Notre Dame's playoff hopes still alive despite heavyweight loss to Georgia

ATHENS, GA. — For three or four seconds, the noise finally abated. Ian Book’s last pass was a prayer under pressure, heaved high and deep, and as the spiral arced through the night with aching slowness you could damn near hear 93,246 fans stop screaming and inhale, equal parts hopeful and fearful.

The most momentous game of this young college football season hung in the balance — No. 3 Georgia trying to hang onto a game it was in danger of blowing, No. 7 Notre Dame trying to complete a Joe Montana-worthy comeback. This fourth-down play would either give the Fighting Irish new life in the red zone, or clinch the win for the Bulldogs.

“I was a little nervous to look, to be honest with you,” said Georgia receiver Lawrence Cager.

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He didn’t need his eyes to know how it ended. Just his ears. When cornerback DJ Daniel rose highest of two Bulldogs swarming around Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool and knocked Book’s pass to the grass, raucous Sanford Stadium exploded one more time. Georgia had won, 23-17, in a game that helped both programs.

The victory gave the Bulldogs a major College Football Playoff résumé boost. Losing certainly would not have been fatal, but dropping this game at home would have reduced their margin for error with a rigorous schedule remaining.

“Special,” said offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson. “This one feels special.”

The close loss gave the Irish a credibility boost. Yes, it was their 11th straight defeat against top-five competition, but Notre Dame was in the game for 60 minutes. This game bore no resemblance to the blowout against Clemson last year, or being manhandled by Alabama in 2012, or losses to Ohio State and LSU and others in recent years. If Notre Dame can navigate an increasingly manageable schedule with just this one loss, it could still be in the playoff picture late in the season.

Sep 21, 2019; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) celebrates with offensive tackle Cade Mays (77) after a touchdown against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second quarter at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2019; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) celebrates with offensive tackle Cade Mays (77) after a touchdown against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second quarter at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

“The core of this team is gritty, hard-nosed and physical,” said coach Brian Kelly.

So this was win-win-win. Georgia wins biggest, Notre Dame wins at least a little bit in defeat, and college football wins for the sheer spectacle of the evening.

Georgia threw a sensory bombardment at the visitors, a night of massive roars and infrared lights. The Irish were unnerved to the point that they committed seven false-start penalties, continually missing the snap count because they couldn’t hear.

A game that some estimated was the biggest in Athens since 1929 (against Yale) was tangibly altered by a fan base still trying to overcome Big Game Flop PTSD.

“They impacted the game more tonight than I’ve ever seen a game impacted,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “Not just here, but anywhere.”

From here, Bulldog Nation can see all the way to November. The Bulldogs have an open date, followed by October games against Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky — teams with a combined 4-8 record and zero victories over Power Five opponents. That’s followed by another open date, and then November gets serious.

Georgia plays Florida (4-0) in Jacksonville, then Missouri (3-1) at home and Auburn (4-0) on the road to start the month. After that is a home game against Texas A&M and the rivalry game against Georgia Tech, then a possible SEC championship game appearance with a playoff bid on the line.

That’s a rigorous home stretch, but as Smart said, his team is made for slugfests like the one it won Saturday night. Georgia is huge and physical and wore down Notre Dame in the second half, even if it failed to put the Irish away. The ‘Dogs scored 16 unanswered points to take control of the game, squeezing the Irish offense and taking control of the line of scrimmage.

Sep 21, 2019; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) runs against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second half at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2019; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) runs against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second half at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“We want to be a dominant team in the fourth quarter,” Smart said. “We want to break their will. … I think we’re built to do that.”

They’re built with a defense that annihilates opposing running games, a powerful offensive line, a running back (D’Andre Swift) who is both elusive and strong, a rebuilt but improving receiving corps — and a quarterback who makes the entire operation function. Jake Fromm lacks the monster stats of Tua Tagovailoa or the Oklahoma Quarterback of the Year, but he is a resolute winner who was his customarily efficient self in this game — 20 of 26 for 187 yards and a touchdown, and no interceptions. He’s yet to throw a pick this season.

“Jake takes things that are broke and fixes them,” Smart said. “He makes wrongs right.”

Smart could say the same of himself. He took over a program that was at least partially broken under Mark Richt and has fixed it, winning 28 of his last 33 games including consecutive SEC East Division titles. The only lingering issue has been the annual road meltdown game (2017 at Auburn, 2018 at LSU) and the inability to beat Alabama.

But this team may have the goods to overcome those hurdles. At the very least, it has the goods to be a playoff contender deep into November and perhaps beyond.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, can keep hope alive even in defeat. If the Irish extend their current 11-game home winning streak through the season and take care of road games against uninspiring Michigan, Duke and Stanford, they’ll be in the playoff mix as well.

Everyone won something Saturday night in a deafening and potentially defining night between the hedges.

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