Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17

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The short story out of South Bend is that No. 22 Notre Dame outlasted a scrappy Purdue team 20-17, with back-up kicker Kyle Brindza icing the game on a 27-yard field goal with just seven seconds left on the clock. The longer version? Well… it’s not quite that simple.

With six minutes left in tight ball game, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was cementing his status as Notre Dame’s quarterback of the future. A week after playing the role of game manager in the Irish’s 50-10 dismantling of Navy, the sophomore was heroic for three-and-a-half quarters as he willed the Irish to victory.

With the Irish ground game largely neutralized, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin put the game on Golson’s shoulders, and the talented youngster delivered. Completing 21 of 31 throws for 289 yards, Golson accounted for both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns, throwing one to TJ Jones and scoring another on acrobatic run. So with just over six minutes left in the game and the Irish clinging to a seven point lead, Kelly called on Golson to get the Irish out of South Bend alive.

With Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels out, the Irish relied on their run game. As the clock rolled, the Irish went to work. Theo Riddick churned out an important first down getting the Irish outside their own 20. But then Kelly put the game in Golson’s hands, and things took a drastic turn for the worse. With nowhere to go with the football, Golson took a back-breaking sack, eschewing an easy throw away for a 10 yard loss. Saddled with a 2nd and 20, Kelly once again kept the ball in Golson’s hands. Until the sophomore was stripped of the ball on the Irish 15, setting Purdue up perfectly for a game tying score.

On 4th and 10, Purdue’s Caleb TerBush hit Antavian Edison for a 15 yard touchdown pass, beating linebacker Carlo Calabrese on a double move. With just over two minutes left and the Irish without any timeouts, the Irish turned improbably to Tommy Rees, and the much maligned junior lead the Irish down the field 55 yards for the game winning field goal.

“Any time you come back and show the resolve that our team did, you can imagine it was a pretty excited locker room,” Brian Kelly said after the game, throwing in his contender for understatement of the year.

Nearly 12 years to the day after Irish kicker Nick Setta sunk Drew Brees‘ Rose Bowl bound Boilermakers, Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit out of his hat in a move that could’ve changed the course of his career.

Let’s find out what else we learned during No. 22 Notre Dame’s heart-stopping 20-17 victory over Purdue.

***

With all the chips on the table, Brian Kelly turned to quarterback Tommy Rees for the victory. And the embattled quarterback came through in the clutch.

Notre Dame fans have already made up their minds on Rees. When the junior quarterback took the field with just over two minutes to go, a cascade of boos echoed through Notre Dame Stadium. But with no timeouts left, a field filled with back-up offensive skill players, and an offensive line that was leaking oil, Rees gutted out one of the more improbable drives in recent Irish memory.

Utilizing a mostly vertical passing game, Rees attacked the alleys of the Purdue defense, throwing early and decisively as he calmly marched the Irish down the field. Rees converted two crucial third downs — the first to fifth-year senior John Goodman just as the play clock expired. The second to senior Robby Toma, hitting him perfectly on the break as Toma scampered into field goal range. From there, the Irish worked the ball into the middle of the field, where Kyle Brindza drilled the game winning kick.

When asked if he expected his most experienced quarterback to deliver in the clutch, Kelly talked about what made him confident in the embattled junior.

“It’s what I knew about him, and his make up and moxie and mental toughness,” Kelly said of Rees. “Does he have all of the elite skills? No. But he’s a gamer. And he’ll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They’ll do anything. Because he’s a great teammate.

“He’s the consummate teammate and that’s why those guys in the locker room are pretty happy.”

That Rees was able to march the Irish down the field in crunch time was made even more incredible when you consider he didn’t take a snap with the team until earlier this week, kept out of 11-on-11 drills while the staff got Golson and junior Andrew Hendrix up to speed.

And while Kelly said he wasn’t certain who the No. 2 quarterback would be heading into this game, Rees took every single snap with the team’s second unit this week, making up for lost time just in case the Irish needed to call on their veteran.

After the game, Rees had the opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong, but stayed incredible humble.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees told NBC’s Alex Flanagan about his mindset. “I wasn’t too caught up in the moment. Find a way to win this game and not let it get to overtime.

The junior also didn’t bite when asked about a brewing quarterback controversy.

“I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can,” Rees said. “Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

The majority of ND Nation didn’t want to see Tommy Rees on the football field. But when his number was called, he got the job done, solidifying the respect and belief his teammates and coaches had in him.

***

Perhaps the superlatives lavished on the Irish offensive line were a bit premature.

It didn’t take long for fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr. to realize that the Irish weren’t playing Navy anymore. Golic was treated like a rodeo clown early and often by Purdue’s All-American Kawann Short, as the Purdue defense controlled the line of scrimmage against the Irish for much of the game, forcing Notre Dame to rely on the quick passing game to muster any offense.

“I assumed they wouldn’t come out and try and just run the ball at us, because I think we’re too big and strong for someone to just run the ball at us,” Purdue head coach Danny Hope said after the game.

After cruising for almost 300 yards on the ground in week one, and a year after torching the Boilermakers for 287 yards, the Irish couldn’t run the ball at all, held to just 52 yards on 36 carries. After looking like a line filled with All-Americans, the front five all made their share of mistakes, with captain Zack Martin getting flagged three times and every starter showing up on the wrong side of a Purdue highlight, as the Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss.

“Purdue made up their mind that they were going to have a loaded box today,” Kelly said. “That was it. You’re not going to run the football. We’re going to make it so difficult. We had to manage it by throwing the football.”

Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar put together a perfect game plan against the Irish, bolstered by the fact that his game-calling was a mystery, having spent the past three years in the Canadian Football League. He also gave teams like Michigan State a blueprint, stacking the line of scrimmage and relying on his talented front to control the line of scrimmage.

It’ll be back to the drawing board for Harry Hiestand‘s troops, who took a large step back in their second game of the season.

***

With their backs against the wall, Notre Dame showed a resolve that was absent in 2011.

It was all hands on deck for the Irish as six starters and seven major contributors were lost during the game with injuries. Defensive captain Kapron Lewis-Moore was lost early with a calf injury. Safety Jamoris Slaughter left the game early after a bone-crushing hit injured his shoulder. All-American Tyler Eifert suffered a mild concussion, watching crunch time from the sideline. Davaris Daniels, on his way to an impressive afternoon, rolled an ankle in the end zone. Ishaq Williams was lost for a large chunk of the game with an elbow injury. Sheldon Day went down with dehydration. And 48 hours before kickoff, Nick Tausch aggravated his groin.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. We had two captains go down. A leader in our secondary. And our guys kept fighting, the next guy came in and battled.”

It’s hard to pinpoint areas that could’ve hurt the Irish worse. Lewis-Moore’s injury turned the defensive end position into another youthful experiment, with Tony Springmann logging heavy minutes after both Lewis-Moore and Day went down.

In the secondary, the Irish depth at safety was already precariously thin, yet the secondary put together a nice game as it mixed and matched youth around Zeke Motta while holding the Boilermakers two quarterbacks to just 19 of 37 for 198 yards. (Navy threw for 197 yards the week before.) Offensively, losing your two top receiving threats is never enviable, but it was veterans Goodman and Toma coming up big down the stretch to help the Irish.

Kelly doesn’t expect any of the injuries to be major, with no surgeries expected and a week in the training room to cure most ills. Yet the injuries weren’t as painful as the self-inflicted mistakes that came with the Irish home opener. After a remarkably clean debut, Notre Dame committed eight penalties, including personal fouls on both Martin and All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Yet the Irish still overcame all of that, picking themselves off the mat and winning a game that might have gone the other way a year ago.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

***

Even with Tommy Rees coming in as the closer, Everett Golson is still the Irish’s starting quarterback.

Rightfully so, Brian Kelly killed any quarterback controversy early, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan that Golson would be starting against Michigan State and echoing those sentiments to the assembled media.

“There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State,” Kelly said.

With Golson at quarterback, the Irish have an athletic runner who can make defenders miss and also make big plays with his arm. That confidence was obvious when the staff’s offensive game plan put the ball in Golson’s hands for much of the first quarter. But they’ve also got a young quarterback that is learning the game of football as he goes. Notre Dame burned their final timeout with 11:21 left in the fourth quarter.

And while Kelly said the decision to pull Golson was influenced by an injury to the quarterback’s hand, a source tells me that Golson suffered no ill effects from the tackle that caused his fumble.

While a large portion of the fans in the stands didn’t agree with the decision to go with Rees in crunch time, Purdue coach Danny Hope applauded the decision.

“It was a really good decision by their head coach. It was a pressure situation and it would’ve been a tough assignment for a rookie quarterback,” Hope said. “I was kind of excited about the idea of having a rookie quarterback in there on the last drive. I thought that may have given us an opportunity to get after him some. I thought it was a good coaching decision. Tommy Rees is a good player, he’s a heckuva quarterback, too.”

***

With a job-defining decision on the line, Brian Kelly doubles down on his gut instinct and is rewarded appropriately.

Last week, it seemed like Brian Kelly was miles away from the guy who told Irish fans to “get used to it,” after his decision to eschew a winning field goal and throw for the end zone resulted in an interception and a back-breaking loss to Tulsa. But here Brian Kelly was, rolling the dice once again on Tommy Rees, a quarterback that just about everyone within a hemisphere of South Bend had given up on except for the head coach.

After a second consecutive 8-5 season forced many Irish fans to reconsider if Kelly was the right man for the head coaching job, the Irish coach said and did all the right things. He reshuffled his coaching staff, putting the offense in the hands of his most trusted assistant. He looked inward, evaluating his priorities and putting a focus back on football after spending too much time playing ambassador to the Notre Dame brand. He even holstered his attack on changes to the establishment, leaving decisions on field turf, a Jumbotron, and crowd noise to others while he focused on the football.

For a week, it looked like Kelly had learned his lesson. Against Navy, he played to win — bludgeoning the Midshipmen with a running attack that was impossible to defend. But this afternoon, Kelly reminded everyone that he was still the impulsive coach that marched to his own drummer, throwing himself in the crosshairs of Irish contrarians everywhere when he turning his back on the future and put Rees into the game as he lay all his chips on the table.

That Kelly believed in a quarterback that hadn’t taken a true practice snap until this week says quite a bit about the head coach, and perhaps just as much about this team. While outsiders worry that Kelly’s decision could fracture the locker room, there was nobody that believed in Rees more than the guys wearing the blue and gold. That Kelly was able to double-down and win after exposing himself to as much backlash as possibly imaginable shows that the Notre Dame coaching job — and the pressure cooker that comes along with it — hasn’t broken him.

In a season where victories will be hard fought and tough to come by, the head coach played every card in his hand to gut out a win and keep the Irish undefeated.

“It’s a great feeling,” Martin said after the game. “A tough win today, but we’ll take it. We’re on to Michigan State now.”

The Irish may be on to Michigan State, heading to East Lansing for a primetime showdown of ranked teams. But they can thank a head coach that didn’t flinch for the undefeated journey continuing.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan State

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It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.

2016 REVIEW
The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.

A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.

The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.

A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.

Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST

Former Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell (Getty Images)

For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.

With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.

Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.

HEAD COACH
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.

Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.

Running back LJ Scott (Getty Images)

Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.

If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.

A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.

To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Yesterday: Boston College
Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

Notre Dame’s opponents: Boston College

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Notre Dame fans likely remember the last time the Irish visited Boston College’s campus. John Goodman caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to put Notre Dame up three possessions early in the third quarter, setting up the Irish to move past Alabama in the polls thanks to the Tide’s loss earlier that evening.

A week-three matchup will not provide such an opportunity for dramatics this season, but a loss would certainly diminish the trajectory of Notre Dame’s season.

2016 REVIEW
Boston College finished 7-6 last season and 2-6 in the ACC. That overall record was greatly aided by a three-game winning streak to close the season, including a 30-0 drubbing of Bob Diaco-led Connecticut, arguably sealing Diaco’s ouster at the end of the season. The Eagles also topped Wake Forest 17-14 before beating Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl, the program’s first bowl game victory since 2007.

Before that closing burst, Boston College not only lost games, it lost them by egregious margins. The Eagles faced three ranked foes last year, losing to Clemson, Louisville and Florida State by a combined score of 153-24, yet that does not even include their ugliest loss of the season, falling 49-0 at Virignia Tech in the season’s third week.

As was the case with Temple, taking a look at how Boston College’s offense fared against Wake Forest seems applicable, considering then-Deacons defensive coordinator Mike Elko now leads the Irish defense. None of the Eagles’ offensive numbers last season came close to stellar, but the overall performance against Wake Forest marks something of a nadir.

Ten of Boston College’s 17 points came on two drives totaling 32 yards, the short fields provided by an interception and a recovered fumble. Nonetheless, the 17 points fell short of the Eagles’ otherwise average of 20.7 points per game. Boston College rushed for 93 yards (on 39 attempts) and threw for 74 more (on 23 attempts), both drastically below the averages against all other opponents of 153.8 rushing yards and 149.6 passing yards. The Eagles typically managed 4.55 yards per play. Against Wake Forest, that figure fell to 2.69 yards.

All those single-game figures are significantly lower than what the Deacons usually allowed, with an emphasis on significantly.

WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE LOST

Former Boston College safety John Johnson rises for an interception. (Getty Images)

The Eagles lost notable pieces on all three levels of their defense, perhaps none more vital than safety John Johnson (a third-round NFL Draft pick). Johnson finished second on the team last year with 77 tackles and notched nine pass breakups, all while manning the role of defensive playcaller.

Matt Milano (a fifth-round NFL Draft pick) led the way for Boston College’s linebackers, finishing fourth on the team with 58 tackles while making 6.5 sacks. Rising junior Sharrieff Grice was expected to step in for Milano until he unexpectedly retired earlier this month citing medical concerns.

Furthermore, the Eagles lost two dominant defensive linemen in end Kevin Kavalec and tackle Truman Gutapfel, combining for 99 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

On the offensive side of the ball, one would usually note when a team loses its starting quarterback as Boston College did with Patrick Towles, a graduate transfer from Kentucky. Then again, in his one season in Chestnut Hill, Towles managed a 50.5 percent completion rate and threw 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His departure should not much further limit the offense.

WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE GAINED
Signing 21 recruits to the No. 66 class, per rivals.com, the Eagles may need a number of those to be immediate contributors. Two running backs stand at the head of the line in four-star AJ Dillon and three-star Travis Levy. While Boston College returns its top two rushers from 2016, it did lose Myles Willis, who finished with 301 yards on 49 carries. It seems rather likely either Dillon or Levy picks up that slack.

HEAD COACH
Steve Addazio enters his fifth season with the Eagles. Not much else needs to be said here, aside from the coach has long favored a physical style of play, focusing on a rushing attack as often as not.

Addazio was a Notre Dame assistant coach from 1999 to 2001.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In a twist, Boston College may consider its offense its strength this season. That would seem to imply a leap from its averages of 20.4 points and 293 yards per game last season, but it is also a bit of an indictment of how the aforementioned losses could affect the upcoming “Defensive Summary.”

Jon Hillman led Eagle rushers last season with 542 yards and six touchdowns on 194 carries. (Getty Images)

The offensive line returns four starters, adding West Virginia graduate transfer Marcell Lazard to round off the unit. With two experienced running backs carrying the ball behind that line, the Eagles may be able to ease in whomever starts at quarterback. Senior Darius Wade and sophomore Anthony Brown continue to compete for that gig. A year ago, Towles’ transfer likely saved a year of Brown’s eligibility, while Wade finished the season 9-of-19 for 100 yards and one interception.

To be repetitive, though, either quarterback option will not need to clear a high bar to exceed Towles’ contributions. Add in a receiving corps returning its top-six options and perhaps Addazio will be tempted to stray from his power running game trademark.

That may not be the worst idea for Addazio. The offense has sputtered for two seasons now, averaging 17.2 points and 276 yards per game in 2015.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Setting aside the team awaiting Addazio upon his arrival at Boston College in 2013, last year’s defense allowed the most points of his tenure, 25.0 per game. Frankly, that is a rather low total to include the descriptor of most in front of it, and that is a credit to Addazio as much as anyone else.

Continuing that trend will be only more difficult this season after losing Johnson, Milano, Grice, Kavalec and Gutapfel.

Somewhere it should be noted how strong of a pass rush Addazio has had in each of his seasons with the Eagles. Beginning in 2013, they have totaled 36, 33 and 34 sacks before topping out last season at 47.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Boston College will struggle to reach the win total over/under of 4. In order to get that to even a push, the Eagles may need to win their season finale at Syracuse. If they do cruise past that figure, it will likely trace to the defensive not losing a step AND the quarterback starter exceeding expectations.

Even if Boston College goes 4-8 this season, Addazio has a contract through 2020 and last year’s bowl game victory likely earned him a bit of a cushion.

Monday: Temple
Yesterday: Georgia
Tomorrow: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia

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Notre Dame’s season will get an early litmus test when the Irish host Georgia. Undoubtedly, plenty of commenters here will rush to say Notre Dame does not stand a chance against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and while that ground game does warrant a heap of respect, implying Georgia will cruise through South Bend on Sept. 9 is too simple of a summary.

2016 REVIEW
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last year, including 4-4 in the SEC. In nearly every respect, it was a disappointing debut season for head coach Kirby Smart given the expectations for what was supposedly a team ready to break through. Even that .500 conference record paints a prettier picture than the reality, as Georgia was outscored by 25 points in conference play.

The Bulldogs started 3-0, but that record was built on a house of cards. They needed to come from behind in the second half to win each of those games, including squeezing by Football Championship Subdivision-team Nicholls State 26-24.

Ole Miss handed Georgia its first loss in the form of a 45-14 walloping, leading 31-0 at halftime. There would be no second-half rally, to say the least. The defeat started a five-game stretch in which the Bulldogs fell four times, including a 17-16 loss at home against Vanderbilt. No matter how well Derek Mason may be doing with a slow Commodores rebuild, that was a bad look for Smart.

Few teams could have two prospective NFL starting running backs and a highly-touted quarterback, yet manage only 24.5 points per game.

WHAT GEORGIA LOST

Former Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Getty Images)

Remember discussing Temple and its three NFL Draft picks? That was three times as many as Georgia managed last season, that lone honoree being receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round. He totaled 633 yards and seven touchdowns last year, as well as a punt return for a touchdown.

More notably, the Bulldogs saw 60 percent of their offensive line graduate, and the remaining 40 percent does not make up one side of the line to create a reliable half of the field. (Think of Notre Dame’s offensive line and its trust in its left side with fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson.)

Rather, Georgia is looking to replace both its offensive tackles as well as its center.

WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
Speaking of replacing offensive linemen, Georgia’s top 2017 recruit could fit the bill. Isaiah Wilson, all 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds of him, has reportedly seen some first-team action in preseason practice. He was the centerpiece of the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com. That rating was boosted by sheer numbers: Of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees, two were five-stars and 14 ranked as four-stars. Yes, that 26 figure exceeds the NCAA maximum, but that mandate kicks in only upon enrollment.

Receiver Mark Webb was among those four-stars and could quickly find himself playing time amid a deep but unproven receiver corps. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)

HEAD COACH
Kirby Smart enters his second season away from Nick Saban’s watchful eye with one primary goal: Meet Saban in December. The former Alabama defensive coordinator will need to get past Florida to reach the SEC Championship game.

The encounter against Notre Dame could serve a genuine role in that task: Aside from last year’s loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Sept. 9 contest will be the truest test yet of Smart’s head-coaching tenure, partly due to it being on the road as it is. Suffice it to say, Georgia rarely travels north, let alone within range of the Great Lakes’ winds. Obviously, the weather should not matter in early September, but it is not absurd to think the time in flight could alter some routines.

As will be discussed below in the “Season Outlook,” the Bulldogs will need to win on the road this season if they have hopes of reclaiming some SEC glory. Notching an away victory in the season’s second week could lay a foundation for that pursuit.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Georgia running back Sony Michel (Getty Images)

The entire week leading into Georgia facing the Irish, expect to hear repeated mentions of senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (pronounced like Michelle). It is hard to overstate how good each is. To have both defies typical collegiate comprehension.

Yet, the Bulldogs attack will go beyond the rushing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has arm strength to rival Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s, and Eason will have a number of receivers to target, ones he is certainly more familiar with than he was as a freshman.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Georgia returns its top-five tacklers. Eh, maybe that is not as impressive as it first seems.

Georgia returns 14 of its top-15 tacklers, losing only No. 6 in that count, cornerback Maurice Smith and his 50 takedowns.

With 10 returning starters, including its entire front-seven, having now spent an additional year learning Smart’s 3-4 system, this should be a dominant defense led by linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorezno Carter. The duo combined for 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries last year. No matter how generously that latter statistic is tracked, Bellamy’s 17 hurries is a number to notice.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Vegas pegs Georgia’s win total over/under at 8.5. Despite the heralded running duo and threatening defense, that number is quite well-placed. Given their struggles a year ago, putting too much faith in the Bulldogs may be a reach. In order to best that win total, they would need to not slip up in any game likely favored in (such as at Vanderbilt), as well as win at least two of five games away from home at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at a neutral site vs. Florida, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.

The SEC East will presumably come down to Georgia and Florida again. Speaking of the Gators, do not be surprised to see semi-frequent Florida updates in this space this fall. The Malik Zaire experiment’s intrigue increases with each update from Gainesville.

Yesterday: Temple
Tomorrow: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Enjoy the sun once more before the season commences in earnest.

Tirico replaces Hicks in Notre Dame booth

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Let the changes keep coming. In an offseason filled with three new coordinators and the conclusion of a $400-million construction project including a video board towering over the south end zone, Notre Dame fans will need to adjust to another departure from the Irish norm, though this one is far-from consequential when it comes to how the team plays.

Mike Tirico will replace Dan Hicks as the play-by-play man for Notre Dame games in 2017, NBC Sports announced Monday morning. Tirico joined NBC just more than a year ago and called three Irish games in 2016 while Hicks tended to golf broadcast duties.

“Mike has been an elite play-by-play voice in both professional and collegiate football for more than a decade,” said Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production at NBC Sports. “He is the latest in a line of distinguished broadcasters to call Notre Dame Football on NBC. … We look forward to hearing Mike call the first-ever game at the newly-renovated Notre Dame Stadium.” (more…)