Head to head: Notre Dame vs. Georgia
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 8, 2017
This week, all eyes have been on Georgia’s quarterback situation. Sophomore starter Jacob Eason had high expectations heading into the season. But those expectations will be put on hold, as Eason suffered a sprained ligament in his left knee against Appalachian State and will sit out Saturday’s contest.
In his place, freshman Jake Fromm will make his first career start. On paper, the change benefits Notre Dame, but Fromm looked just as effective, if not more so, as Eason in the limited time he received last week.
However, the last time a true freshman quarterback won a game at Notre Dame Stadium was in 2014 when Reggie Bonnafon led Louisville to a 31-28 victory.
The Irish secondary looked passable against Temple, but there were still many cases of open receivers. The Owls weren’t able to capitalize on those chances, but a top-15 team like Georgia will.
Senior corner Nick Watkins looked solid, and his sophomore counterpart Julian Love did as well, but the safety play from Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Nick Coleman seemed suspect.
Fromm might be a freshman, but that doesn’t mean the Irish defensive backs can afford to get overconfident.
The Irish held Temple to just 85 rushing yards on 37 carries in their season opener, but the Owls did not have Nick Chubb or Sony Michel in their backfield.
Georgia’s offensive line lacks experience, but Chubb and Michel have rushed for nearly 6,000 yards between them over the course of their college careers and combined for 183 yards against Appalachian State’s stout run defense. If Chubb and Michel get worn out, the Bulldogs can call on four-star sophomore Elijah Holyfield or five-star freshman D’Andre Swift to continue to move the ball on the ground.
The Irish showed a surprising amount of front-seven depth against Temple, with 10 different players recording a tackle for loss, including freshman defensive linemen Khalid Kareem and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, but they haven’t seen a pair of backs like this before.
BULLDOGS OFFENSIVE COACHING
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is much better known for his work on the defensive side of the ball, where he led Alabama’s dominant defense from 2008-2015. Offensive decisions mostly come back to Jim Chaney, who joined the Bulldogs alongside Smart after stints with Purdue, Tennessee, Arkansas, Pittsburgh and in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams.
Georgia finished 11th in the SEC last year in points, offensive yardage and yards per play, all despite two elite running backs.
Mike Elko was one of the most sought-after defensive coordinators in the nation this offseason for a reason, and his scheme proved effective against Temple.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
BULLDOGS SPECIAL TEAMS
One of Notre Dame’s glaring flaws from 2016 was kick coverage on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian is an upgrade to the position so far and the coverage units showed no blatant mistakes versus the Owls.
Georgia redshirt sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship returns as the Bulldogs’ starting place kicker. Blankenship went 14-of-18 on field goals in 2016.
Much of the hype surrounding Notre Dame in the offseason has revolved around junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. And in his first start against Temple, he looked good. Wimbush went 17-of-30 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, Wimbush rushed for 106 yards and another touchdown to boot.
Aside from a few drops, the Irish receivers looked solid as well. Four different tight ends saw playing time, and junior Equanimeous St. Brown again showed why he has a bright future in college and in the NFL.
In the secondary, Georgia has heady, experienced backs. There isn’t a ton of NFL-level talent, but Wimbush will have to be smart with his reads to avoid turnovers (he threw one interception against the Owls).
If the Bulldogs’ pass rush hits home, the Irish offense could be in for a rough day, but the Georgia secondary could very well be facing the most talented group of receivers it plays all year.
Wimbush will be forced to make plays through the air against Georgia, but he is fully capable of doing so.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
422 yards on the ground certainly silences a lot of critics who claim Kelly doesn’t commit enough to the running game. The stat is gaudy, but how good is the Irish ground game really? Temple won’t win 10 games like it did the last two years, and Georgia returns each member of its front seven from last year.
A lot will rest on the shoulders of the Irish offensive line and captains Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, and if the Irish can rely on junior Josh Adams to convert in short-yardage situations, then the complexion of the game changes.
But the front seven, and defensive grit in general, has been the bread and butter of Georgia football in the recent past. Graduate student nose tackle John Atkins, especially, is a force to be reckoned with, putting up eight tackles and three sacks in last year’s Liberty Bowl.
How well Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey hold up at the right tackle position will also be a key matchup to watch.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long had Notre Dame’s offense running like a well-oiled machine last Saturday against Temple. The Irish scored just 33 seconds into the game on two plays, and the Irish scored when they needed to in order to put, and then keep, the game out of reach for the Owls.
How well Kelly and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees prepare Wimbush for the Bulldogs’ defensive looks will be a telling factor in the game.
Kirby Smart is no stranger to facing big-time offenses. After winning championships as the defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban, Smart has seen some of the best offenses college football has to offer over the years. With an experienced defense in the second year of Smart’s system, nothing will come easy for the Irish on Saturday.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
The most worrying part of Notre Dame’s blowout victory was the fact that junior kicker Justin Yoon missed two field goals from inside 48 yards. Yoon’s confidence, and his range, will be something Kelly has to factor in when his team gets into Georgia’s side of the field.
The Irish return game did appear to be improved versus the Owls, but Georgia’s special teams unit poses a stiffer challenge.