Two Years Ago, Georgia and Notre Dame Set the Course for 2019's High-Stakes Showdown

Back in 2017, the Irish and Bulldogs met in South Bend in a game that served as a turning point for both programs.
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Davin Bellamy wasn’t even supposed to be on the field. Kirby Smart thought the senior linebacker looked winded and wanted some fresh rushers in the game for the final series. For whatever reason though, he never made a substitution.

It was Sept. 9, 2017 and No. 15 Georgia clung to a 20–19 lead over No. 24 Notre Dame with 30 seconds left. It had been a thrilling night that was ultimately decided by a handful of individual plays. There was Terry Godwin’s impossible one-handed touchdown catch, Julian Okwara’s late hit, and then, the last one.

Notre Dame was driving and faced first down at its own 36-yard line. On the snap, Bellamy faked out left tackle Mike McGlinchey—who would eventually become the No. 1 tackle taken in the 2018 draft as the ninth overall pick—and strip sacked quarterback Brandon Wimbush for a loss of 11 yards. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter, now with the Giants, recovered the football and the game was over.

“It was surreal,” says Bellamy, now a free agent living in Houston. “I remember getting off the ball, throwing my moves, and then I heard McGlinchey say, ‘Watch out!’ Then it was just dead silent. I can’t even put it into words. It was slow, slow motion silent. Then [Wimbush] hit the ground and it’s like, holy s---, that just happened. Then you snap back into reality and everything speeds back up.”

In the aftermath, Notre Dame players were angry and cried in the locker room. In an on-field interview shown live on the stadium video board, senior linebacker Drue Tranquill declared, “Moving forward, I’m scared for other teams. Because we’re coming to punish each and every team that we play.” Meanwhile, Georgia players gathered in the end zone to salute their nearly 30,000 faithful traveling fans—all dressed in bright red—who took over Notre Dame Stadium.

That night served as a turning point for both programs. They didn’t know it then, but they both had momentum that would set them up for where they are today. Notre Dame was coming off a 4–8 record in 2016 and Georgia had gone 8–5 in Kirby Smart’s first season. Since that game, the Irish have gone 23–3 and went to the College Football Playoff last year. The Bulldogs have gone 25–5, played for a national championship and went to the Sugar Bowl. Saturday, they’ll play the back end of this home-and-home series in Athens as two top-10 teams with playoff expectations.

“It showed everybody—and ourselves—that we can hang,” says McGlinchey, now a starter with the 49ers. “We came up short with a one-point loss, but our program took a huge step that day because of the way we were able to battle and stick it to them and had a chance to win the game.”

The Irish couldn’t run the ball against Georgia’s defense, rushing for 55 yards on 37 tries. But over the next seven games—up until a fateful night in Miami—they averaged 349.4 yards rushing. Notre Dame would climb as high as No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and ultimately, win 10 games a year after winning four. The next season, Brian Kelly’s team went undefeated in the regular season and earned its first CFP bid.

For Georgia, winning a game like that so early in the season was validation that a culture change was happening. In 2016, Smart’s first year coaching after taking over for Mark Richt, the Bulldogs lost at home to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech—both by one point. After the season, star players Bellamy, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Lorenzo Carter announced they were returning for their senior years. Bellamy remembers discussing the decision with Michel in the back row of their communications class. They were leaning toward leaving. But no one wanted to be the only guy who left early.

“Now you look back and you could have been watching the national championship game thinking, ‘I could have been out there,’” Bellamy says. “It was a group decision.”

They also wanted to see what one more year playing for Smart looked like.

“That second year [under Smart] we had a player-led team,” Bellamy says. “We had some good football teams before, but Georgia had gotten comfortable with 10-wins seasons, not really winning big games and just keeping our heads above water. That was good enough.

“Smart took it to another level. He brought that Alabama demeanor where he always preached ‘Good is the enemy of great.’ That always resonated with me. The 8–5 season, we felt like we could go to the next level with one more year under Coach Smart with the players we had.”

All that pressure and those massive expectations were mounting the week leading up to the game in South Bend. Smart had named true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm his starter. While most people didn’t know much about him back then, the Irish were keenly aware of his abilities and secretly hoped he wouldn’t be playing for Georgia until at least Week 3. By mid-week, Georgia fans started making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to campus, and by kickoff Saturday, they had turned about 40% of the stadium red.

“We wanted that one extremely bad,” McGlinchey says. “It’s one we had circled in the offseason. When you’re playing a program like Georgia in the Big Bad SEC, we knew we wanted that one. I think I wanted that one more than any other game I wanted in college. That’s the kind of atmosphere that It was.”

Georgia players didn’t know what to expect before they arrived. What would the environment be like? The fans? Bellamy remembers a “fear of the unknown” because they’d never played Notre Dame and only heard about the school in a mystical sense and from watching old games on ESPN Classic.

But by this point in their careers, Bellamy and his fellow seniors had played in some intimidating places. Tennessee twice, Florida twice. Then they ran out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel and saw…Bulldogs fans. It put the team at ease.

“It was like a home game,” Bellamy says.

“We were pissed off,” McGlinchey says.

The game went how it went. Fromm’s numbers weren’t great in his debut, going 16 of 29 for 141 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He relied on Chubb and Michel to get things done. Notre Dame couldn’t move the ball against a stingy defense and settled for four field goals inside the 25. The teams combined for 20 penalties. Really, the game could have gone either way. But ultimately, it came down to the last play.

Georgia's Davin Bellamy celebrates with Bulldogs fans after UGA defeated Notre Dame on Sept. 9, 2017.

Georgia's Davin Bellamy celebrates with Bulldogs fans after UGA defeated Notre Dame on Sept. 9, 2017.

“Still to this day, that’s the biggest scar I’ve ever had in football,” says McGlinchey, who estimates he’s watched that film at least 100 times. “That was a tough night for me. I was playing a pretty good game other than that one play. You have to throw perfect games as an offensive lineman and that night I just didn’t and I cost our team a chance at an undefeated season early on.”

The stakes are just as high this Saturday night when Notre Dame heads to Georgia. As an independent without a conference championship game to play, the Irish are in a uniquely tough position where they need a perfect season to be a playoff contender. There are circumstances—Georgia running the table and winning the SEC—in which a one-loss Notre Dame team could be considered one of the four best teams, but that’s a more complicated path. For Georgia, a loss against a non-conference opponent won’t discount a CFP run. The Dawgs could still win the SEC and slide into the final four.

Regardless of the outcome, we know this game will be a critical playoff marker down the road. And perhaps serve as another kind of turning point for both programs.