PLANNING FOR THE OPPONENT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It’s here. Finally.
After 37 years, Georgia and Notre Dame are finally going to play a football game again. You may have heard about the last one. The traditional powerhouses met in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 1981, and the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs, led by a tailback named Herschel Walker, defeated the Fighting Irish 17-10 to finish the season 12-0 and as undisputed national champions.
Not only has Georgia not won a national championship since, but the two teams have never had the occasion to play again. Vince Dooley, the head coach of record for the championship and the athletic director for the next 24 years afterward, had brokered a home-and-home series with the Irish at the end of the last century. But, alas, those contracts got torn up after the Notre Dame underwent an administrative changeover.
Fast forward a few decades, and that’s not necessarily the main storyline anymore. Dooley will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Chicago Cubs’ game Friday night and will be on hand for the game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. But the matchup of the present is now taking precedence over that one of the past.
The 15th-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) will be going into battle with a true freshman at quarterback. Jake Fromm will get the start after relieving Jacob Eason, who went down with the knee injury midway through the first quarter of last Saturday’s opener against App State.
No. 24 Notre Dame (1-0) will counter with a first-year starting quarterback of their own in redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush. But the more prominent storyline for the Irish is the long term job security of their head coach. Brian Kelly almost completely turned over his entire coaching staff and retooled both the offense and the defense in the wake of last year’s 4-8 season.
So it’s a big game with big stakes, and it will be played on one of the biggest the biggest of stages in college football in a nationally-televised, primetime game.
Here’s some things that’ll need to happen for the Bulldogs to win it.
THE FROMM FACTOR
The book on Fromm is that no moment is too big for him. In fact, that’s exactly what coach Kirby Smart said about him after his debut against App State. After failing to record a first down on its first three possessions, Fromm went on to lead the Bulldogs to 31 unanswered points and 368 total yards.
Obviously Fromm is expected to meet much more resistance from the Fighting Irish. No doubt they will load the box and be looking to stuff the running game Georgia always hopes to provide from Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. So running the football will certainly be a challenge from that standpoint.
That said, the Bulldogs’ best ploy may be just to go ahead and test the Notre Dame secondary and try to get the ball moving through the air. That’s how Fromm got Georgia on the move against App State, completing his first two passes on eight-yard quick throws, which in turn loosened up the safeties and gave Chubb and Michel some room to roam. Chubb and Michel ended up combining for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
And while Fromm hasn’t exhibited a particularly strong arm at this level, he did manage to pass for 12,745 yards and 116 touchdowns sat Warner Robins’ Houston County High School. Word is he’s a quick study. If he can master some quick-game passing the Bulldogs could be in business.
As for Notre Dame’s offense, Georgia is going to have its hands full going against a line that many are saying may be the best in college football this year. It’s extremely big and very experienced.
Most notably is the left side of the Irish line, manned by 6-foot-8, 315-pound All-American tackle Mike McGlinchey and 6-5, 330-pound guard and former 5-star recruit Quenton Brown. Including senior starters at center and right guard, Notre Dame’s offensive line had 79 starts between them coming into the game.
Not coincidentally, the Irish were able to cut loose with 422 yards rushing in their 49-16 win over Temple last week. But, lest we forget, Temple is not in the same league as Georgia, defensively or conference-wise. All week, Notre Dame has been referring to the Bulldogs’ front seven as one of the best in college football this year. And Notre Dame struggled against good defenses a year ago, when most of these linemen were starting as juniors.
Georgia might have the edge when it comes to the interior of its defense, with a nine-man rotation on the line that includes Trent Thompson, John Atkins and Jonathan Ledbetter. And the Bulldogs’ swift linebacker duo of Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick are well suited to exploit Notre Dame’s larger, more-plodding linemen.
The key may well be for outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy to keep Notre Dame’s explosive, dual-threat quarterback contained in front of them so he doesn’t get loose to run or go back to pass unfettered.
Like Notre Dame, Georgia can be expected to do whatever it takes to keep the Irish running game at bay. Including Wimbush’s 106 yards, the Irish had three backs go over 100 yards rushing for the first time since 1954. Running back Josh Adams had 161 yards and two touchdowns and his speedy running mate Dexter Williams added 124 yards and a score. So negating that will be objective No. 1.
But the Irish also believe Wimbush is undervalued and under-appreciated as a passer. The 6-1, 225-pounder threw for 3,187 yards and 37 touchdowns as a high school senior and, with his obvious running ability, is a real threat to cut the ball loose on the run-pass option plays they feature almost every down.
That will put a lot of pressure on Georgia’s secondary, which comes into othis contest as a bruised and battered bunch. Senior cornerback Malkom Parrish is expected to miss his second straight game with a broken foot, and he is the Bulldogs’ best run-stopping defensive back. Also, Aaron Davis, who moved from star to cornerback to replace Parrish, continues to be dogged by a hamstring injury. Davis is expected to play, however.
Meanwhile, the Irish feature a top-grade receiving corps and tall and agile tight ends. Equanimeous St. Brown is 6-5 and so are all their tight ends. That will create a matchup problem for the Bulldogs’ defensive backs.
The key then, will be for Georgia’s front seven to keep the heat on Wimbush and the pressure off the back end of the defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS SHOWDOWN
Given that this matchup seems to be a push of strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness, it may well come down to special teams.
The Bulldogs were much-improved in that regard in the opener, getting five touchbacks and a field goal from place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and 43.8 yards from transfer punter Cameron Nizialek.
Notre Dame counters with a punter in Georgia native Tyler Newsome who is as good as they come. The Carrollton native enters the game with the second-best career average in school history at 44.1 yards. Junior Justin Yoon as been the Irish placekicker since his freshman years but has been known to miss a few PATs and field goals. If it comes down to a long kick to win it, it could be anybody’s ballgame.