SOUTH BEND, Ind. – It’s one game, that’s all. It’s one win that won’t define the season or impact the SEC standings and shake up rankings.
But it felt like more than that. It looked like more than that.
There were Georgia players by the dozens, leaping into a sea of red-draped fans in an historic road stadium, where locals are not accustomed to such stunning takeovers by traveling foreigners.
There was Jacob Eason, the injured starting quarterback, leaning on a walking crutch and waiting patiently for Jake Fromm to climb down from the stands, just so he could give him a hug and say congratulations. (Fromm’s response: “This is awesome.”)
There was the head coach, Kirby Smart, walking out of the locker room after addressing his team and the media and immediately spotting his father, Sonny, a long-time former high school coach who knows what this feels like. The two embraced.
“This is what I came back for,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said late Saturday night. “I knew we were making this trip up to South Bend and I had to be a part of it, especially with the way we finished up last year. I wanted to come back for something better.”
It’s only the second game of the season, but maybe this year will be something better. Georgia rallied four times to win a game against a ranked opponent on the road Saturday night. They defeated Notre Dame 20-19 in a stadium that was half-stuffed with Georgia fans, a scene so alarming that Smart said Fromm could use the calmed cadence he normally reserves for home games, adding, “Nobody’s able to do that on the road in the SEC.”
Carter said, “It felt like a home game, man. When I saw those lights came up and I looked up, it was crazy.”
This performance was not museum quality. It was closer to fist-smashed Play-Doh.
Coach Kirby Smart called it “sloppy.” And “frustrating.” And probably a few other things under his breath.
Too many turnovers by the freshman quarterback (two). Inconsistent and often weak blocking by the offensive line. Way too many penalties (12 for 127 yards, at least half of which could be placed in the egregious category. Smart cracked “everyone apparently decided they had to have at least one” face mask penalty.
“We made this as difficult as we can make it,” Smart said. “We’re not going to win many times on the road if we play the way we played.”
But as flawed as they looked, this could be a potential blueprint for future wins. The offensive line is young and may never be great this season. Quarterback play also may be shaky. They’ll need to do it like this: with a sack and a turnover and a field goal and a punch in the mouth.
Even Smart, who is not about to over-blow a win in Week 2, acknowledged, “This will be a game they’ll talk about for a long time.”
If the Dogs were expected to do anything well this season, it was play defense. It’s the second season under Smart, the former long-time defensive coordinator at Alabama, and he had the good fortune of his two best defenders, linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, passing on the NFL draft and returning for their senior season.
This probably was better than any game Carter and Bellamy played a year ago. Carter had a strip-sack-fumble recovery late in the third quarter (which the offense failed to capitalize on, despite starting the next possession near midfield). Bellamy had a sack with 1:27 left that forced another fumble, recovered by Carter and clinched the win.
Former Georgia defensive end David Pollack said recently Georgia’s season “will be defined by how well they do defensively. But you can’t be a great defense if you can’t affect the quarterback. Bellamy, Carter – we’ve been talking about those guys for years. But neither one has really stepped up. Georgia needs those two guys to wreak havoc.”
Havoc arrived. If Carter and Bellamy can replicate Saturday’s performance, Georgia can win a lot of games this season. Outcomes will tip on defense, the running game and trying to play relatively clean, mistake-free football (which they didn’t).
They’ll need the occasional big pass from Fromm and/or Eason. They’ll need big kicks from Rodrigo Blankenship, who amended for an earlier 44-yard miss with a 30-yard field goal with 3:13 left to give Georgia the lead.
It was a memorable weekend for Blankenship. On Friday, he was put on scholarship. On Saturday he kicked the winning field goal. “I didn’t want him thinking he was going into this game kicking for his job,” Smart said.
Georgia can win the SEC East with games like this because, well, it doesn’t take much to win games in the SEC East. The performance was easy to pick on but the Dogs showed some toughness in coming back.
That includes Fromm. He was a freshman making his first start and it showed. He had a fumble and an interception and completed only 16-of-29 attempts with two sacks. But he had a touchdown pass dropped by one receiver (Mecole Hardman), another one completed (thanks to an acrobatic one-handed catch by Terry Godwin in the end zone) and completed a beautiful back-shoulder pass to Javon Wims for 31 yards that set up the winning field goal in the final minutes.
Fromm shouldn’t feel bad about his performance. The only other time Georgia played Notre Dame came in the Sugar Bowl in the 1980 season. Quarterback Buck Belue missed on his first 11 passes before completing one. His final stats: 1 for12 for seven yards. But the Bulldogs won the game 17-10 and the national championship. They buried the Irish with a stout defense and 150 yards and two touchdowns from Herschel Walker.
This magnitude of this game wasn’t that game. But Smart is coming off an 8-5 season and needed something like this. It feels significant.
When asked if the win could be viewed as a program-builder, Smart said, “I definitely think for our fan base it feels that way. For our team, we’re 2-0. But program builder? I don’t know that we had that. The best thing is our kids came in the locker room and said, ‘We didn’t play real good.”
No, they didn’t. But they celebrated like it was more than just a win.
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