“This is why you come to Notre Dame,” said Book, who finished with 275 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-47 passing.
Book’s first touchdown pass came after Claypool recovered a muffed punt in the second quarter at the 8-yard-line. The Irish needed a 4th-and-goal conversion, featuring Book freelancing to buy time, to turn the turnover into points, but doing so gave them the early lead when Book finally found junior tight end Cole Kmet in the end zone. Kmet finished with nine catches for 108 yards in his first action of the season, returning from an August break of his collarbone.
That lead was short-lived as the Bulldogs immediately responded with a 13-play touchdown drive, culminating with a three-yard rush from junior running back D’Andre Swift.
“It was a physical game on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “You could hear it out there — the physicality was real. It was probably one of the most physical games that I have coached, against any team that I have competed against.”
Notre Dame took a 10-7 lead into halftime, only for Georgia to break through an exhausted Irish defense — evidenced by multiple players collapsing with apparent injuries to slow the Bulldogs’ hurry-up offense — in the second half, reeling off 16 unanswered points highlighted by two Jake Fromm-to-Lawrence Cager completions which gave Georgia a 23-10 lead.
Given Notre Dame’s third quarter featured all of 19 yards gained and no first downs, overcoming a two-possession deficit in the final frame seemed unlikely as soon as Cager tapped his toe in the end zone, and it became outright implausible when Book threw an interception, off a flea-flicker, on the ensuing possession.
Yet, the Irish had the ball in the final minute with a chance to win.
It was only fitting for Notre Dame’s visit to Athens to become a game-to-remember, perhaps doubly so as one with pain inherent to it. The home-and-home series’ first leg was the 20-19 nailbiter in 2017, a game that arguably launched both the Irish and the Bulldogs out of doldrums and into the top levels of the sport. Since then, the two programs had combined to go 48-8 before Saturday night, each appearing in the College Football Playoff once.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When Cager’s score put the Bulldogs ahead by 10, Notre Dame’s production since halftime consisted of nine plays for 19 yards, minus 10 yards in penalties, and one turnover. The idea of scoring twice in the final 13 minutes was somewhat outlandish, so Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long got creative, calling for a flea-flicker.
Rather than a momentum-sparking result, it led to Book’s second interception of the day — the first coming when fifth-year receiver Chris Finke bobbled a pass right into a defender’s grasp.
“They blitzed the corner,” Kelly said. “They had the perfect call on for the flea-flicker.
“We go zero or hero on that play, so when you call a play like that, you’re either going to be a hero on that play or take a zero. They had the perfect call, they blitzed the corner off the flea-flicker. We’ve got to be zero on that.”
Book should have thrown the ball away, the zero, rather than forcing it toward Finke on the sideline, only for Georgia senior safety J.R. Reed to slide in for the pick. It was a 1st-and-10 and Notre Dame had already crossed midfield; the potential was there to put drama back into the game before the frantic final minutes. Instead, the Bulldogs were gifted a chance to force the Irish to forgo field goals moving forward.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish rushed the ball only 14 times, gaining 46 yards, while Book attempted those 47 passes. That was not dictated by the game, nor was it a mistake in Long’s game plan. It was a reflection of a reality of the Notre Dame injury list.
Junior running back Jafar Armstrong remains out with an abdominal muscle tear. Sophomore Jahmir Smith’s sprained toe had not recovered enough for him to play. Even sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy — whom Kelly and Long had hoped to use on end-arounds with his top-end speed — entered the concussion protocol this week.
“We’re short a number of playmakers that we’re going to get back here in the next few weeks,” Kelly said. “So we feel pretty good about our football team, even though we’re disappointed with what happened today.”
Those injuries left senior running back Tony Jones to not only carry the load, but to carry all of the load. He finished with nine rushes for 21 yards and four catches for 24.
“Tony Jones did a terrific job; we’re asking way too much from him,” Kelly said. “Way too much. We need some help for him. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that.”
It did not help matters that Georgia’s depth was most-evident along the defensive line, exacerbating a rough night for the Irish offensive line.
THAT SHOULD BE ANOTHER STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s offensive line, if including Kmet, committed seven penalties for 55 yards, low-lighted by five false starts. The effects of the crowd noise could not be denied, even if Kelly tried to put that onus upon himself.
“We practiced in louder environments,” he said. “We’re very disappointed that we didn’t handle it better. … We needed to do a better job of silent cadence longer. They handled it so perfectly and so easily (in practice), but repetition on the clap, which is our cadence, is so ingrained that when we went to silent cadence, they forgot and went back to the clap. I should have taken that into consideration and forced them to be in it longer (in practice).”
Whether the Irish should have practiced silent counts more, whether the offensive line should not have flinched, or whether Book mistakenly resorted to default at inopportune moments, the penalties cost Notre Dame repeatedly.
“Penalties and dropped balls and mistakes, self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Irish fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford may be only 5-foot-9 ⅛, but he is also one of the most instinctual players on the field on any given Saturday. Seeing him somewhat embarrassed for a moment is a testament to the opposition, and such was the case when Bulldogs junior running back D’Andre Swift hurdled Crawford in the third quarter for a first down.
One of the best backs in the country, Notre Dame held Swift to 98 rushing yards on 18 carries and two yards on three receptions. A 100-yard day may not seem minimal, but it was a needed focus for the Irish.
“We knew what we needed to do in this game,” Kelly said. “If you give Georgia the opportunity to run the football, you have no chance of winning the game. The game plan was set, they’d have some one-on-one shots on the perimeter, but the extra hat was going to be committed to the run. They hit some one-on-one shots on the perimeter, but we had to be effective against the run or we had no chance.”
For a vaunted rushing attack, and deservedly so, Notre Dame held the Bulldogs to 152 yards on 33 attempts with a long gain of 16 yards.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Cager’s highlight-reel catches changed the game. He finished with five for 82 yards, but three of those, for 61 yards, came on the touchdown drive which provided the winning points. As Kelly said, the Irish felt they had no choice but to play man coverage against him, and Fromm found those holes.
“The decision making is outstanding,” Kelly said. “[Fromm] doesn’t put the ball in a position where it’s going to be a turnover. His back-shoulder throws were very difficult for (senior cornerback) Troy Pride to defend. We stayed on the back hip of the [receiver], and he put it low back shoulder. They had to make some great catches, and they did, to Georgia’s credit.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“This one stings a little bit, but it’s only one loss. It doesn’t define our season. The next opponents coming up this season, best of luck to you, because we’re coming.” — Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
10:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 1-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia 0. (5 plays, 8 yards, 1:43)
2:27 — Georgia touchdown. D’Andre Swift 3-yard rush. Rodrigo Blankenship PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia 7. (13 plays, 75 yards, 8:12)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 27 yards. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 7. (8 plays, 66 yards, 2:27)
8:31 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 40 yards. Notre Dame 10, Georgia 10. (4 plays, -1 yard, 1:27)
4:21 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 31 yards. Georgia 13, Notre Dame 10. (7 plays, 53 yards, 2:36)
13:19 — Georgia touchdown. Lawrence Cager 15-yard pass from Jake Fromm. Blankenship PAT good. Georgia 20, Notre Dame 10. (8 plays, 82 yards, 3:59)
6:54 — Georgia field goal. Blankenship 43 yards. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 10. (7 plays, 41 yards, 4:17)
3:12 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 4-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:42)