Notre Dame football lost a tighter game than expected against Georgia in Athens on Saturday. While the Irish couldn’t prevail, they gained respectability.
After Notre Dame lost to Clemson by a decisive 30-3 margin in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was emphatic in the post-game media availability that his program was closer to contending than many expected.
Many brushed off that statement, and rightfully so.
It has been well-documented that Notre Dame has struggled against top five competition of late. Entering Saturday night in Athens, the Irish held a record of 1-17 in their last 18 games against top five teams, a record dating back to the 2000 season.
After Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to Georgia on Saturday night, that record is now a resounding 1-18 in their last 19 attempts.
That’s not to say Notre Dame gets blown out of the stadium every time they play elite competition. While that’s been a popular narrative perpetuated by the common college football fan, Notre Dame has been close to winning these games plenty.
For every national championship blowout (Alabama, 2012), there’s a tight road loss to a defending national champion (Florida State, 2014). For every Cotton Bowl meltdown (Clemson in January), a narrow defeat to the same program (Clemson, 2015, the “Bring Your Own Guts” game).
Notre Dame has been close on occasion, but the blowout losses to the nation’s elite reign ever-present in the minds of college football fans everywhere.
That’s why Saturday night’s loss to No. 3 Georgia, yet another for the Irish on a long list on college football’s prime time stage, felt different.
Notre Dame entered the match-up ranked seventh in the country, but was not given much respect — at all — by the national media in the lead-up to the game. After being stomped in their last elite prime time game against Clemson, the narrative heading into the Irish’s tilt in Athens revolved around ND’s inability to play with the big boys in college football, and notably, those in the SEC.
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How quickly people forget Notre Dame’s one-point loss to #2 Georgia in South Bend two years ago, a game that was dismissed quickly this past week because that match-up was Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm’s “first road start”.
Literally any shred of doubt put into a pen-to-paper Georgia beat down on Saturday was dismissed in the pre-game coverage as ND not being capable.
“The Irish defense can’t tackle, the offense can’t move the ball against this SEC defense.”
“D’Andre Swift will run roughshod on the Notre Dame defense.”
The analysis was fair — ND ranked 107th in rushing defense entering Saturday night’s game, and Georgia emerged through their first handful of games in 2019 with one of the nation’s best rushing attacks — albeit, against lesser competition.
All the more reason to pick Georgia going away as a 14.5-point favorite, as Notre Dame’s rushing defense struggled against Louisville and New Mexico, two teams who would be lucky to cobble together enough wins between the two of them to reach bowl eligibility.
However, Notre Dame entered the madhouse that was Sanford Stadium, a record 93,000-plus fans rooting against them in a rave-like atmosphere, and didn’t fluster.
Sure, there were 12 penalties, the most in any game under Brian Kelly, with many of those being procedure calls that could be contributed entirely to the crowd noise.
Kelly admitted in the post-game that he felt the coaching staff could have done a better job getting the players ready for the chaos.
But even despite this, Notre Dame threw punches, and more importantly, didn’t fold, and punched back when the going got tough.
The Irish capitalized on a short field following a muffed punt to score the game’s first touchdown in the second quarter, a fourth-and-goal Ian Book touchdown pass from inside the five on a broken play.
Georgia responded to tie, but Notre Dame methodically plodded their way down the field before halftime, hitting a field goal to take a 10-7 lead in Athens at the break, a far-cry from what many expected the score to be at intermission.
Georgia came out in the second half shutting down Notre Dame’s offensive attack. While the Irish defense still played admirably, and much better than anyone expected, they began to tire, and Georgia RB D’Andre Swift and QB Jake Fromm took advantage by wearing down the Irish defense that became a step slower after halftime.
Georgia scored 16 unanswered points to take a 23-10 lead with less than seven minutes to play, but unlike past Notre Dame trials against the nation’s elite, the Irish punched back. QB Ian Book made big throw after big throw, eventually connecting with Chase Claypool on a 4-yard touchdown strike with 3:12 to play to pull the Irish within six.
After Notre Dame’s defense made their biggest stand of the night, a three-and-out with only one timeout remaining, Notre Dame got the ball back with prime field position, two minutes to play, and an opportunity to steal the game against a top five team on the road.
The Irish picked up a first down, but Georgia’s defense stiffened and eventually stymied the Notre Dame passing attack on the final drive, which ended with a desperation heave on 4th-and-9 that was knocked away, ending Notre Dame’s hopes of a road upset.
Notre Dame lost yet again against a top five team, and the record will continue to be brought to the surface each time that the Irish play in a big game.
However, Saturday night’s road defeat, one in which Notre Dame had a chance to win late against a national championship contender, gives the program hope and credibility.
Hope that one day the Irish can come out consistently on the right end of the final score against elite competition, and credibility that Notre Dame can once again become a true title-contending program – similar to the one from the ’80s that fans across college football love to mock in present-day.
The outlook for the Irish is bright. Notre Dame lost to an excellent football team on Saturday night, but the program is in a better place for it.
The off-season work that was put in by the players and staff to ensure that history didn’t repeat itself a’la last season’s College Football Playoff blowout was validated.
Brian Kelly said it after the playoff loss last year and it was echoed post-game on Saturday night.
“We come away feeling pretty good about our football team. Even though we are disappointed with the outcome, obviously.”