ATHENS, Ga. — Brian Kelly couldn’t help but look forward.
In the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to Georgia, the Irish head coach insisted his team won’t be defined by how it played Saturday night in Sanford Stadium.
By the time Kelly spoke to reporters following the game, Saturday night had already turned into Sunday morning, which meant it was already Virginia Week. The time for reflection on another loss in a marquee game quickly slipped into the time needed to prepare for another Top 25 opponent.
“We’ll know who we are truly next week,” Kelly said. “How you come back on Monday will certainly define who this football team is. I know who you are (Saturday night) based upon what I saw. But you want to talk about defining games, it wasn’t (Saturday night). It will be next week.”
But the perpetual forward motion required by a college football coach can’t hide what No. 7 Notre Dame (2-1) proved to be against one of the nation’s best teams: not quite good enough.
The Irish made too many mistakes to beat No. 3 Georgia (4-0). The penalties added up: 12 for 85 yards. The turnovers proved costly: two interceptions by quarterback Ian Book. The atmosphere played a factor.
“‘They impacted those guys,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said of the record crowd of 93,246. “They had 5-6-7 penalties and had to use their timeouts. Our fans caused their quarterback to have some issues.”
The self-inflicted Irish wounds included six false-start penalties: five by the offense (three on tight end Cole Kmet and one each on offensive tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey) and one by the punt team (linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath). Notre Dame’s offense had to use timeouts to prevent a delay-of-game penalty or to better communicate in crucial situations.
Kelly said the team practiced in a louder environment earlier in the week, but he placed the blame on coaching for not sorting out cadence issues sooner on Saturday night. While relying on a silent cadence, Book also was using Notre Dame’s typical clapping cadence, and it resulted in some false starts out of habit.
“I’ll take responsibility for that,” Kelly said.
Despite the mistakes, Notre Dame had the ball with a chance to win the game in the final two minutes. The rally fell short on fourth-and-eight at Georgia’s 38-yard line when Book escaped from two Georgia defenders long enough to heave a prayer to wide receiver Chase Claypool that was knocked away by cornerback DJ Daniel.
The Bulldogs took over with 48 seconds remaining and knelt into victory.
Georgia managed to take control of the game in the third and fourth quarters after the Irish led 10-7 at halftime. Kmet broke the scoreless tie with 10:39 left in the second quarter on a one-yard touchdown catch from Book on fourth-and-goal.
The Bulldogs responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a three-yard touchdown run by running back D’Andre Swift. Kicker Jonathan Doerer regained the lead for Notre Dame as time expired at the end of the first half with a 27-yard field goal.
Georgia’s second-half resurgence resulted in the next four scoring drives of the game: two Rodrigo Blankenship field goals, a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Fromm to wide receiver Lawrence Cager, and another Blankenship field goal.
“That was a hard-fought game,” Smart said. “I have a lot of respect for Notre Dame and their program and how they battled. But man, our kids played hard.”
The Bulldogs appeared on the verge of putting the game away when safety J.R. Reed intercepted a Book pass on a failed flea flicker early in the fourth quarter. A cornerback blitz by Tyrique McGhee disrupted the timing of the play, forced Book to escape the pressure and try to squeeze in a throw to wide receiver Chris Finke while rolling to his right.
“When you call a play like that, you’re either going to be the hero on that play or take a zero,” Kelly said. “They had the perfect call. They blitzed the corner off the flea flicker. We have to be zero on that.”
Instead, it turned into a negative for Notre Dame. Both of Book’s interceptions came on throws intended for Finke. The first interception, thrown slightly behind Finke, bounced off the Irish receiver and into the hands of defensive back Divaad Wilson.
Notre Dame’s defense limited Georgia to field goals on the ensuing drives after both interceptions. The Irish defense did some bending in allowing 339 yards, but it kept the offense within striking distance throughout the game.
The Bulldogs rushed for only 152 yards against Notre Dame after averaging 286.7 in the first three games. Swift led the way with 98 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. But Notre Dame’s emphasis on the stopping the run allowed for Fromm and the passing game to convert in enough situations when needed.
Fromm finished 20-of-26 passing for 187 yards and the touchdown to Cager on a back-shoulder fade with Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. in coverage. The Irish defense failed to record a sack for the second consecutive game.
“The game plan was set that they were going to have some one-on-one shots on the perimeter, but the extra hat was going to be committed to the run,” Kelly said. “They hit some one-on-one shots on the perimeter. We had to be effective against the run or we had no chance against them.”
Book was required to do more in carrying Notre Dame’s offense. The Irish rushed just 14 times for 46 yards, with starting running back Tony Jones Jr. turning nine carries into 21 yards. Notre Dame’s running game played without two of its top three backs again: Jafar Armstrong (torn abdominal) and Jahmir Smith (sprained toe).
“We need balance,” Kelly said. “We need some guys to get healthy at the running back position. Tony Jones did a terrific job. We’re asking way too much from him — to do way too much. We need some help for him. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get that in the next few weeks.”
Book completed 29 of his 47 passes for 275 yards and paired two touchdowns with his two interceptions. Kmet, playing for the first time this season after breaking his collarbone in the preseason, became Book’s go-to target. Kmet caught nine passes for 108 yards and one touchdown. Claypool remained a preferred target too with six catches for 66 yards and one touchdown.
Claypool’s four-yard touchdown catch with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter gave Notre Dame life late. The Irish continued to fight despite failing to gain a first down in the third quarter.
“I honestly left that field thinking that we beat ourselves and not that we got beat,” Claypool said. “If we take away those penalties, it’s a different ball game.”
Safety Alohi Gilman, who finished with a team-high eight tackles — tied with rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Jalen Elliott, said the feeling after the game took him back to Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal last year.
The score was much closer, but the disappointment remained the same. It provided more evidence to Gilman that Notre Dame isn’t outmatched against the best of the best.
“We can go hand-in-hand with anyone in the country,” Gilman said. “I’m saying that in all seriousness.”
Even if it’s coach-speak, Kelly has a point in putting the focus on next Saturday against Virginia. Recovering from what Kelly called one of the most physical games he’s coached won’t be easy. There’s no choice but for the Irish to respond if they want to find a way to get back into the playoff picture.
“If they want to get to where they want to go, it can’t be that hard,” Kelly said. “If they’re going to mope around and feel sorry for themselves, we’ll be talking about we lost to Virginia. It’s their choice. Based upon my conversation with them, they want to win next week.”
Defensive end Khalid Kareem made that clear. He’s not willing to be defined by Saturday night.
“This one stings a little bit,” Kareem said. “It’s only one loss. It doesn’t define our season. The next opponents who we have coming up this season, best of luck to you, because we’re coming.”