Kirby Smart had one more thing to address in his postgame speech after Georgia defeated Notre Dame by one point in 2017.
Rodrigo Blankenship was on scholarship.
The decision had already been made and the former walk-on kicker had already been alerted, but what better time to tell the team than after one of Georgia’s most important wins of the last two seasons? It was Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal that gave the Bulldogs the 20-19 lead with 3:39 remaining. After Georgia’s defense forced a three-and-out and recovered a fumble in Notre Dame’s final two drives, the moment was set for a raucous post-game atmosphere.
“Man, with the win and then Rod announcing his scholarship — the locker room was nothing but joy,” safety J.R. Reed said. “We were all just so excited. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
The national media still didn’t know what to make of Georgia. A little over nine months before, the Bulldogs finished Smart’s first season in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Liberty Bowl, where they beat TCU to finish 8-5 on the year. Notre Dame, which had a 4-8 record in 2016, was also an enigma. So after the Week 2 win, Georgia moved up just two spots in the Associated Press poll from 15 to 13.
The significance of the game wasn’t made obvious until months later, when the Bulldogs won the SEC championship and the Rose Bowl before losing the national championship.
“It was a great opportunity for us to learn and develop and just learn how to handle tough situations,” Blankenship said. “And I really think that we used some of that experience we had from that game to help us in some big moments later on.”
There were also some schematic lessons to be learned from the Notre Dame film. Georgia left South Bend with the win but was flagged 12 times for 127 yards. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm made his first start that September night, but he didn’t begin his career the way some might expect. He threw for 141 yards with two turnovers.
Fromm did have a touchdown pass, but he has receiver Terry Godwin to thank for that. Now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad, Godwin said his one-handed catch — originally ruled out-of-bounds — ranks as one of his two favorite Georgia football memories.
“That play was definitely one to remember,” Godwin said. “That picture that everyone has is most definitely going to be framed for me and put in my house one day.”
Godwin's catch was one of two important receptions that altered the outcome of the game. Javon Wims, a senior in 2017, snagged a 31-yard catch over his defender late in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, Blankenship knocked his game-winning field goal through the uprights.
" was Kirby's second year," Wims said. "For him to turn the program around that quick was remarkable. So I think it was definitely a help starting with that [the Notre Dame game]. All the seniors that year, it was now or never for us."
Smart said the Notre Dame win was just one of many games that had a large impact on the 2017 season.
“It [gave] our kids an opportunity to perform at a high level,” Smart said. “We didn’t play perfect. They didn’t play perfect. It was a hard-fought game … I think both programs are here to stay.”
In front of a national audience on NBC, Godwin made an insane catch, Georgia’s fan base took over Notre Dame Stadium and the Bulldogs escaped with a win.
“It just showed that everyone started buying into the program,” Reed said. “We saw what we can do if we buy in and all work together, and all work for a common goal. It showed everybody a new era, and that’s Kirby Smart’s era.”