A replay of the 2005 UFC fight between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg played on a loop in the Georgia locker room. Some call it the greatest match in combat sports. Four minutes and five seconds told a tale that holds high esteem in the league’s hall of fame.
In a rematch of two rivals, Trigg nearly had Hughes in submission while holding his opponent in chokehold. Hughes, while lying in the octagon, escaped from the forceful position, held Triggs in mid-air and slammed him to the ground with control. He threw punches and elbows repetitively before choking Trigg into submission and defending his victorious rein.
Georgia called it a core message ahead of its heavyweight bout with No. 7 Notre Dame. Eerie similarities could be drawn between the famous octagon brawl and the magnified football game that drew national attention and over 93,000 to Athens. A rematch of two rivals (based on history, not frequency of play), a firm lead by one team with a decision coming down to the waning moments.
Six post-fight words said by Hughes at the fight’s conclusion raced through each of the Bulldogs’ minds. They sprinted across the Sanford Stadium turf with elation after a 23-17 win because that phrase proved true.
You’re never out of the fight.
Georgia had a 10-point lead and sniffed a scoring chance with seven minutes remaining in regulation. Quarterback Jake Fromm slid after a 9-yard scramble and Georgia thought it had a first down. A measurement revealed that the Bulldogs were inches short of the line to gain.
So, decision time for head coach Kirby Smart. He wanted to try and punch it over the marker. Notre Dame had already exhausted two timeouts due to crowd noise inhibiting proper execution on offensive plays, so draining more of the play clock while trying to add another score sounded enticing. An official review, however, revealed that the Bulldogs were nearly a full yard behind the first-down line.
“I didn’t realize how far it was,” said Smart, who understood the ramifications of criticism if Georgia were to lose after that play call. “I thought it was inches.”
Georgia place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship drilled a 43-yard field goal for his third make of the evening (the special teams highlight in an otherwise-woeful performance), and the Bulldogs still had comfortable control without scoring the add-on touchdown. But 6:54 remained on the clock, a more-than-suitable time allotment for Notre Dame to have two possessions before the final buzzer.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book took his first snap on the following drive. He compiled a steady drive while targeting a thinned Bulldogs’ secondary. A string of four completions over five plays — including receptions of 23 and 31 yards — gave the Fighting Irish a quick touchdown and a jolt of ambition for a roaring comeback. Suddenly, that quick-hitting score made the efforts seem tangible and the Sanford Stadium crowd was consumed with the stunning thought of losing a home game for the first time since October 15, 2016.
Georgia’s sideline had its share of emotional swings throughout Saturday’s game. A slow start of seven points in the first half allowed for a quieter demeanor. A series of interceptions from defensive backs Divaad Wilson and J.R. Reed brought in spiked shoulder pads and water-spewing elation to amplify the excitement around a top-10 matchup.
Wilson, in his first big game at Georgia, kept an even-keeled demeanor through it all. He was telling his teammates to “move back” to avoid a sideline warning rather than getting hung up in the celebration. He knew Georgia had a lot of time left in each scenario, and the fourth quarter wasn’t different. He didn’t panic, but instead Wilson said “Look, y’all calm down. We’ve got this.”
You’re never out of the fight.
Georgia claimed possession with 3:08 remaining, and offensive coordinator James Coley took a conservative approach. He started the drive with a jet sweep to running back James Cook — his first touch of the game for a player who usually receives a heavy workload — and it resulted in a 4-yard loss.
A pair of egregiously-ineffective plays followed and punter Jake Camarda shanked a punt for only 27 yards. Georgia’s three-play drive resulted in a yard, and Notre Dame had more than a tangible pulse. Exactly two minutes remained on the clock.
Sanford Stadium grew as silent as the nearby Miller Learning Center on the afternoon prior to final exam week. Nevertheless, Georgia’s sideline remained confident and poised for a stop to claim its coveted fourth victory of the season.
“I never saw it slipping away,” wide receiver Demetris Robertson said. “I knew our team had it. I knew our defense had it. We came out with a vengeance.”
You’re never out of the fight.
An upset seemed palpable as a swing of momentum came Notre Dame’s way after the fake punt. Georgia had been in this situation before, however, against the Fighting Irish. On that program-altering night in South Bend, Ind., Georgia had to stop Notre Dame on its final possession to preserve a victory.
Mirroring situation, same team. Only a different year.
“It’s funny how things play out,” Reed said.
Book, trailing by six, had a similar plan as his previous drive to pilot the Fighting Irish toward the end zone. Georgia had inexperienced cornerbacks in DJ Daniel and Tyrique McGhee holding down a position with depleted depth, so targeting them became the logical choice. He did so. Two completions for 12 yards brought Notre Dame to the Bulldogs’ 40-yard-line.
Throughout the drive, Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning had instruction from Smart to stay aggressive. A decision had to be made: trust in the coverage or release all boundaries and come toward Book? Easy choice. Georgia prides its defensive success on the concept of havoc, and it was ready to unleash it at a critical moment.
A pair of incompletions brought up fourth down. Notre Dame had eight yards to gain in order to keep its ambition alive. But by the end of regulation, Georgia’s depth showed and it had fresher bodies due to frequent defensive rotation.
Fifty-eight seconds remain. Georgia calls timeout.
“We want to be a dominant team in the fourth quarter,” Smart said. “We want to try to break people’s will.”
Change of course … Finish the fight.
Book stepped back in the pocket. Georgia released its pass rushers like wolves. Outside linebacker Nolan Smith busted through the line-of-scrimmage. Book scrambled aimlessly 19 yards behind his teammates and released a pass toward any player he could see. He found a mob of two red jerseys to one white — advantage Georgia.
“We do it all the time,” Reed said. “I knew we could do it. That’s what we’re made for at Georgia.”
A lazily-spiraling set of laces came within Georgia’s reach. Daniel and defensive back Mark Webb Jr. combined for a deflection. Daniel stood with his arms spread widely, Georgia’s sideline jumped with reckless abandon and spouts of water flew atop players’ heads.
Two quarterback kneels to follow meant nothing smelled sweeter than victory formation. Fromm bent his knee to the ground, and it felt like a game of this magnitude truly hadn’t been played in Sanford Stadium since 1966.
Georgia won the fight.
A mob of Bulldogs paraded the midfield logo, but inside linebacker Tae Crowder emerged in a full-on sprint toward the student section. Other teammates quickly followed suit, and a win between the hedges quickly became a party. Crowder and fellow linebacker Quay Walker received some love from students while bathing in plush green grass. Something felt unique to beating Notre Dame. This certainly wasn’t like any other.
“I don’t even know what I said or did,” Crowder said. “I was just happy for my team.”
Reed, defensive end Malik Herring and running back Prather Hudson leaped atop an equipment cart. Reed rocked his beloved pair of savage pads once more. An elated crowd couldn’t fathom the scene after undergoing an overwhelming swing of emotions.
A grueling stretch of offseason work, a series of injuries and each of the tough practices became worth it for this moment that might be hard to replicate.
Georgia got its knockout punch. Both times against Notre Dame.