Rapid Reaction: It wasn't the early-round TKO many expected, but Georgia shows it's a heavyweight contender
The lights flickered. The crowd roared. Sanford Stadium was rocking Saturday night.
Problem was, host Georgia never quite got rolling. And now everything we thought we knew about the Bulldogs, Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff chase can be called into question.
Make no mistake, No. 3 Georgia will take it, a hard-fought, completely-earned, hold-your-breath 23-17 victory over the No. 7-ranked team in the country. But for most of the night, the Dawgs were hardly dominant. They conquered the Irish, but their performance raised as many questions about their ability to win it all as it answered.
And that’s what this game was all about, right?
Fans showed up expecting an early-round knockout. They were treated to a 60-minute slugfest. Ultimately, Georgia’s body blows wore down the Irish. Georgia proved it can win a heavyweight fight. Can the Dawgs do the same to Clemson or Alabama?
That’s a fair question. The answer is: It’s going to take more than 23 points.
A physical 1st quarter resulted in little more than an exchange of punts and short passes. First downs were as rare as Irish wins over ranked teams.
Neither side threatened until Georgia muffed a punt at its own 8. A pass interference call gave the Irish 1st-and-goal from the 2.
Kirby Smart sensed a schematic disadvantage and called timeout just before the Irish scored a TD. Georgia stuffed the Irish on 3 consecutive plays before Ian Book hit tight end Cole Kmet on 4th down for a 7-0 lead. Kmet wasn’t even the intended target, but he extend his giant paw and corralled the ball with one hand.
Georgia answered on its ensuing drive, mixing short passes with pile-moving runs. It took 13 plays and covered 75 yards, but it ended in the end zone.
On 3rd-and-9 at the Irish 23, Fromm hit Lawrence Cager with a back-shoulder throw for a 1st down. The 14-yard pickup was Fromm’s longest throw to that point. Two plays later, D’Andre Swift dived over for the tying touchdown.
Georgia’s 75-yard drive exceeded its total on its first 2 drives.
Notre Dame took over with 2:27 left in the half. Book didn’t need long to drive the Irish deep into Dawgs territory. The big play was a 28-yard pass to Lawrence Keys that gave Notre Dame a 1st down at Georgia’s 12. A false start pushed them back to the 17. After a couple of timeouts, Notre Dame settled for a 27-yard field goal and a 10-7 halftime lead.
Notre Dame was controlling the game and that continued when it forced a punt on Georgia’s opening possession of the second half.
Georgia’s defense provided a boost, intercepting Book and giving the Dawgs good field position, but the Dawgs could only muster a 40-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship. Tied again, this time at 10.
Georgia’s offense sped up on its next possession. Brian Herrien started the drive with a 16-yard run. Fromm followed with a 19-throw. It was Georgia’s biggest back-to-back gains of the night. Fromm then hit Herrien for 12 more yards. Three plays, 3 first downs.
That drive stalled too, but Blankenship gave Georgia its first lead, 13-10, with a 31-yard field goal.
Georgia’s crowd, never quiet, increased its effort level, too. Notre Dame’s ensuing drive included another false start — their 5th of the night — and a costly timeout. That only made them louder, and when the Dawgs forced another 3-and-out, the noise was deafening.
That’s when Swift took over. He hurdled a defender to pick up a first down. He shook a defender to earn another. Fromm hit Cager for a big gain. After 2 incompletions, Fromm threw a perfect back-shoulder throw that Cager caught and toe-tapped for a touchdown.
For the first time all night, Georgia had some breathing room at 20-10.
J.R. Reed provided more when he ended Notre Dame’s ensuing drive with a diving interception. That led to Blankenship’s 3rd field goal, this one from 43 yards.
Notre Dame answered with a gutsy TD drive, pulling within 23-17 with 3:12 left. After forcing a quick 3-and-out, Notre Dame’s last drive fell short when Georgia batted down a 4th-and-9 pass.
All week, if not longer, the narrative was how Notre Dame would wilt under Georgia’s relentless rushing attack, how it would be exposed again, just like in last year’s Playoff loss to Clemson.
The reality was: From the eye test to scoreboard, not much separated these two Saturday night.
Georgia and Notre Dame exited Dooley Field every bit the Playoff contenders they were when they entered.