Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the play call was a “hero or zero” type call. In a tightly-contested game between two top-10 teams, these are the types of plays that make or break a team’s chances. Or their season.
It was a standard flea flicker: A play in which a quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who then takes several steps forward, as he would in a normal run play. The running back turns and pitches it back to the quarterback, who launches a throw down field to a streaking receiver.
That quarterback, in Saturday night’s case, was Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book, who took the snap, handed off to running back Tony Jones Jr., then waited a split second before the running back turned and tossed him the ball. It was the perfect play call, given the atmosphere, the stakes and Book’s ability to make the right throw. But it was not the only perfect play call in that instance.
Georgia brought cornerback Tyrique McGhee on a blitz. By time Book had the ball again, McGhee was bearing down on him. And a lurking J.R. Reed saw it pan out from a mile away, knew where Book’s errant pass would end up and sprung to action.
Reed smoothly slid in front of an Irish receiver on the Notre Dame sideline, corralled the pass and got a foot in bounds. He sprinted back to his own team’s bench and was greeted by a mob of teammates, a roar from (most of) the 90,000-plus inside Sanford Stadium and those shiny gold Savage pads.
“They had the perfect call on for the flea flicker,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “When you call a play like (the flea flicker), you’re either going to be the hero on the play, or take a zero. They had the perfect call, they blitzed the corner off the flea flicker. We got a big zero on that play.”
It was a turnover that encapsulated everything the Bulldogs defense did right in the second half of its 23-17 win, and why the unit might be, yet again, one of the conference’s best.
Kelly said the stats on Notre Dame’s rushing defense were overrated. The stats were not overrated on the Bulldogs’ defense.
A few notable ones: Georgia allowed 46 rushing yards, grabbed two interceptions off Book and held the Irish to 4-of-13 on third down. Nobody on Georgia recorded a sack, but the pass rush clearly affected Book on numerous occasions.
“I think (Georgia) stayed true to what they were running,” Book said. “They had a great game and a great game plan. I respect that team a lot.”
Perhaps the biggest change the Bulldogs made was their coverage of Book’s No. 1 target on the night.
Fighting Irish tight end Cole Kmet had 33 receiving yards in the first quarter and 68 yards at halftime. He ended up finishing with 101 yards and a touchdown but likely would have done more if the Bulldogs did not adjust to jam him at the line of scrimmage.
The Bulldogs ultimately held the Fighting Irish to 321 yards of total offense. Notre Dame entered the contest averaging more than 500 yards per game. The Fighting Irish’s 46 rushing yards were nearly 150 yards below their season average.
Georgia also won the turnover battle 2-1, but the result was up in the air until late. Bulldogs punter Jake Camarda shanked a punt (the second time he did so Saturday night) and the Fighting Irish had the ball, down six in great field position.
Cue the Bulldogs’ pass rush, a scrambling Ian book and his prayer of a throw that ultimately was not answered. Just like on the flea flicker.