SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Georgia and Notre Dame haven’t played in 37 years, and the game they play here Saturday night may very much resemble that last meeting in the New Orleans Superdome.
Expect a battle of dueling running games when these traditional powerhouses face off at Notre Dame Stadium (NBC, 7:30 p.m.). The No. 24-ranked Fighting Irish (1-0) are coming off a season opener in which they rushed for 422 yards and had three different players bust the 100-yard barrier in a 49-16 win over Temple. Meanwhile, Georgia (1-0) comes into town this weekend with a true freshman making his first career start at quarterback and a pair of senior tailbacks that are the envy of most every opponent they’ll face this season.
So it doesn’t look like either one of these offenses will be interested in chucking the ball all over the yard Saturday. More likely, this one will be a battle of wills in the trenches.
“Clearly, you get the sense that this is a Georgia to be team that wants to feature two outstanding backs, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “They are elite backs. I mean, you’re going to see two guys that will be NFL players and have great careers. So two elite backs. Big offensive line. Wide receivers are quality and have the ability to make plays down the field, depth at the tight end position.”
Chubb and Michel combined for 183 yards and three touchdowns in the win over App State. They have 6,018 career rushing yards and 58 touchdowns between them.
Of course, Notre Dame has good backs, too. Junior Josh Adams rushed for 161 yards on 16 carries against Temple, scored on his first of two touchdowns 33 seconds into the contest and had a 100 yards after his sixth carry of the day. The 6-2, 225-pound runner from Warrington, Penn., is just 366 yards shy of breaking into Notre Dame’s Top 10 rushers of all time with 1,929 yards.
Meanwhile, junior Dexter Williams (5-11, 225) added 124 yards and quarterback Brandon Wimbush went for 106. It was the first time since 1954 three Notre Dame players ran for more than 100 yards.
The reason they were able to do that is the Irish feature an offensive line believed to be one of the best in college football this season. Left tackle Mike McGlinchey (6-8, 315 pounds) and left guard Quenton Nelson (6-5, 330) both are seniors and project as early draft picks next spring. Meanwhile, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars, the Notre Dame offensive line comes into Saturday’s game with a resume of a combined 79 starts.
“I think McGlinchey is going to be a first round pick; if not, he’s going to be really close,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He is very impressive. That whole left side is really strong and powerful. They have a good offensive line as you see. We are excited for the challenge. Our defensive line has to step up and play well because they are going to play against some big, physical guys. Once you include them and the tight ends, it’s a very impressive group, size-wise.”
The Bulldogs counter with a very formidable defensive front of their own. They return 10 starters and all of the front-seven rotation from last year’s team, which was fourth in the SEC in both total defense and rushing defense. Georgia allowed just 136 yards on the ground to run-oriented Appalachian State, and only 89 in the first three quarters when their starters were on the field.
Kelly and the Irish well recognize that the defensive front they go against Saturday won’t in any way resemble the one they just saw from Temple.
“Depth and versatility, I think those are the two words that come to mind with their defensive line,” Kelly said. “(There were) nine guys that I’ve evaluated and our staff has evaluated and they are all very good players. Really love (defensive tackle Trent) Thompson in terms of his ability to stop the run. He’s a good athlete, good quickness, got a lot of tools. (Nose guard John) Atkins, obviously. But there’s so much depth on that defensive line, and there’s great versatility within their three-down team. They can play three down; they can play four down; they can give you multiple looks. They just do a great job.”
Conversely, Georgia is relatively young and experienced on the offensive line, with new starters at all five positions and a true freshman in Andrew Thomas starting at right tackle. But the same holds true for the group they will be facing across the ball.
Junior Jerry Tillery (6-6, 306) started 11 games last season and 14 in his career for the Irish. But before this year the other three players that got the nod this past Saturday – senior Jonathan Bonner, senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes – had combined for one career starts. However, at an average of 6-4, 286 pounds, they’re considerably bigger than the defensive front from App State that Georgia just encountered.
So these two teams appear well-matched up front. It might well come down to the intangible areas usually dictated by quarterbacks and skill players coming up with big plays.
You might have to give the Irish the edge there, with dynamic dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush piloting the offense and a long-and-tall wide receiver corps led by junior Equanimeous St. Brown at their disposal. Also, the offense is under the direction of a new offensive coordinator Chip Long, formerly of Memphis, who’s calling the plays instead of Kely this season.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Georgia’s Smart conceded. “We are going to be finding out a lot more about our defense. The matchups are going to be bigger and faster. The quarterbacks are going to be bigger and faster. The offensive line is bigger, the wide-outs are all 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, so the matchups are going to be different. It’s going to be a lot different from that perspective.
“I have a lot of respect for what Coach Long does offensively. This team is going to go fast, they’re going to go tempo. We have work to do and it presents a great challenge for us defensively. But we’re excited for it.”