Georgia holds off tough challenge from Notre Dame

Paul Newberry
Associated Press
Georgia wide receiver Lawrence Cager (15) celebrates his 15-yard touchdown catch with Makiya Tongue and teammates during the fourth quarter.

Athens, Ga. – Jake Fromm threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence Cager early in the fourth quarter and No. 3 Georgia, getting a tougher fight than many expected, held off No. 7 Notre Dame 23-17 on a raucous Saturday night between the hedges, a result that could have ramifications all the way to the College Football Playoff.

The Bulldogs (4-0) trailed 10-7 at halftime but turned the momentum when redshirt freshman Divaad Wilson intercepted a pass by Ian Book deep in Notre Dame territory. The Fromm-to-Cager combination helped push Georgia to a 23-10 lead, but the Fighting Irish (2-1) had a chance at the end.

Book’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool cut the deficit with 3:12 remaining, the Notre Dame defense held, and Book got the ball back at his own 48 after a poor punt with just under 2 minutes to go.

The Irish got as far as the Georgia 38, but no further. It ended with Book zig-zagging on a desperate scramble before hurling up a long pass that fell incomplete, denying Notre Dame the signature win over a top opponent it so desperately needs in its first visit ever to Sanford Stadium.

“That’s what college football is all about, man,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I hate that somebody had to lose that game. I’ve got a lot of respect for the way they played, and all the negative things they’ve heard, and to come out and play the way they did. They played really physical as a team, and so did we. We persevered.”

With Georgia up 13-10 after a pair of field goals by Rodrigo Blankenship, Cager hauled in a 36-yard pass along the sideline to push the Bulldogs into the red zone. Then, on third-and-7 from the 15, Notre Dame brought a blitz and Fromm coolly lofted one toward Cager along the left side of the end zone.

A half-foot taller than cornerback Troy Pride Jr., the 6-foot-5 graduate transfer leaped high to make the catch and tapped down his right foot before tumbling out of the bounds to put Georgia in command, 20-10 with 13:19 remaining.

Desperate to cut into the deficit, Notre Dame called a flea-flicker play. But when Book was pressured out of the pocket and let go of a pass on the run, J.R. Reed dove in front of the intended receiver to make a brilliant interception as he slid into the Irish bench.

Reed sprinted all the way across the field, hopped atop the Georgia bench and bounced for the record crowd of more than 93,000 while wearing shiny, Road Warrior-style shoulder pads that go to the latest Bulldog defender to get a turnover. It led to Blankenship’s third field goal.

“The atmosphere we had tonight, the game we played, it’s just unbelievable,” Fromm said. “This is unbelievable. We’re so thankful the fans came out. They helped us on third down a ton.”

In a most efficient performance, Fromm was 20 of 26 for 187 yards. Cager was his favorite target, hauling in five passes for 82 yards.

D’Andre Swift led Georgia on the ground with 98 yards and a touchdown, including a dazzling play when he hurdled over a would-be tackler without being touched.

“We knew we were close,” Fromm said. “It was the body blows, it was the physicality. We just kept hitting them, hitting them and hitting them, and it finally just started wearing on them and we started running the ball more and started making plays throwing the ball.”

A two-touchdown underdog, Notre Dame took advantage of a huge turnover by Georgia punt returner Tyler Simmons to grab the lead. Attempting to make a fair catch, he fumbled the ball away and Claypool recovered for the Irish at the Georgia 8 to set up Book’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kmet.

Swift scored on a 3-yard run, but Jonathan Doerer booted a 27-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.

Book finished 29 of 47 for 275 yards, giving Notre Dame a chance right to the end.

Notre Dame dropped to 8-29 against Top 10 teams since Lou Holtz left after the 1996 season.