Saturday night’s Georgia-Notre Dame matchup was, on paper, a game one would expect the Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) to cruise in. As they usually do in the confines of Sanford Stadium.
The sold-out crowd (with added seating), the electric environment and the flashy new light shows all added to the atmosphere. Many view Georgia as a program on the cusp of catching current college football powers Alabama and Clemson. All signs prior to kickoff pointed to it.
Of course, anybody who watched the game saw that the Bulldogs did not, in fact, cruise to an easy win. But the Bulldogs might have just shown that they are a serious contender after a statement win against a seriously good opponent in Notre Dame (2-1).
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea coached circles around Bulldogs offensive coordinator James Coley for much of the first half. Georgia ran for 55 first-half yards against a defense that surrendered more than 200 to a bad Louisville team. A Tyler Simmons muffed punt sucked the air out of a once-electric Sanford Stadium crowd.
Good teams find a way, much like Georgia, which ultimately won 23-17, did.
“Man, our kids played hard,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “That was a huge win for them. They play so hard and work so hard and play with toughness. I was happy to see them pull that out.”
The Bulldogs defense shut down Irish quarterback Ian Book. Jake Fromm, a shadow of himself in the game’s first few quarters, found his rhythm, and the Bulldogs established a run game it desperately needed, and did not have, in the first half.
Suddenly, those fancy light shows were fun again, the 90,000-plus in attendance were loud again (Notre Dame at one point had six false starts) and the Savage pads were back.
“They (the crowd) impacted those guys,” Smart said. “They ... had to use their timeouts. That is a real home field advantage. You need that in college football.”
Georgia started bracketing Fighting Irish tight end Cole Kmet in double coverage, which in effect neutralized Notre Dame’s best offensive threat on the night. The Bulldogs held Notre Dame to 46 rushing yards.
But let’s talk about that Bulldogs offense.
It would not be unfair, or hyperbolic, to say the Bulldogs had not faced much of a defensive challenge leading up to Saturday. Teams like Georgia don’t have much business playing teams like Arkansas State and Murray State, and Vanderbilt just gave up 66 points to LSU. So the struggles that plagued the offense at first were somewhat expected.
An uncharacteristically-low throw by Fromm, a nonexistent running game and the aforementioned muffed punt by Simmons kept the Fighitng Irish in the game, which the away team led at halftime. But eventually the defense found itself, the mistakes were cleaned up, mostly, and a 15-yard touchdown reception by graduate transfer receiver Lawrence Cager brought a massive sigh of relief to a fanbase desperate for another shot at the College Football Playoff.
The defensive stand at the end was just icing on the cake.
Georgia’s remaining schedule works out nicely. It can be argued that Notre Dame will be the toughest test the Bulldogs will face until back-to-back games against Auburn (November 16) and the team the Tigers just beat, Texas A&M (November 23).
Yes, Georgia is a contender. Everybody already knew that, but Saturday night might have just proven it.
“Any time Georgia can show up like that ... we’ve got to do that every game,” Bulldogs senior defensive back J.R. Reed said. “Not just this one, but every time we’ve got a home game, it matters. If it’s at 12 or nine in the morning, we need (the fans) to show out.”