Bulldogs Beat

‘Once we buy in, the sky’s the limit’: Revisiting the 2017 Georgia-Notre Dame game

The 2017 matchup between Georgia and Notre Dame undoubtedly made a splash in the moment.

The once-in-a-lifetime showdown in South Bend, the sea of Georgia fans invading Notre Dame Stadium and, of course, a tight game that ended in a 20-19 Georgia victory all made for an unforgettable experience.

However, the true legacy of that game extends beyond Sept. 9, 2017, leaving ripples that affect the Bulldog program to this day.

More than two years removed from that night, it’s easy to look back and say that game launched the Bulldogs both on a run to the national championship game that season, and also to the powerhouse status the Georgia program holds today.

“It just showed everyone that it’s a new era,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “It showed everyone when we buy into the program and Kirby Smart and Coach Smart’s way, we can be very good, we can be the best team that we want to be.”

At the time of that game, Georgia was coming off an 8-5 2016 season that included home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. During that season, Reed said, not everyone on the team “bought in” to the new program.

“We hit some bumps in the road,” Reed said. “But once we buy in, the sky’s the limit.”

Senior defensive lineman David Marshall also played in the first Notre Dame game. Like Reed, he said it took some time for the Bulldogs to fully invest in Smart’s program when he arrived in Athens.

But on that night in South Bend, Marshall and the rest of the team could see a corner had been turned.

“It just gave us confidence seeing who really wanted to play,” Marshall said. “It really impacted most of the season where basically, it showed us what type of team we were and what type of toughness we had on the team.”

Several current stars had big moments in that contest. Junior running back D’Andre Swift had a 40-yard third-quarter run to set up Georgia’s second touchdown. Reed had an open-field tackle on Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush to end a drive, and junior safety Richard LeCounte broke up a pass to put a halt to the drive after that.

However, that night doesn’t mean more to any Bulldog than it does to senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.

The night before the game, head coach Kirby Smart told Blankenship he had been awarded a scholarship. Smart said he did that because he didn’t want his kicker to feel the burden of kicking for a scholarship in such a big game.

“I definitely think that it was a big sigh of relief when he told me,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship kept the secret, telling just his parents and his girlfriend. He went 1-for-2 on his first two field goals, but rebounded to knock in the game-winning kick, a 30-yarder with 3:34 left to play.

After the game, Smart told Blankenship to tell the team the good news. Upon revealing the secret, he was mobbed by joyful Bulldogs.

That night serves as a pretty stark before and after moment in the career of the Georgia kicker. Two years later, he can see that it played a similar role in the growth of Georgia’s program.

“It was a great opportunity for us to learn and develop and just learn how to handle tough situations,” Blankenship said. “I really think that we used some of that experience that we had from that game to help us in some big moments later on in that season and also just to carry over into these last couple years.”

Blankenship said one thing the Bulldogs have learned since then is how to better coach up younger players and elevate everyone on the team. Some of the guys that are young Bulldogs now can remember watching that game from two years ago.

Sophomore outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari committed to Georgia on Aug. 17. Just a few weeks later, he watched as fellow outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter combined on a strip sack fumble recovery to seal the win.

Sophomore offensive lineman Cade Mays said Georgia didn’t really come onto his recruiting radar until October of 2017. However, he did say the program’s willingness to seek out big opponents played a role in his commitment decision.

“I had to put myself in the position where if I’m going to put in this work, I want to go win a championship and I want to contend for it,” Mays said.

Since that game, contending for championships is all the Bulldogs have done.

They came within a couple plays of winning the national championship in 2017, and they were a second half comeback by Alabama in the 2018 SEC Championship from reaching the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.

This season, Georgia is once again set up as one of the top contenders for the national title. That status doesn’t look to be going away in the coming years, either.

All of these ripples can be traced back to the stone in the pond that was Sept. 9, 2017, in South Bend.

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