There’s a phrase Brits use to describe their football players, meaning soccer players – flat-track bully. It’s not a compliment. It’s a label attached to someone who dominates lesser opponents but comes up small versus the big boys. After two quarters here Saturday night, this Yank was half-wondering if it applied to the much-hyped Georgia Bulldogs.
Georgia won its first three games by an aggregate score of 148-23. It also played no opponent of worth. That’s why the arrival of Notre Dame was more than an opportunity for the Fighting Irish to show off those shiny gold helmets – they really are lovely – under Southern lights. It was also the chance for the Bulldogs to prove they could do more than flatten the Murray States of the world.
In the end, Georgia did the deed. It won 23-17, overpowering the Irish when it mattered. Required to make plays for the first time this season, the Bulldogs made just enough plays. Some Georgia fans will be disappointed their team didn’t overwhelm Notre Dame the way Alabama did in January 2013 and Clemson did again last December. The guess here, though, is that the Bulldogs will benefit from this close call far more than from a three-touchdown win.
Credit where it’s due: Notre Dame took the fight to Georgia. The Irish outgained the Bulldogs 164 yards to 113 in the first half and led 10-7 at the break. It was the first time Georgia had trailed at the half in Sanford Stadium since Nov. 12, 2016, against Auburn. That was Kirby Smart’s first year. From the onset of the 2017 season until Saturday night, every game between the hallowed hedges had been a blowout.
“When you get tested,” Smart said, “you look inside yourself. Some of our guys had never been tested like that.”
Georgia’s first half was a fizzle. Jake Camarda managed a 20-yard punt. Tyler Simmons fumbled the punt that handed Notre Dame its first touchdown. Jake Fromm worked as if trying to set a record for fewest yards from the most completions – he had 11 for 59, which is tough to do. D’Andre Swift never quite got going, rushing seven times for 33 yards.
Smart nearly outsmarted himself – he does that sometimes – by calling timeout with nine seconds left in the second quarter and the Irish on the Georgia 9. Brian Kelly had already decided to take a go-ahead field goal rather than throw into the end zone with no timeouts left. Given a chance to rethink by Smart’s stoppage, Kelly had Book take a shot. It fell incomplete, but consider how the game would have changed if Notre Dame had banked four more points there. (For one thing, it would have needed only a field goal to win.)
The third quarter was where the night changed. Notre Dame had no first downs in the period. Safety Divaad Wilson’s interception of a pass that caromed off Irish receiver Chris Finke led to Rodrigo Blankenship’s tying field goal. Another Irish three-and-out allowed Blankenship to put his team ahead to stay. (For the record, Georgia’s first lead came with 4:21 left in the third.)
Then D’Andre Swift ignited a touchdown drive with runs of 7, 10 and 10 yards, whereupon Fromm began to find Lawrence Cager, the Miami transfer – a 36-yard gain to the 18, then a 15-yard touchdown reception that came with a deft Cager foot-drag. Finally we’d seen the Bulldogs at something approaching their best, but this wasn’t quite done and dusted.
Georgia led 23-10 with 3:13 left. It had come close to icing matters three minutes earlier, but a re-measurement found that Fromm had been stopped a yard short of a first down. Smart considered going for it on fourth-and-1 – “I wanted to,” he said – but turned instead to Blankenship. Dormant all half but driven now by desperation, the Irish began to move.
They scored one touchdown, forced a Georgia punt and were within sight of a finish that would live forever in the storybooks of even old Notre Dame. But the Bulldogs blitzed on fourth-and-8 at the 38, forcing Book to retreat and throw long for Chase Claypool, who had no chance. Forty-eight seconds remained. Those echoes remained unawakened.
To their credit, the Bulldogs took a game that for 30 minutes was going wrong and righted it. This didn’t go the way of Auburn at Auburn in 2017 and LSU in Baton Rouge last year, games against ranked opponents that started badly and got only worse. This turned out OK.
Then again, this game was played before a frothing bunch of Dawg fans, and that made a difference. Notre Dame was flagged for 12 penalties, six for false starts. “They had to burn timeouts to get set,” Smart said. “It’s a different game at the end if they have timeouts to call.”
Not that the Irish hated their Clarke County experience. “It was a great atmosphere,” Book said. “You come to Notre Dame to play in games like that.”
Said safety Alohi Gillman: “That was a great environment. I really enjoyed that.”
In all, it was a pretty cool day-into-night. Notre Dame came to Sanford Stadium for the first time and left an honorable loser. Georgia banked a victory that will tide it over until it runs across Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M in November. Oh, and that ring of red strobes after the Light Up Sanford break – wasn’t that something?
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Smart said.
Then: “I was worried the power went off a couple of times.”
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