Sept. 10, 2017
By John Heisler
If college football games represent a long series of opportunities, Saturday night represented some big ones for the 2017 Notre Dame football team.
A prime-time outing against the 15th-rated team in the country.
A first regular-season game against a Georgia team from the ballyhooed Southeastern Conference.
A chance to show that the Irish had taken another step forward in their mission to put Notre Dame football back where coach Brian Kelly and his players think it should be.
And the Irish -- even on a night when their offense struggled to maintain superiority at the line of scrimmage -- still managed to convert just enough of those opportunities to give themselves a chance to hold off the Bulldogs and move up another step on the credibility ladder.
But Georgia converted a field goal with less than four minutes on the clock -- and that opportunity (in the Bulldogs' first trip to this part of the country since 1965 when they played at Michigan) turned out to be the difference in the 20-19 win for the visitors.
"Let's not forget why we do this. We're here to uphold the tradition of Notre Dame football," said Kelly to his team moments before kickoff.
"It's a tradition of excellence. When we go out there we all have in our own minds what we need to do. But the big picture is we're here to uphold that tradition of excellence.
"When you step out there on that field, you lock in for all the players that came before you. That's why we wear the colors we wear. That's what gets you up in the morning. It's Notre Dame football. You get to wear that helmet -- it says Ara (Parseghian, the former Irish coach who died last month) on the front. That means something.
"We're here to send a message. You've got a captive audience from Georgia. You've got a great opportunity, and it's about the pride and tradition of Notre Dame football. It will not be left to the weak or the non-committed. We'll see that today. Let's do that today every snap. We're playing for all the guys in this program. It's the tradition of Notre Dame football. That's why we do this."
The Irish tried to send a message on the very first play from scrimmage, with Brandon Wimbush barely overthrowing an open Equanimeous St. Brown. From there Wimbush found Cameron Smith for 29 yards, and Justin Yoon converted a field goal from 39 yards 2:12 into the contest.
The Bulldogs committed three major penalties in the first 4:14 -- on their way to 12 for 127 yards by the end of the evening. Georgia tailback Nick Chubb went for 30 yards on first down (outside of that play the Irish limited him to 33 yards on 12 carries) -- and a Jake Fromm pass to Terry Godwin for 31 set up a tying field goal for the visitors.
Georgia made it plain that running the football was going to be tough for the Irish, as Notre Dame's 12 rushing yards in the first period exemplified.
A botched handoff by Georgia on first down from its own 36 turned into a Daelin Hayes fumble recovery. Four plays later--one of those a 32-yard completion to Josh Adams -- Wimbush ran it in from the one for what turned out to be Notre Dame's lone touchdown of the cool night.
Georgia then drove 62 yards in 12 plays to tie the game on an out-of-this world end-zone catch by Godwin -- before a 32-yard completion to tight end Alize Mack set up Yoon for a 42-yarder that put Notre Dame back on top 13-10 at intermission. Drue Tranquill's interception at the 26-second mark ended Georgia's final threat of the half.
The Irish had only 27 ground yards at the break, but they had mustered up just enough offense to lead at the break -- and never trail in the first half.
Said Kelly in the halftime locker room, "Here's how we win. First of all, we don't flinch. You have prepared yourselves for this opportunity. This is what we've been waiting for. To play a second half against a nationally ranked team from the SEC in our house.
"You think you lift weights and get up in the morning for something else? This is what you want. We walk right into it with our eyes wide open.
"We've got plenty in the tank.
"We've been trained for this opportunity.
"We've worked for this chance."
Notre Dame's defense forced a missed Bulldog field goal to open the third period, and a third-down sack by Nyles Morgan left the Irish in good shape at their own 47. This time Yoon's field goal from 37 yards gave Notre Dame a 16-10 cushion.
An Irish personal foul on third down kept the next Georgia drive alive, and a 40-yard run by D'Andre Swift paved the way for Sony Michel's six-yard scoring run that gave the visitors their first lead at 17-16.
Wimbush ran for eight yards on third and six and then threw to Chris Finke for 17 yards on third and seven. With 10:21 on the clock, Yoon kicked his fourth field goal from 28 yards and the Irish led 19-17. For Notre Dame that 73-yard drive was 20 yards, three plays and 2:01 longer than any other Saturday night.
But after a three and out by the Irish, Georgia drove for 63 of its own yards -- 31 on a Fromm pass to Javon Wims. Rodrigo Blankenship's 30-yard field goal with 3:34 remaining turned out to be the final points.
The Irish threw three straight incompletions over 26 seconds on their next possession. Then, after forcing Georgia to punt, Notre Dame's final attempt ended on a Davin Bellamy sack and a Lorenzo Carter fumble recovery with a minute and a half to go.
The game did not qualify as an offensive clinic on either side. The two teams combined for 17 punts -- and Notre Dame's defense bowed up on many a possession, forcing eight three-and-outs by the Bulldogs.
Neither offense produced the rushing numbers it might have liked (Chubb and Michel were limited to a combined 136 yards, while Adams ran for 53 and Wimbush carried 16 times for a net of one yard).
Adams led all Irish receivers with career highs of six catches and 60 yards.
At the end, the overall speed of Georgia's defense played a role in keeping the Notre Dame offense in check.
"We play the games to win the games," Kelly told his players when it was over. "At the end of the day we're all in here for the same reasons. We played with the traits we needed to today. You've given us everything you have. You've gone all-in in terms of attention to detail, in terms of attitude and you want to be good and you want to be great.
"If we do a couple of things better in that football game we separate ourselves. They made the plays, they deserved to win. We had the chance to make some plays and we didn't make them in critical times. But we will make then. We will win these kinds of games because of what you decided to give. As long as you keep giving us what you're giving us, we will get this win if you're committed to it.
"You've got to come back Monday with that same attitude and the same attention to detail and the same grit -- and we'll get where we all want to get. We'll get there.
"Losing is not why we do this, but we've got a lot in front of us. They made a couple of more plays at the end to be victorious today. Today wasn't our day. We'll go back to work to make sure the next 10 weeks are our days."
Kelly noted that his defense came up with the kind of effort that will win a lot of football games. He believes his offense is productive enough to establish a better rhythm than what Georgia allowed Saturday night.
"I like my football team," he told the media. "We're close to being the kind of football team that can play with anybody."
Ten more weeks of opportunities lie dead ahead.