A lot’s been going on the past few days - so I had an idea.
You know, when I started writing these previews and recaps three years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. After all, I had never written about college football professionally before - let alone called myself an “expert” on it. And even if I took the time to hone my skills… I couldn’t help but wonder, “Would anyone even read it?”
But I decided to write it anyway. And lo behold… you read it.
So I kept writing.
And still… you kept reading.
Three years, three seasons, 42 weeks of games (plus bowl games, of course), and 573 emails later… and I’m still writing. And you’re still reading.
This month, I was going to write all about Notre Dame’s spring practices to help preview the 2020 season. Obviously, events far beyond football have intervened, and we’ll have to go without new college football updates for a little while.
But you've always kept reading, so I wanted to keep writing.
And that got me thinking: if football of the present is paused… why not go back to the past?
So over the next few weeks, I’m going back in time to write about some of the biggest games and moments in Fighting Irish football history (as well as plenty of other great college football moments soon... stay tuned), beginning with one of the first (and best) Notre Dame games I wrote about: Notre Dame vs. Georgia at Notre Dame Stadium, September 9, 2017.
Georgia at Notre Dame
September 9, 2017
Notre Dame Stadium
Georgia: 20 | Notre Dame: 19
Yeah I know what you’re thinking: “I thought this was supposed to make me feel better, Hank. How could you start with a loss?” This is a good question - and one I have answers for. I’ll share two of them now, and save the other for the end.
Reason number one? This was only the second game I had ever previewed for Rent Like A Champion - and, for those of you who loved these newsletters before they were cool, you’ll recall that the RLAC team was actually at this game! Plus… while I’m worried this will take away a bit of my own mystique… this was actually my first game at Notre Dame Stadium. It was a real “Rudy” moment…
Reason number two? Fews games over the last five years have had their respective storylines age better in terms of where these two programs would go on to following their meeting in South Bend.
Which is where we’ll start our first category...
Where our story begins…
Let’s take you back to 2017:
The Irish were coming off of a dismal 4-8 season, starting QB Malik Zaire had transferred to Florida, and while the Irish had promised defensive improvements heading into the season… whether they could live up to those self-made expectations was a real question.
There were some promising aspects of the team, sure. Josh Adams was a proven back running behind an experienced offensive line with two All-Americans, and Equanimeous St. Brown (still the best name in football) was an explosive receiver with NFL written all over him. The problem was that without Zaire… it would fall on Brandon Wimbush, who had all of *checks* five passing attempts coming into the 2017 season, to facilitate the offense against a formidable SEC defense.
Somehow, Georgia’s predicament was equally as dire - as starting QB Jacob Eason had gone down with an injury in week one… leaving a true freshman named Jake Fromm to take the ball and lead the Dawgs.
There was plenty to like about Georgia, of course. In Sony Michel and Nick Chubb they had arguably the country’s most effective backfield duo - and that defense we talked about had “a chance to be one of the best defensive units in the SEC, and thus the country” according to the preseason preview from Athlon Sports.
But Georgia, like Notre Dame, was coming off of a disappointing 2016 campaign - one that saw them go just 8-5 - and the Dawgs knew that road win in South Bend would immediately get them back into the national conversation.
It all led to kickoff on one of the best college football games of 2017…
How *waves hands* it all happened
The story of this game immediately was Notre Dame’s defense.
True, they gave up a big run early from Chubb, and there was this sensational catch from Terry Godwin that I still can’t believe he held onto…
But the moments of triumph for the Dawgs were few and far between. The Irish forced two turnovers, including a fumble that set up a short field for Notre Dame’s offense to get their first touchdown on a Wimbush bootleg to the right - and a crucial interception in the waning moments of the second quarter to keep a three point lead. It genuinely seemed like even with the huge Georgia contingent making the trip to South Bend… the Irish had all the momentum heading into halftime.
When the second half kicked off, the game remained a defensive power struggle back and forth. They traded some stalled drives before Notre Dame poked in a field goal, and then Georgia found their first real consistent offensive execution on a 75 yard drive highlighted by a 40 yard run by D’Andre Swift (helped by a facemask penalty that tacked on an extra 15 yards). Sony Michel took it the rest of the way and all of the sudden Georgia had their first lead of the game.
Then, a little bit of irony set in, as it was Notre Dame who caught the turnover bug. Brandon Wimbush fumbled on the next drive, one that had been threatening inside Georgia territory - and while Georgia wasn’t able to turn that into points, the Irish were then only able to get a field goal on their subsequent 73-yard drive.
Those points left on the board would prove costly, as Georgia added on more field of their own to pull ahead 20-19… and then, fatefully, one more Wimbush fumble would put the game out of reach. Ballgame.
Instant reaction from the rewatch
The atmosphere was incredible
Even having been there, man it’s fun to see that atmosphere again.
People seemed to be a little bugged by the high number of Georgia fans in the crowd, but I gotta be honest: it only added to the environment. I remember talking to plenty of Georgia fans who had made the trip, calling their visit to Notre Dame Stadium a “bucket list memory” and it’s hard not to let that sweep you up a bit - this was two storied programs, one iconic stadium, and one of the best games of the year in primetime.
This was a big time college football game.
Notre Dame had this one more in-control than I remember
The other thing I forgot was just how in-control of this game Notre Dame was for the majority of the night. Take out the run by Swift in the third quarter (or even just take away the facemask on the end of the run), and suddenly Georgia might settle for a field goal, or might not even be able to put points on the board at all.
In my memory this became a game that was largely about Notre Dame’s offensive difficulties - and while that may very well have been part of the equation, their defense was getting enough stops where this one could really should have ended up bouncing the other way.
(UPDATE: As I did more digging into this, the SP+ box score has Notre Dame’s post-game win expectancy - basically a measure at how likely they would be to win if the game were played again under the same conditions - at 12%. This seems wild. I’m not a guy to doubt the numbers but watching that game… I don’t know. This one really felt like it could have gone either way).
What would have happened if you added Josh Adams and this offensive line to the 2018 Notre Dame team?
I don’t have an answer to this, but boy is it fun to dream about.
All the things to come...
It’s truly amazing how much this game was “the beginning” of. Both of these teams were clearly in such transition and were looking for what Mike Tirico at one point referred to as “a signature win” - which is amazing considering where each team would go after their meeting in South Bend.
Which brings us to our next category...
What’s stood the test of time
Jake Fromm (and Georgia. Period)
Let’s get Georgia’s breakdown out of the way early, because holy moley was the beginning of quite a journey for them.
Jake Fromm went from an unproven true freshman in this game to one of the best game managers in the country by the time he left campus for the NFL this past year. From this first start, he would go on to rack up 8,224 yards (4th in UGA history), 78 passing touchdowns (2nd), with a career passer rating of 156.2 (2nd).
And as Fromm would go, so would Georgia - as the Dawgs rattled off a 12-1 regular season (their only loss would later be avenged against Auburn in the SEC Championship), and narrowly lost the National Championship to Alabama thanks to the late-game heroics of another true freshman named Tua Tagovailoa.
They would end their season ranked 3rd in the SP+, both Michel and Chubb would rush for over 1,200 yards, and after starting the Kirby Smart era 8-5, they’re now 36-7… and with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman joining them in 2020, the best could still be yet to come.
Both of these defenses (particularly Notre Dame’s secondary)
Georgia’s defense was also phenomenal in this game - and on rewatch I’m almost ready to die on the hill that Georgia’s linebacking core in 2017 was the best I’ve ever seen in my life (especially Lorenzo Carter, who was everywhere in this game).
But keep in mind that Notre Dame’s defense held what would become the country’s 14th ranked offense to just 20 points, a 29% success rate (vs. 44% on the year), and 326 total yards (vs. 435 yards per game on the year). They also forced two turnovers against a team that would go on to rank 4th in expected turnovers on the year - and would eventually see themselves climb from 104th to 50th in turnovers gained from 2016 to 2017.
Speaking of improvement…
The secondary! What was a major liability a year ago held Jake Fromm to just 141 yards and one touchdown (again, on a catch that was darn-near impossible) through the air. They would go on to rank 7th in passing defense according to the SP+ by the year’s end, as opposed to 86th in 2016.
Notre Dame’s return to the national stage
It wasn’t just Georgia who rose to prominence following this game - this was a key turning point for the Brian Kelly era in getting back on track and making their way back to the national spotlight.
True, this game ended in a loss - but like Georgia, it served as a key fork in the road; a before and after marker that I’ve grown accustomed to thinking about.
No, they couldn’t come away with the victory, but as Georgia kept winning, Notre Dame kept pace with them… and the rest of the country began to take notice, with the Irish reaching as high as 3rd in the AP poll at one point in the season.
In the three years before this game, the Irish were 23-16, and had taken what felt like a sharp left turn away from their ill-fated 2012 national championship appearance.
Since this game, the Irish are 31-5, have made their College Football Playoff debut, and are once again considered one of the sport's most formidable programs - not just of the past, but of the present, as well.
So… why this game?
I promised you three reasons I chose to revisit this game as the opening entry of this series, and the third reason came as I was looking back at old recaps.
I remember, early on, that one of the things I was most concerned about was how I would recap a loss - how could I keep people’s hopes high even in the face of heartbreak? Then the loss to Georgia happened… and as I was leaving the stadium I remember getting my answer, from fans just like you. So I wrote about it…
“... a strange thing happened on the way out of the game.
As we wound our way down the ramps of Notre Dame Stadium, we heard a familiar chant... starting low... and getting louder… ‘Let's go, Irish... let's go Irish…’ And with that, we knew that hope among Irish fans for 2017 was still alive.
We haven't lost faith, friend... and we hope you haven't, either.”
The thing I remember most about that game wasn’t the tailgate, or the fumbles, or anything like that. It was the moment in the tunnel, even after a heartbreaking loss with no guarantees for success in sight, hearing the Notre Dame chants shouted high above everything else.
Fans in the stadium that night had no idea what was to come - all the wins and the College Football Playoff berth and all the rest. But still they chanted.
We haven’t lost faith, friend. And we hope you haven’t either. It’s the thing that, even now - especially now - sticks out to me as the most magical part of that night.
I’ll be back again soon with another game rewatch soon, folks. And I promise the next Notre Dame game I pick will be a win :)