ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — As the Notre Dame players trudged off the field, they received appreciative cheers from the Georgia fans at Sanford Stadium.
Yes, the Fighting Irish lost another big game, but they gained a new level of respect.
Now the question is: Can they still make the College Football Playoff with a defeat on their record?
“Our mission here is to win championships,” coach Brian Kelly said Sunday.
Notre Dame (2-1) went into its first game ever between the hedges as a two-touchdown underdog, a line set by prognosticators who undoubtedly remembered some dismal performances by the Fighting Irish against the nation’s top teams.
Like that 42-14 drubbing by Alabama in the 2013 BCS championship game. Or that 30-3 embarrassment at the hands of Clemson in last season’s playoff.
The Irish were much more competitive in a 23-17 loss to the No. 3 Bulldogs (4-0).
“We played fast, we played physical against one of the top SEC teams in the country,” Kelly said proudly.
Notre Dame scored first and led 10-7 at halftime. Even after Georgia seemed to take control, scoring 16 straight points for a 23-10 lead with just under 7 minutes remaining, the Irish refused to buckle.
Ian Book guided a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that included a 31-yard completion to Cole Kmet and a 23-yard throw to Chase Claypool. The Notre Dame defense forced a three-and-out, Jake Camarda shanked a punt and Book got the ball back at his own 48 with 2 minutes remaining — plenty of time to pull off the winning TD.
Alas, the Irish got only as far as the Georgia 38 before the drive fizzled, snuffed out by a blitz on fourth down that forced Book into a zig-zagging scramble in the wrong direction before he heaved up a desperation pass that was knocked to the turf.
“It is tough to not come out on top in this game,” said Book, who completed 29 of 47 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, but also had a pair of crucial interceptions. “I am proud of how this team played.”
Without a conference title to play for, the Irish have little room for error when it comes to getting a shot at the national championship.
In their two most recent title chances — that BCS championship game and last season’s four-team playoff — they got in by posting perfect 12-0 marks during the regular season.
That won’t be the case in 2019, obviously.
Given the remainder of the schedule, Notre Dame desperately needed a victory Saturday night — frankly, more than Georgia did — to bolster its postseason resume.
The Irish still have some quality opponents left on the schedule, including No. 18 Virginia, No. 20 Michigan and No. 21 Southern Cal. But none of those teams carry as much cachet as the Bulldogs — especially after Michigan, thought to be the best of the bunch, was blown out 35-14 at Wisconsin and tumbled nine spots in the latest Associated Press rankings.
Notre Dame slipped three places to No. 10 in the AP poll.
With the Southeastern Conference holding five of the top nine spots in the AP rankings, this could be another year that the powerhouse league lands two playoff berths. Defending national champion Clemson, ranked No. 1 and riding a 19-game winning streak, is heavily favored to get in again, and the champions of the Big Ten (No. 5 Ohio State? No. 8 Wisconsin?) and Big 12 (No. 6 Oklahoma?) will probably have strong cases to make.
Even as this very early stage of the season, Notre Dame already seems like a long shot.
That didn’t dampen the mood.
“We are a team that is going to step up to any challenge and is going to fight to the end,” safety Alohi Gilman said. “The sky is the limit for us.”
There were some clear deficiencies that need to be addressed.
Short-handed because of injuries, the running game was largely abandoned against Georgia, which allowed the Bulldogs to bring more and more pressure on Book. The Irish had only 14 carries for 46 yards, with Book accounting for 18 of those yards. Georgia ran 33 times for 152 yards, steadily wearing down the Notre Dame defense.
Kelly is hopeful that running back Jahmir Smith can return for next Saturday’s game against Virginia. But starting back Jafar Armstrong probably needs at least a couple of more weeks to fully recover from a groin injury.
“We want more balance,” Kelly said. “We’re not all of a sudden going to run it 50 times, but we’re going to have to display a running game that keeps a defense honest.”
Notre Dame’s biggest problem was the deafening crowd of more than 93,000, which created major issues in play calls and snap counts. There were five false-start penalties, a botched snap that ruined a fourth-down play in Georgia territory, not to mention several timeouts that had to be called at inopportune times to sort things out.
Kelly said the miscues were largely caused by Book falling back to his usual routine of clapping out the snap rather than using a silent count.
“We had used the silent count all week,” Kelly said. “But in the heat of the game, he went back to muscle memory and what he had done so much, which was clap. It cost us.”
Nevertheless, it was an encouraging performance for a program that’s been ridiculed for living largely on its storied reputation.
The Fighting Irish showed they could hang with one of the nation’s best teams in a very hostile environment, before a crowd that begrudgingly saluted them with applause when it was over.
“Even though we lost the football game, there’s a lot to take away that we can feel good about,” Kelly said. “This team has a chance to do a lot of great things this year.”