Maybe Georgia and Notre Dame can keep playing every other year because some great games break out whenever they get together.
One did again in Saturday night's historic matchup at Sanford Stadium, and once again it was the Bulldogs who came out on top. UGA needed a fourth-quarter touchdown catch by Lawrence Cager, three Rodrigo Blankenship field goals and final-seconds defensive stand to make it happen, but they held on to win 23-17.
The final outcome was not decided until reserve defensive back D.J. Daniel knocked away a Notre Dame pass with 48 seconds remaining, which brought out yet another deafening ovation from the record crowd of 93,246 that attended the game.
“That was just an incredible atmosphere,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It seems like I'm saying this every week, but our fans are the best in the country and that's why people want to come to UGA. ... They impacted the game tonight more than any game I've ever seen, not only here but anywhere.”
Indeed, Notre Dame was whistled 12 times for 85 yards in penalties. Many of them were for false starts because of incredible noise level when the Fighting Irish were on offense, another time it resulted in an early snap from center and the Notre Dame was left without any timeouts in the critical final seconds of the game.
“You could hear it out there; the physicality was real,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “It was probably the most physical game I've coached in and I've coached a lot of games. Georgia just made a couple more plays than we did. That was really the difference.”
One of those plays was J.R. Reed’s interception of an Ian Book pass with Notre Dame on the move late in the fourth quarter. That led to Blankenship's 43-yard field goal with 6:54 remaining in the game, which effectively put the game out of reach for the Irish.
Georgia led 23-10 at that point, but Notre Dame didn’t go quietly into the night. Book hit Chase Claypool on a four-yard TD pass with 3:12 to play to complete a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive to draw within six points.
The Irish didn’t attempt an onside kick as the Bulldogs were expecting, but squibbed a kick instead and dropped D’Andre Swift at the 24. Georgia was unable to get a first down, which would have effectively put the game away with the Irish out of timeouts. Instead, the Bulldogs gained by a single yard, and punter Jake Camarda unleashed his second shanked punt of the night, this one going out of bounds after 27 yards at the Notre Dame 48.
Notre Dame quickly got a first down at the Georgia 40. But two pressured incompletions led to one final desperation play for the Irish with 58 seconds remaining. They targeted big tight end Cole Kmet in the middle field. Double-covered there by Mark Webb and Daniel, Daniel slapped the ball to the ground, leaving the Bulldogs' offense in victory formation.
The No. 3 Bulldogs improve to 4-0 with the victory and 7-10 in top-10 matchups. Conversely, the No. 7 Fighting Irish fall to 1-18 in games against top-5 teams this century.
This one was a competitive throughout, just as in 2017 in South Bend, Ind., in the previous regular-season matchup between these teams. The Bulldogs won that one 20-19. They’re 3-0 all time against Notre Dame, having also won a 1981 Sugar Bowl matchup that clinched the national championship for Georgia.
The Fighting Irish fall to 2-1, but likely will be favored in their remaining games. They play Virginia next week. The Bulldogs are off.
Georgia faced adversity from the outset. It started the game without flanker Kearis Jackson and cornerback Tyson Campbell, lost the other starting corner Eric Stokes to a leg injury 35 seconds into the game, then lost starting offensive guard Solomon Kindley at the 4:53 mark of the second quarter.
In each case, a backup came through.
“Next guy up,” Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm said. “that's our mentality and that's what this team is built around. This is a team full of warriors and guys who are ready to step in and fill a role whenever we need it.”
Fromm had a huge second half, as did Swift. The star running back broke loose for 65 of his 98 yards rushing in a critical stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters.
Meanwhile, Fromm came alive throwing the ball in the fourth quarter. He was 3-for-4 for 66 yards on what effectively was the game-winning drive. The one incompletion was an on-target pass in the end zone to George Pickens that looked like pass interference on Notre Dame. But Fromm simply called the same play to the left side for Cager, and the graduate transfer from Miami snatched the throw just in time to get one foot down.
Fromm was 20 of 26 passing for 187 yards and a score. Book was 29 of 47 for 275 yards and two TDs for the Irish, but also threw two interceptions.
Trailing 10-7 after the first half, Georgia got its first break in the five minutes into the third quarter when redshirt freshman Divaad Wilson picked off a pass and returned it 11 yards to the Notre Dame 22, fumbling the ball along the way and finally out of bounds. The Bulldogs retained possession but, after a nice gain by Swift and a pass in the flat, guard Justin Shaffer was called for unnecessary roughness, negating the play and sending them back 15 yards.
Georgia would get back to the 30 and Demetris Robertson, playing with a pulled hamstring, looked to have been interfered with in the end zone by Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford. But no flags were thrown and Blankenship’s 40-yard field goal tied the score 10-10 with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter.
Blankenship came through again for the Bulldogs at the end of their next possession as well. Georgia had driven quickly down the field and faced a second-and-5 at the Notre Dame 20 when Fromm shifted out to receiver and Swift took the shotgun snap on a designed run. The Irish weren’t fooled and dropped Swift for a yard gain. Then Tyler Simmons couldn’t hang onto Fromm’s pass deep in the back of the end zone on third down, leaving Blankenship to convert a 31-yard field goal. That gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game, 13-10, with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.
“It's crazy, it's awesome, it's just a blessing,” Blankenship said of his performance and the atmosphere it occurred in. “When you come to the University of Georgia, you find yourself playing in some pretty big games. It's really special and a blessing to be part of this team.”
The first quarter featured only six first downs and 115 yards between the two teams, but it was Georgia that blinked first. Or, specifically, Simmons.
The senior wideout and punt returner was late in throwing up a hand to signal fair catch and muffed a return inside the 10. The ball bounced directly to Claypool, who was closing in fast on the play, and the Irish took over at the Georgia 8.
The Bulldogs were extremely resistant, forcing a fourth-and-goal even after being called for a pass-interference penalty on second down. But on that final play, Book threw a pass that was not intended for 6-foot-6 tight end Cole Kmet, but Kmet jumped high and tipped the pass to himself for a touchdown anyway. That staked the Irish to a 7-0 lead with 10:39 remaining in the second quarter.
That seemed to wake up the Georgia offense. With Fromm converting two third-down passes for 8 and 14 yards, and Fromm gaining six yards on a rare quarterback keeper, Swift sliced into the end zone on a 3-yard run to cap a 13-play drive of 8:12 to tie the score 7-7.
Taking over with just 2:27 left in the half, the Irish came flying back down the field, paced by Kmet’s 28-yard reception. They would reach the Georgia 9 before a chess match broke out between Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. Smart called a timeout when the Irish lined up for a 27-yard field goal on third down with 9 seconds remaining. Then Notre Dame sent its offense back out on the field, which prompted another UGA timeout. Finally, Book’s third-down pass for Claypool was incomplete with 5 seconds remaining.
This time Notre Dame kicked the field goal and took a 10-7 lead into the halftime locker room.
Smart said he was most pleased with how his young team responded to the second-half challenge.
“You never know what's inside you in life or football until you get tested,” he said. “We got tested tonight and found out a lot about our team. We're far from perfect and we've got to get a lot better. But they'll fight you, man. They'll fight you over and over again.”
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