ATHENS, Ga. — Just imagine it: The third-best team in the country meets the seventh-best team in the country in an on-campus College Football Playoff quarterfinal. It’s a do-or-die game. The winner advances down a path to a potential title, and the loser is a goner. The stadium is packed to the gills. Fans are hanging on every play. A national audience is squirming on their couches during a second-half nail-biter.
Would be cool, right?
Well, we got it Saturday night in a red-basked Athens, when No. 3 Georgia mounted a defensive-led second half comeback and then hung on to beat No. 7 Notre Dame, 23–17. We got a playoff game, with playoff teams in a playoff atmosphere. If it walks like a playoff and if it talks like a playoff, is it a playoff? The only thing missing was the reality that for some silly reason we don’t have an eight-team playoff with quarterfinals on college campuses. We’ve now experienced two of these type games in a matter of two weeks (we had a nice cushy seat in the press box for then-No. 6 LSU’s 45–38 win over then-No. 9 Texas in Austin on Sept. 7). If we do add another round to the playoff, would it water down games like these? Potentially. But I digress. Let’s move on to this bout in Sanford Stadium, a slugfest of football yesteryear compromised of game-changing interceptions, significant fourth-down stops and a whole lot of punting.
And the offense? That came in spurts. Chalk this victory up to the Bulldogs and their nasty defense. They picked off Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book twice in the span of 15 minutes, both key plays in a pressure-packed second half of football that saw Georgia (4–0) recover from a 10–7 halftime deficit. The Dawgs couldn’t have done it without that defense, without the nine tackles from linebacker Tae Crowder, the diving interception from J.R. Reed and the nifty pick from Divaad Wilson. “Our defense is amazing,” says UGA right tackle Isaiah Wilson.
How amazing? Notre Dame had two drives longer than 30 yards. In fact, one of its two touchdown drives traversed just eight yards, coming after a muffed punt. It took the Irish four downs to score, too. At one point in the third quarter, ND went three-and-out three consecutive times. As that happened, the UGA offense finally came alive. If it wasn’t running back D’Andre Swift literally hurdling defenders, it was quarterback Jake Fromm connecting with receiver Lawrence Cager (they hooked up three times for 61 yards on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive). This was smash-mouth football in every sense of the phrase. Just ask Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “You could hear it out there. The physicality was real,” Kelly says. “It was probably one of the most physical games that I have coached against any team that I have competed against, and I have coached a lot of games.”
The Bulldogs’ inability to get into the end zone—they were forced to kick three field goals—made for a tight ending. After a shanked punt, the Irish took over at their own 48 with two minutes left and down six. They moved just 14 yards, and Book’s jump ball on a fourth-and-8 fell to the ground to a roaring sea of red. “It means a lot for Georgia Nation,” Reed said. “Lot of people came out here.”
When he means a lot, he means a lot. Thousands of people watched the game from a bridge overlooking part of the stadium, unable to squeeze inside this sold-out, 93,246-seat place. The cheapest tickets to the game on the secondary market hovered around $300 a pop, and the university expected well over 150,000 people on campus. UGA debuted a new light show, too, shutting off power to the main lights and bathing the stadium in red ahead of the fourth quarter. “That,” coach Kirby Smart said afterward, “is a real home-field advantage.”
This story was almost a lot different. Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet and his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame burst onto the scene. A former closer on the Notre Dame baseball team, Kmet proved nearly uncoverable for much of the night. He had seven catches at halftime and finished with nine for 108 yards and a touchdown that wasn’t even meant for him (leaping high off the guard, he tipped a ball meant for the receiver behind him to himself for the score). Georgia got around to covering him, but it was almost too late. His 31-yard reception in the fourth quarter positioned the Irish to close the game to a one-score contest. “Figured out they wanted to go to him,” Reed says. “We knew what they were going to do and when you know what they’re going to do, it’s easy to stop it.”
It didn’t necessarily seem like that, but this is for sure: Kmet was the only real problem for UGA’s defense. Notre Dame ran for just 46 yards and failed to convert nine of 14 third downs. The Irish fizzled in another big-game bout. Remember the game against these two squads two years ago (Georgia won 21–20 in South Bend)? How about last year’s playoff semifinal against Clemson (a 30–3 loss)? There was the 44–28 loss to Ohio State in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, and who can forget that 2012 title game drubbing from Alabama? This keeps happening, but don’t think it has to do with talent. “The level of competition was out there,” says Wilson. “That is a playoff team. They’re a top 10 team. Talent is there.”
A playoff team? You don’t say. We got an unofficial quarterfinal on Saturday. Let’s have more of’em.