Fans light up the stadium during the second half in a NCAA college football at Sanford Stadium in Athens on Saturday, September 21, 2019. Georgia defeated Notre Dame 23-17. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Analysis: No. 3 Georgia battered but unbeaten after win over No. 7 Notre Dame

The Bulldogs (4-0) defeated No. 7 Notre Dame (2-1) 23-17 Saturday night at Sanford Stadium, but they did so while playing without some key players and losing some others during the game.

Ultimately, Georgia proved to be just a little deeper and more resilient than its famous visitors. Having passed their first real test of the season, the Bulldogs hope to sneak in a little rest while also tightening up the loose ends exposed in the too-close-for-comfort win over the Fighting Irish.

“An open date always comes at the right time,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s best that it comes after a win because that was a long open date last year (following road loss to LSU). So (the win) makes that part much better.

“But, look, whether we won or lost this game, we still have big games to play and we still would’ve controlled our own destiny. That doesn’t change. We’ve still got a lot of glaring things we’ve got to work on to get better. But I’ve got a lot of respect for that football team.”

Like our Facebook page

Georgia will likely be the last Top 10 team Notre Dame meets for the rest of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs move into the second phase of their three-phase season. After the off weekend, Georgia will be heavily favored in the next three games against SEC opponents Tennessee (1-3, 0-1 SEC), South Carolina (1-3, 0-2) and Kentucky (2-2, 0-2). Then there’s another off week before the next true test against Florida (4-0, 2-0) in Jacksonville.

“You need to be tested to find out something about yourself,” Smart said. “We had a lot of guys who hadn’t looked inside themselves, that hadn’t been tested, and we didn’t know how they were going to respond. Now we do, and they came out fighting.”

Here are five things we learned Saturday:

About those injuries: Smart didn’t have much regarding the extent of the injuries suffered in Saturday’s game or when those who missed it might return. But he did have a lot of positive comments on the players who were forced to fill in on short notice.

The Bulldogs were already playing without starting cornerback Tyson Campbell when Eric Stokes, the starter on the other side of the defense, went down with a leg injury early in the first quarter.

“That was tough,” Smart said. “If you’d have asked me what was one spot we couldn’t afford to lose somebody, it was that one.”

Stokes apparently came back and tried to play later in the game, but Smart said he was comfortable with what he saw from their first-year backups, Tyrique Steveson and D.J. Daniel, along with senior Tyrique McGhee.

Junior guard Solomon Kindley had to be helped off the field with a lower leg injury and did not return. Junior Justin Shaffer filled in admirably and finished the game, with the exception of committing a personal foul for unnecessary roughness in the second half that forced UGA to settle for a field goal.

Also, sophomore Isaiah Wilson, the normal starter at right tackle, was ready to go after nursing an ankle injury for the last two weeks. He was inserted for Cade Mayes, who was struggling to pass protect against the Irish’s quick defensive ends.

Smart said he had “no idea” when Campbell might come back from his ankle injury.

Hot Rod stays hot: Smart had some short and sweet commentary on senior place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals of 40-, 31- and 41-yards and is now 8-for-8 on the year.

“He’s clutch. Mr. Consistency,” Smart said. “He’s like Jake (Fromm). You go through your life coaching and you might only have one or two Rodrigos. He’s clutch and he wants the pressure on him.”

Including two PATs Saturday, Blankenship had 11 points Saturday, which gives him 358 and moves him past Hall of Famer Kevin Butler and into fourth on UGA’s career scoring list. His school record for consecutive PATS goes to 175.

Blankenship is now 61 of 72 on field goals in his career (84.7%), including 22 of 30 from 40 yards or longer.  

Not so special teams: While Blankenship has the place-kicking duties under control, the same can’t be said in other areas of special teams play. Like punting, for instance.

Sophomore Jake Camarda averaged just 35.1 yards on four punts and had another one roll into the end zone for a touchback.

It doesn’t sound as though Smart’s ready to open the competition at punter, where walk-on Bill Rubright stands at the ready.

“I don’t know. He hit didn’t hit some great punts, but we picked him up,” Smart said. “We’ve got his back. He’s an unbelievable punter, he just didn’t hit great punts tonight. He’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll keep getting him better.”

Worse still was Tyler Simmons muffing a punt return inside the 10-yard line early in the second quarter that resulted in a Notre Dame touchdown. Freshman Dominick Blaylock replaced the senior Simmons as the single safety on returns the rest of the game, but only had two fair catches and let another one bounce away.

Winning margin: According to Smart, Notre Dame won the battle of turnover margin in its last 27 games dating back to their 2017 matchup in South Bend, when they tied Georgia. The Bulldogs won on Saturday, getting two takeways from the Fighting Irish while turning the ball over just once on Simmons’ muff.

That was a major goal achieved by the Bulldogs.

“That was just emphasized over and over to (the players) this week, about beating them in turnover margin,” said Smart, who watched J.R. Reed and Divaad Wilson record interceptions. “We couldn’t get a fumble, but we tried. But we did get the two picks.”

Notre Dame fumbled twice but recovered them each time.

The Bulldogs got six points on two field goals out of the miscues. Georgia is now at plus-2 for the season in turnover margin and has tallied 16 points on six turnovers.

How ‘bout those lights?: Smart played dumb when he was asked about Georgia’s incredible light display as the game transitioned to the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs added millions of dollars of high performance LED lights in the stadium since last season and, Saturday being the first home night game of the year, it was the first time UGA has been able to show them off.

Apparently, they were quite the hit for the fans, who covered up social media with videos of the display and comments of praise and adoration immediately following the “Light Up Sanford” tradition concluded at the start of the fourth quarter.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Smart said when asked after the game about the stunning – and quite prominent – display. “I was worried that the power went out a couple of times. I didn’t blink. As long as the fans’ phones worked, I was good.”

The lights can go completely dark and to completely bright in an instant and can change to several colors but mainly red.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X