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Post Georgia 23 – Notre Dame 17: They say the (LED) lights are bright

Tuesday September 24, 2019

“It’s a lot of the reason why they want to come to Notre Dame. It’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play.” – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Georgia, rather than Notre Dame, put on a show for the ages Saturday night. There was the breathtaking light show. There were fans in place and in full voice well before kickoff. Of course there was the attendant hype of a visit from ESPN’s Gameday show. The weather was perfect for an all-day tailgate and a late kickoff. By most any measure the Georgia-Notre Dame game was peak spectacle and a treat for all of the senses. The producers of the latest Disney big-budget musical would have approved.

But it might be saying something that more people are talking about that spectacle rather than what happened on the field. This wasn’t a scripted Broadway show, so the game itself was under no obligation to match the sensory overload going on around the stadium. The scripted version of this game might have produced a thrilling shootout like the 2013 LSU game. Even better might have been a 2007 Auburn or 2014 Clemson style of game in which Georgia delivered the late coup de grâce that turned a close battle into a satisfying rout.
What you got was 0-0 after the first quarter. While the lights swirled, the stadium shook from the noise, and the crowd waited for its opportunity to explode, Georgia and Notre Dame went about their business with utmost caution, taking risks only when absolutely necessary, and leaving both sets of fans a bit confused about just what their coaches were trying to accomplish.

There was plenty of time to kill at tailgate, so we tried this thought exercise: what would your expectations be if Notre Dame were playing at Clemson or Alabama? Sure – that’s pointless tailgate talk informed only by the failures of past Notre Dame teams, but it did help to understand why expectations were high for this game even as Georgia fans reconciled these expectations with their usual dread. If Georgia aspires to be a playoff contender and the peer of Clemson and Alabama (and if not, why are we even doing this?), you might expect Georgia to handle Notre Dame as other recent playoff teams have. Fair or unfair, Notre Dame’s recent history against top teams colored how many fans and pundits saw this game. It certainly affected the point spread.

If you saw this game as a means to solidify Georgia’s status as a playoff contender or if you wanted to see a statement game, the outcome likely left you a little uneasy. If you wanted a game like the 1991 Clemson game or the 2007 Blackout game that let the party carry on in the stands, sweating that last Notre Dame possession was probably a bit of a buzzkill. At the same time, Georgia is now one of the few programs in the nation with a win over a top ten team, and that’s not a bad statement. The Dawgs have a relatively light load before a more challenging November gauntlet. With two bye weeks in the next month, a banged-up team will have an opportunity to heal. There’s time to improve. They’ll need to.

We left South Bend two years ago ecstatic over a one-point win. The playoff wasn’t really on our mind; it was enough at that moment that Kirby Smart won a huge road game. We could enjoy the Notre Dame win for what it was and maybe allow a little hope that Smart could deliver something better than the 7-5 of 2016. Georgia survived Jake Fromm’s first start and built on that win to steamroll Mississippi State and then the SEC East.

I don’t think many people will consider Saturday’s win a building block. Now each game has to be placed in the context of what it means for Georgia’s chances against Alabama and Clemson (or, increasingly, LSU or Auburn.) I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a healthy approach. Georgia is already at a much higher level as a program than it was two years ago. Notre Dame might be as well. This time a win just means Georgia passed its toughest test to date and survives September with its goals intact.

Depth Wins

Within two plays Georgia was without its starting cornerbacks. That’s a concern when the opponent’s quarterback is as effective as Ian Book had been. Daniel and Wilson were tested though not as often as I would have expected. Book took what was given him across the middle, and that more often than not was enough. Wilson had been mentioned as a possible starter in the summer of 2018 before he was injured, and we saw him make a strong case for a larger role. Tyrique McGhee had been fighting for playing time at corner and then at star, but when it came down to it in this game the coaches chose his experience over perhaps more talented newcomers.

Georgia’s biggest accomplishment on defense was containing the run. That objective was aided by the absence of Notre Dame’s top two tailbacks, but it still had to be done. The Dawgs held the Irish to just 46 rushing yards. Book has the ability to make plays while scrambling – less Jalen Hurts and more Joe Burrow – but he only kept the ball three times for 18 yards. Without much of a credible rushing threat, even the most competent passing game will struggle at times. Georgia could afford to help out its inexperienced cornerbacks, and they forced enough incompletions to keep the Irish from sustaining scoring drives. Book’s total of 275 yards might seem alarming, but those yards came on 47 attempts – just 5.9 yards per attempt and more than a full yard less than Fromm’s YPA.

Both teams were missing important contributors, but the Dawgs had better depth to manage their losses. Georgia was down a couple of cornerbacks and at times two offensive linemen. Notre Dame was without two of its better rushing options. Georgia was able to piece together a defense that limited Notre Dame to one scoring drive per half. Notre Dame never was able to get its running game going.

Phone Booth Offense

Jake Fromm completed his first six passes. He was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less. Coincidence or not, Georgia’s only completions beyond ten yards came on their final drive of the half which resulted in their first touchdown.

Most preseason previews of Georgia’s offense were a variation on this theme: “Teams will try to stop Georgia’s running game and make Fromm beat them with a group of inexperienced receivers.” Is anyone surprised that’s what Notre Dame tried to do? It might be a surprise that they were moderately successful, but that’s what happens when a defense throws bodies at the line of scrimmage. Not many teams have the talent in the secondary that Notre Dame has, and so the Irish felt comfortable playing pass coverage without much of a safety net. Fromm often didn’t have a ton of time to let plays develop downfield, and it took a couple of nice individual plays by Cager and other receivers to beat that tight coverage on longer passes.

Some Georgia adjustments in the second half got the Bulldog offense out of the phone booth. Isaiah Wilson helped to shore up the pass protection. The Dawgs took a few more chances in the passing game. Fromm went from one incompletion in the first half to five in the second. But it paid off – six of the nine completions in the second half went for at least 10 yards. Four of them were for at least 15 yards. Georgia still wasn’t taking (or completing) shots downfield – there was only one reception longer than 20 yards – but even slightly longer passes went along with a few more holes and more success for the running game.

Georgia will and should remain a team identified by its running game and offensive line, but Fromm has more than earned the trust to do more.

  • Just have to mention the crowd again. When we talk about all elements of the Georgia program pulling in the same direction, the scene at Sanford is what it looks like. The music, lights, and game operations were on point, and the crowd did its part by arriving early and affecting the Notre Dame offense. The staff even found time to give the star-studded list of visiting prospects a memorable experience.
  • As much as the crowd and atmosphere affected the game (and it did), I don’t think I’ve ever heard a full Sanford more quiet than it was after Notre Dame scored in the fourth quarter. Credit to the crowd for getting back into it for Notre Dame’s last possession.
  • Notre Dame was obviously affected by the crowd, but it wouldn’t have been hard for Georgia’s players to get carried away by the scene. The Dawgs had a respectable six penalties and only one big mistake – the late hit by Shaffer. Kirby Smart talks about playing with “controlled emotion,” and between the penalties and zero turnovers by the offense, he has to be pleased with how the team handled the environment.
  • Both teams have made a living with explosive plays, and there weren’t many to be had. Each team had a deep pass or two – one to Cager and one to Kmet.
  • After Reed’s interception, we said in the stands that the only thing missing was a patented Swift knockout punch. That never came – Swift almost cracked 100 yards, but he had to grind for nearly all of them. This was one of the first times we’ve seen Swift take on the workhorse role, and he held up.
  • Lawrence Cager will never again be “that guy from Miami.”
  • Georgia’s tackle stats tell you the kind of game it was: Georgia’s top four tacklers were all middle-of-the-field defenders: safeties and ILBs. You have to go eight spots down before your get to a defensive lineman or OLB.
  • Georgia didn’t record a sack in the game (nor did Notre Dame.) Without a lot of deep passes or slow-developing pass plays, there’s not a lot of time for a pass rush to get to the target. The Dawgs were also more interested in keeping Book contained rather than take aggressive chances in the pass rush that might have opened lanes for long scrambles. Georgia was able to flush Book a couple of times, and the speed with which Nolan Smith got into the backfield on the final play led to Book putting up a low-percentage prayer.
  • Zero sacks also doesn’t mean zero havoc. Georgia notched the two interceptions, had three tackles for loss, and recorded six pass break-ups (three by Reed alone.)
  • We first got an idea of the player J.R. Reed would be in South Bend. Reed had another outstanding game against the Irish with seven tackles and three pass break-ups. He was thisclose to two pick-sixes that would have torn Sanford Stadium asunder.
  • The news that South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams has entered the transfer portal reminds me that instead of Williams and Deangelo Gibbs, Georgia got Eric Stokes and J.R. Reed. Not a bad outcome.
  • If the game was missing one thing, it was at least a small group from the Notre Dame band. That organization and the Notre Dame fight song are as much a part of the Fighting Irish tradition as the gold helmets. Most bands, including Georgia’s Redcoat Band, limit the road games for which the full band travels, but there’s at least a Redcoat presence at every game.

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