SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Forget the calendar. No. 15 Georgia’s first visit to No. 24 Notre Dame had all the trappings of an important bowl game — for all kinds of good -reasons.
The atmosphere was appropriately loud and electric for the Bulldogs’ first game north of the Mason-Dixon Line since 1965.
And there was a lot at stake in this early-season marquee matchup.
Kirby Smart, in his second season as Georgia coach, was eager for his inaugural signature win. And the Irish, coming off an angst-ridden 4-8 season, needed a big victory to advance their plans for a bounce-back season.
Hand it to Smart. In a seesaw battle that delivered on the drama that was promised, Georgia scratched out a 20-19 victory.
The Dawgs’ Davin Bellamy delivered the clinching blow, beating All-America tackle Mike McGlinchey and sacking Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush with 1:27 left and forcing a fumble. Lorenzo Carter recovered at the Irish 25-yard line. That ended things for Notre Dame (1-1), which had no timeouts left.
“I’m disappointed for my guys,’’ Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They battled. They played hard. I’m proud of their effort. The credit should go to Kirby Smart and the Georgia football team for making the critical plays when they were needed. The loss stings. But we’ll grow from it and be better because of it.’’
Kelly bristled at the suggestion that the Irish might be in for another season of close losses.
“It’s not going to snowball. Next question,’’ he said. “We’ll bounce back and be ready for Boston College. We’re really close to being the kind of football team that can play with anybody.’’
Georgia (2-0) seized the momentum in the third quarter. It took its first lead at 17-16 with 4:34 left in the third quarter on a drive aided by Irish penalties.
Penalties were a bigger hindrance, though, for the Dawgs, who were whistled 12 times for 127 yards. ND had eight penalties for 63 yards.
Notre Dame took the lead back 19-17 on Justin Yoon’s fourth field goal of the game with 10:21 left.
Rodrigo Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal put the Bulldogs back on top 20-19 with 3:34 left. It was Blankenship’s second field goal in three tries. And the Georgia defense made sure that lead held up.
“Just to come out here and show that we can play on a stage like this, and put the Georgia brand back on top, it feels great,’’ said Bulldogs receiver Terry Godwin, who tied the game 10-10 on a spectacular reel-it-in catch.
The Irish are second in all-time college football wins. Georgia is 11th. But these venerable programs brought an air of uncertainty into this clash, partly because their quarterbacks had exactly one college start between.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, making his first college start, looks like he could be in eighth grade. But he played like a future star.
Fromm made some mistakes. He had two first-half turnovers — a fumble on a handoff and an interception. The fumble set up Notre Dame for a 32-yard touchdown drive, its only TD of the first half. But he also made some big-time throws.
Wimbush, the relative veteran, was making his second collegiate start. The redshirt sophomore QB scored from one yard out to give the Irish a 10-3 lead after Fromm’s fumble. Wimbush’s 32-yard pass to Josh Adams set up the TD.
But Georgia bounced back. And Fromm showed an awful lot of promise for a kid that young in a situation this big.
Bulldogs fans turned out in boggling numbers. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the fans at Notre Dame’s 257th consecutive sellout made this the most sought-after ticket of this young season. Online ticket prices started at nearly $400 on game day, and high-end tickets reportedly were going for four times that. Georgia officials, who received an allotment of 8,000 tickets, estimated that they easily could have sold three times that number.
Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com.