Irish Primed For Dawg FightBy Joanne Norell
General sentiment among the national college football literati tends to hold that No. 7 Notre Dame has no chance when it visits No. 3 Georgia in primetime on Saturday night.
No matter that the Irish are coming off a 52-point win, or a College Football Playoff berth in 2018, or that these teams bear strong resemblances to those that met in what turned out to be a one-point battle at Notre Dame Stadium in September 2017.
Indeed, Notre Dame and Georgia have tread very similar paths since that night:
- Both looking to grow after disappointing 2016 campaigns, Notre Dame and Georgia have found success since. The Irish are 23-3 since their Week 2 meeting in 2017, while the Bulldogs are 25-5.
- Georgia went to the College Football Playoff in 2017, reaching the championship game. The Irish reached the playoff the next year after an undefeated regular season.
- Both teams have been ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 for 19 straight weeks and within the Top 15 for 28 straight weeks dating back to 2017.
Of course, there have been differences, too. Georgia has been to two straight SEC Championship games, one which it won (2017, over Auburn) and one which it lost (2018, to Alabama). In the absence of a conference, the Irish have stayed true to their barnstorming roots, playing in the nation’s largest media markets. Both teams’ recruiting classes routinely rank in the top 15, though the Bulldogs hold the edge with top-two classes in each of the last two cycles.
The message being emphasized by Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly this week is all about intentionality. It’s a message that’s been conveyed in some way since the 2017 season, when Kelly overhauled the entire approach and turned the Irish from a four-win team the previous year to a 10-win squad that beat an SEC team in the Citrus Bowl.
If one thing’s for certain in college football — a game ruled by emotion more than formula — it’s that nothing’s for certain. Still, let’s take a stab at the factors most likely to have an impact on Saturday’s outcome.
There’s no question Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has posted some elite numbers since earning the starting job last season. Saturday will mark his 13th start for the Irish and in his last 12 games he has tied for best among FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (68.4) and sixth in touchdowns (27). Over his last eight games, he ties for best among Power 5 quarterbacks with 40 completions of at least 20 yards. And in his last four games, Book ranks second in FBS averaging 15.7 yards per completion (1,065 yards and 68 completions).
In 2019, Book ranks second nationally in yards per completion (19.1) and fifth in passing efficiency (202.7) and points responsible for per game (24.0).
Of course, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Book has voiced a need for improvement after both Louisville and New Mexico games, when his completion percentage (61.7) struggled to keep up with his production from last season (68.2) and particularly that of his first six appearances of 2018 (76.5).
Book is no stranger to these big-game situations, but Saturday’s match-up will provide much more context to his potential than either of 2019’s first two games.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm doesn’t own the same kind of efficiency numbers as Book, but he’s no less one of the nation’s elite signal-callers. His 59 touchdown passes since the start of last season rank third among FBS quarterbacks and he rarely turns the ball over, having thrown just four interceptions in his last 12 games.
“He’s unflappable,” Kelly said of Fromm. “You can pressure him, and he doesn’t panic. He makes great decisions. He’s sound with the ball. Generally, when you get down to the really great teams … you’re going to get the great quarterbacks that are the reason why they start to separate. Fromm is one of those guys that gets you to start to separate.”
The Ground Game
Notre Dame did not throw the playbook at Louisville and New Mexico, but will have to show creativity in the ground game both offensively and defensively against a Georgia team that excels in both areas.
Let’s start on offense.
Notre Dame’s rushing numbers took a hit against the Lobos with a pair of shovel passes from Book to Avery Davis and Chris Finke that went for long touchdowns — and toward Book’s passing numbers. The spirit of those plays, however, was in the running game.
That doesn’t change Notre Dame’s need to assert itself between the tackles, particularly on third and short, while continuing to exhibit the kind of craftiness that played so well against New Mexico. That’s because the Irish will be facing a Bulldog rushing defense that rates fifth nationally, giving up just 60.7 yards per game. That number is likely skewed with Georgia’s first three contests against Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State, but that doesn’t make it any less of a concern.
The defense will have to contend with a Bulldog rushing attack that is averaging 286.7 yards per game and 7.6 yards per carry. The Irish have struggled to defend the run, and know they will have to keep the ball contained, especially against an attack that features D’Andre Swift, who ranks second among Power 5 running backs with 9.4 yards per carry, as well as Brian Herrien (who has scored in all three of Georgia’s games) and Zamir White (who is second to Swift in rushing yards for the Bulldogs).
“We were disappointed with some poor defensive structure where the ball got outside the defense,” Kelly said of the New Mexico game. “That can’t happen against anybody. It can’t happen against Georgia because those plays are going for touchdowns.
“That’s attention to detail stuff you know you can’t have against anybody. I think our guys will learn from it and know that each and every play against a team like Georgia, if you’re not on it, all 11 players playing together great run defense, a guy like (D’Andre Swift) is going to take it to the end zone.”
Every spring, Kelly and Director of Football Performance Matt Balis set a theme for the upcoming year. With key games away at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford, 2019’s theme is “Road Warriors,” with emphasis on staying focused during the big moments in hostile environments.
That mentality will be put to the test between the hedges Saturday, with Georgia expecting a record 93,246 fans at Sanford Stadium for its first top 10 non-conference matchup since 1953. Additional seating is being added for the affair, and ESPN’s College GameDay is stamping it as the game of the week, appearing at the site of a Notre Dame game for the 30th time.
Then there’s the red. And there will be a lot of it.
That’s why Kelly and his staff have spent so much time preaching the Road Warrior idea, doing their best to simulate the noisy, red-clad fans and general chaos in store for the Irish on Saturday in Athens.
“Whether it is protecting the house that we play in, that mentality, or going on the road, those are important elements within the entire year,” Kelly said. “Being on the road, being able to build that mindset is really what this has been about and certainly we’ll need that again this week against UGA.”