Kirby Smart mentioned it in his press conference on Monday: turnovers would play a critical role in Saturday night’s game between No. 3 Georgia and No. 7 Notre Dame.
“They are getting a lot of turnovers and they’re not turning it over much,” Smart said. “That’s one of the key critical factors of winning football games.”
Indeed, the Fighting Irish entered the night with a plus-6 turnover margin, tops in the country. But the Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) flipped the script between the hedges on Saturday, winning the turnover battle 2-1 en route to a 23-17 victory.
“We’ve been preaching havoc all year,” said senior safety J.R. Reed, who had one of Georgia’s two interceptions in the game. “That’s the thing that we preach here, and we wreaked a lot of havoc out there, we created a lot of havoc.”
To Notre Dame’s credit, the Irish cashed in on the one turnover they got. After receiver Tyler Simmons muffed a punt that was recovered at the Georgia 8-yard line, the Irish scored on a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from quarterback Ian Book to tight end Cole Kmet.
That touchdown gave Notre Dame a 7-0 advantage and carried the Irish to a 10-7 halftime lead. As soon as the second half got underway, though, the tide turned.
After forcing a Georgia punt, Notre Dame faced a third-and-6 at its own 24. Book fired a pass over the middle for receiver Chris Finke. The pass bounced off Finke’s hands and nestled into the arms of Georgia defensive back Divaad Wilson, who eventually fumbled his first career interception out of bounds at the Notre Dame 22.
“The momentum of the game changed because of that play, but I still had the mindset of we’ve still got a game to play,” Wilson said.
Simmons said the play gave the entire team some juice. The Bulldogs failed to punch it into the end zone, but cashed in a field goal to tie the game at 10 apiece.
Later on, the Bulldogs led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. The Irish tried a flea flicker on a first down play at the Georgia 45-yard line.
However, Reed had none of it.
Book was pressured and forced to throw off balance down the field. At the last moment, Reed flashed in front of the intended receiver and snagged the interception as he slid out of bounds.
“It’s just good discipline on my end,” Reed said. “I knew they were going to run a trick play, kept my eyes on my man and made a play.”
Reed’s timely interception led to three points on the scoreboard and a 23-10 lead, as well as over four valuable fourth quarter minutes being bled off the clock.
Smart’s Monday mention of the turnover margin was not just usual coachspeak. He and his players said it had been a particular point of emphasis in practice this week.
The attention to turnovers paid off, as the Bulldog defense came up with a pair of huge plays that swung the momentum in Georgia’s biggest win to date of 2019.