ATHENS, GA. ‑ Georgia and Notre Dame have now met three times in history and the Bulldogs own a 3-0 record against the Fighting Irish.
Georgia won the first meeting in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, 17-10, a victory that gave the Bulldogs the 1980 national championship. The second matchup, held in 2017 in South Bend, Ind., saw Georgia pull out a slim one-point decision, 20-19.
And then the third confrontation of the Bulldogs and Irish, staged Saturday night before a record crowd of 93,246 at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium, may have been the most intense of all for the Bulldawg Nation as unbeaten and third-ranked Georgia fell behind unbeaten and 7th-ranked Notre Dame 10-7 at the halftime break before rallying for a 23-17 win over the Irish.
So the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish have now had three games decided by 7, 1 and 6 points. And on a night when Georgia rated a 14-point favorite and many national prognosticators had forecast a blowout win for Kirby Smart’s team, the home team had to fight for its life to keep its 2019 record unblemished … in fact being forced to turn back a Notre Dame drive in the final minute to preserve the win and climb to 4-0 on the season.
Snapping back from its 3-point halftime deficit, the Bulldogs moved ahead of the Irish 13-10 in the third quarter on the strength of 40 and 31-yard field goals by the reliable Rodrigo Blankenship and then boosted their advantage to 20-10 just inside the final quarter when Miami graduate transfer Lawrence Cager made a spectacular 15-yard touchdown catch, pulling in Jake Fromm’s pass in the left side of the end zone and getting one foot down in bounds before falling over the line.
And when Blankenship nailed his third field goal of the game, a 43-yard boot with 6:54 to play, it appeared Georgia all but had put the cap on its comeback win, now up 23-10.
But quarterback Ian Book and Notre Dame weren’t finished just yet. A 4-yard scoring pass from Book to Chase Claypool along with the PAT kick pulled the Irish within 23-17 with still 3:12 to play and after the Irish defense wouldn’t let the Georgia offense milk out a first down to kill the final minutes off the clock, Notre Dame would get the ball back one last time with an opportunity to come away with a possible 24-23 upset of the Bulldogs.
When Georgia punter Jake Camarda shanked a 26-yard punt, just out to the Irish 48, Book quickly passed his team down to the Bulldogs’ 38-yard line. But that’s when Dan Lanning’s defense rose up and saved the day for Georgia, getting the Irish into a fourth-and -8 situation and forcing the Notre Dame quarterback to throw a desperate final incompletion under a fierce rush by freshman Nolan Smith and fellow outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson.
“That was a hard-fought game,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “I have a lot of respect for Notre Dame and their program and how they battled. But man, our kids played hard. … 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, unable to get their offense in gear in the first half when they rushed for just 55 yards – after entering the game with an SEC-leading 286-yard average – notched their only score in those first two quarters via D’Andre Swift’s 3-yard run, which capped a 75-yard, 13-play drive.
But with Fromm’s passing arm coming alive in the third quarter and Swift igniting the running game, with twisting, tackle-breaking dashes for first downs. Georgia would finish the night with 152 yards on the ground. Swift came within two yards of reaching 100 on the night as he totaled 98 on 18 carries. Brian Herrien added 42 yards in eight trips. Through the air, Fromm was 20-of-26 for 187 yards and the touchdown to Cager, who paced the Georgia receivers with five catches for 82 yards. Demetris Robertson, who didn’t play in the win over Arkansas State the previous Saturday, had four receptions for 48 yards.
Meantime, though Book did complete 29-of-47 pass attempts for 275 yards and two touchdowns, the Bulldogs did pick off the Notre Dame quarterback twice (by Divaad Wilson and J.R. Reed) and shut down the Irish running game to the tune of 46 yards net rushing. Inside linebacker Tae Crowder led the way with nine total tackles while Reed, Richard LeCounte and Monty Rice all checked in with seven stops each.
“We were confident we could do some things because we were moving the ball,” said Smart. “Our defense was playing pretty well and made some stops, so I was pleased with the effort. We made some adjustments (at halftime) and felt like we could come out and score some points.”
Smart had special praise for the gutsy running of his junior tailback, Swift.
“That was the heart of a warrior,” Smart said. “He ran so hard and did a great job. He played with passion, energy, and toughness, and he had a good offensive line in front of him.”
The coach also commended the Georgia fans, who turned up the noise the night long when the Fighting Irish went on offense.
“They impacted those guys. They had 5-6-7 penalties and had to use their timeouts,” Smart said. “Our fans caused their quarterback to have some issues. … We need that out of our fans all the time. That is a real home-field advantage. You need that in college football.”
Senior place-kicker Blankenship said he’s just happy to have played a key role in the two wins over Notre Dame these past three years.
“It’s crazy, it’s awesome,” Blankenship said. “It’s a blessing, it’s really just a blessing to be here and be a part of this team, part of this program and part of the University of Georgia. It’s just an incredible blessing. When you come to the University of Georgia, you can find yourself playing in some pretty big games. It’s just really special and really just a blessing to be a part of this team and be in these kinds of games.
“I definitely think that there was a sigh of relief there at the end,” Blankenship said. “I think we’re going to really try and enjoy this moment, enjoy the next 24 hours so that we get to enjoy it. Then, after that, we’re just going to see how we can get better as a football team.”
And Smart said there’s still a lot of things the Bulldogs must do to get better. But they can certainly enjoy this big win over Notre Dame for a few days as Georgia’s first open date comes up this week before it travels to Knoxville the following Saturday to face the reeling Tennessee Volunteers.
“We need to be tested,” said Smart, “and I think we met the test tonight by continuing to fight and finding a way to win the game.”