Respect. One major aspect gained during this past weekend’s game in Athens, Georgia was respect for the Notre Dame football program. Coming away from a 23-17 loss in front of the largest crowd in Sanford Stadium, the Irish proved that they could hang with the elites in college football. This was a heavyweight fight with the opponents trading punches and the close outcome shocking just about everyone. Although a win would have been huge for the program, a six point loss on the road to the third ranked team in the nation is nothing to be ashamed of. Granted, I am not one for “moral victories”, but I think it’s important to look at this game as a building block towards closing the gap between the top tier college football teams (Clemson, Alabama, etc.) and where Notre Dame is now. I am trying to look at the glass half full!
This game not only answered a lot of questions about the Notre Dame team, in my opinion, it will prove to be a foundational piece to build upon for the rest of the year. Coming into this matchup, narratives swirled about both of Notre Dame’s lines. Would the offensive line be able to provide Book with enough time to read his pass progressions and establish a run game? Would the defensive line be able to get to Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and stop one of, if not the best rushing attack in college football? After less than ideal performances from both of these groups in the first two games, I was thoroughly impressed with their play in Athens.
On the offensive side of the ball, I never would have thought that Ian Book having to throw the ball 47 times would keep the Irish competitive against an opponent like Georgia. The injuries at running back limited the Irish backfield to only 14 carries for 46 total rushing yards. This would have been a great game to have Jafar Armstrong back for as I think he could have helped break a few big runs off and would have allowed for the Irish to have a more balanced offensive attack. Book finished the game completing 29 of his 47 passes for a total of 275 yards in the air – again answering a lingering question of whether or not Book’s arm could carry the Irish in a close matchup. Book, as with all Irish fans, were excited for the return of tight end Cole Kmet after suffering a broken collar bone in fall camp. Kmet’s return party totaled a team best nine receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown – much more production than I think anyone was expecting. Chase Claypool added another six receptions for 66 yards and sophomore wideout Lawrence Keys added another 35 yards on his three catches. As Coach Kelly touched on in his press conference last week, adding Kmet back into the Irish offense gave them more versatility in the passing game and allowed for different personnel matchups against a younger Georgia secondary. There was some obvious rust that Kmet had to shake off as he was flagged for multiple false starts, but his play on the field looked like an NFL-caliber tight end.
Defensively, the Irish needed to keep the Bulldog’s offense in check and to low point totals if there was to be any chance in winning this game and they did just that. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah lead the team with seven tackles while Jalen Elliott and Drew White added another four each. Although the Irish defense was not able to record a sack, they were able to contain Georgia running back D’Andre Swift to only 98 yards on 18 carries. The Bulldogs finished the game with only 152 total rushing yards at home. I will be very shocked if another team holds Georgia to this low of rushing yards throughout the remainder of their season and I think this proved to be a big step in the right direction for the Notre Dame defense. A major factor in Notre Dame’s ability to stop the run was the great play by the linebackers. This group came into Saturday’s matchup as potentially the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball for the Irish and they were able to rise to the occasion. For Georgia, veteran quarterback Jake Fromm finished the game completing 20 of his 26 pass attempts for 187 yards in the air. Fromm, as he has shown throughout the last few seasons, makes incredible decisions in the pocket and is undoubtedly going to be a top NFL draft pick after his time is up at Georgia.
This was a matchup that lived up to all of the pregame hype. The crowd and atmosphere at Sanford Stadium proved to be a deciding factor in this game. As Coach Kelly addressed, the Irish need more focus and attention to detail. Notre Dame finished the game with 12 penalties for 85 yards, the most penalties accumulated in a game in the Kelly era. A lot of these were false starts and offsides with both lines jumping early – the crowd noice clearly playing a factor. That is not an excuse though; if the Irish want to continue to gain national respect and play competitively on these stages, they are going to deal with these same sorts of crowds and atmospheres in games ahead. Notre Dame will have to continue to play at a high level throughout the remainder of the season and not shoot themselves in the foot with penalties during the course of the games. As Coach Kelly mentioned in his postgame interview, we are going to learn a lot about this team when we see how they come out this week against Virginia. This was clearly an emotional loss and coming off the high of such an exciting game can be a challenge that carries into the upcoming matchup. I think that we will know a lot about how the rest of the Irish season will go based on how Notre Dame comes out and plays this week against Virginia. On to the next one.