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(Chip Towers/DawgNation)
Notre Dame Stadium was far from full a half-hour before kickoff for the 90th annual Blue-Gold Spring Game.

With historic trip to UGA awaiting, Notre Dame looks to answer questions in Blue-Gold Game

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Greetings from Notre Dame Stadium, site of one of the Georgia Bulldogs’ most monumental moments in football history.

The last time I was here, Sept. 9, 2017, Georgia got a miraculous touchdown catch from Terry Godwin, a clutch field goal from Hot Rod Blankenship and a strip-sack from Davin Bellamy to score a 20-19 victory that many feel propelled the Bulldogs on to the SEC Championship and National Championship Game. That was also the night that the world found out how well the DawgNation traveled, as a red-and-black crowd approaching 40,000 half-filled this 80,000-seat, storied stadium. The Irish Nation also learned then what the “Light Up Sanford” tradition was for the Bulldogs.

Nothing quite so monumental will happen today. I’ve been dispatched here by the powers-that-be at DawgNation headquarters to provide for you a sneak preview of Notre Dame’s 2019 football squad. The Fighting Irish — coming off a 12-0 regular season and College Football Playoff berth in 2018 — will be coming to Athens for the return game of a home-and-home series that was brokered by UGA’s Josh Brooks several years ago.

The two powerhouse programs are slated to meet on Sept. 21 at Sanford Stadium. A kickoff time has not been set, but most are anticipating a night-time kickoff, such as they had the last time here.

It will be Notre Dame’s first-ever game between the hedges. Nobody is expecting 40,000 Irish faithful to find a seat in Sanford that night. Georgia fans have already mounted a concerted effort to prevent that from happening. But word up this way is there is a segment of Notre Dame fans that’s willing to pay top dollar to get in. We shall see.

Likewise, no one is expecting a 93K Day like at Georgia or anything approaching that for what today is the 90th annual Blue-Gold Game. I’m told that they generally draw 20,000 to 30,000 for Notre Dame’s annual spring game and the pregame tailgating scene seemed to support that. I drove in 90 minutes before kickoff and found a parking space in the general admission lot without much of a problem.

Crowd size not withstanding, there is considerable more excitement surrounding this program than there was when I first came here in the spring of 2017. At that time, the Irish were coming off a 4-8 season and there where more than whispers about coach Brian Kelly’s job being on the line. But the natives have settled down considerably since then, thanks to Notre Dame’s 22 wins over these last two seasons.

The streets of Eddy Street Commons were packed last night with Notre Dame fans as they eagerly awaited the unveiling of “The Shirt.” That’s the specially-designed T-shirt that students will wear for every game in the 2019 season. The catchphrase for this year is “Building on Tradition.”

Kelly MC’d the event, as he always does, and joked that no one expected him to be here for what is his 10th spring game. Members of the Notre Dame Marching Band heartily agreed, and one shouted out, “no titles!” So the tension to win it all remains in place for this program. It has, after all, won 11 national championships, or 13, depending on the account to which one subscribes. The key, though, is there hasn’t been one since 1988.

Not many are expecting the Irish to contend for a national title this year. But having hung out in South Bend and talked to several of the players and coaches this week, those who will be on the field today do believe they’ll be in the hunt.

That game with Georgia in Sanford Stadium will go a long way toward determining that. The Irish have games against Louisville and New Mexico before their historic trip to Athens. But like in 2017, they have that date circled in blue and gold on their schedule.

As for today’s game, here’s are some of the questions the Notre Dame fan base hopes get answered:

  • How does Ian Book play at quarterback in his first spring game as the team’s undisputed starter?
  • Who will step up at linebacker, where the Irish lost 600 career tackles to graduation last season?
  • Can they find adequate replacements for punter Tyler Newsome and place-kicker Justin Yoon?
  • Who will replace the lost production of receiver Miles Boykin (872 yards, 8 TDs) and running back Dexter Williams (995 yards, 15 TDs)?

Back home, there should be a lot of interest in how a couple of Georgians play today. Tight end Tommy Tremble of Johns Creek has been one of the big surprises for the Irish in spring camp, and fans are anxious to see if 4-star defensive back Derrick Allen of Marietta can start to make an impact after a redshirt year.

I’m here to report all that and more. And please take a minute to read some of my other reports from South Bend the last few days. Tomorrow, I’ll offer a retrospective on the 2017 Georgia-Notre Dame game from the perspective of the Fighting Irish, who believe that game helped set them up for the success that was last season.

For what it’s worth, Atlanta’s Bill Curry and Tony Barnhart are here to present Kelly with the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year trophy in the second quarter.

Kickoff here is 12:30 p.m. Thanks for hanging out.

DAWGNATION IN SOUTH BEND