Is it Saturday yet? No? Another 60 hours to wait? I suppose there is nothing to do but to keep overthinking every aspect of No. 7 Notre Dame’s trip to No. 3 Georgia. To help the cause, let’s bother Anthony Dasher, Managing Editor of UGASports.com.
DF: Before getting into what may be the biggest regular-season game for Notre Dame since at least 2005, and arguably 1993, let me ask, how long have you been covering Georgia? Been with UGASports.com the whole time?
AD: I have covered Georgia since 1996, first with the Athens Banner-Herald and now with UGASports.com since 2007.
You were on the call Sunday when Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked to compare these Bulldogs to the team he faced in 2017. (You might have actually been the one to ask the question; I didn’t note that in my transcript.) I’ll quote his answer below for the readers, but I am curious, how would you answer the same question?
Kelly: “Structurally, it’s very similar defensively. Offensively, it has a lot of the similar tenets: great running game; big, physical offensive line. There’s a lot of similarities structurally. Big players at the running back position.
“Probably a little bit bigger physically on defense. They weren’t quite the same size (in 2017). They were extremely athletic a few years ago and they still are, but they’re bigger up front this year. An outstanding football team in all areas.”
The biggest difference to me is that Jake Fromm is a junior. At Notre Dame, he was a freshman making his first career start.
Schematically, there won’t be a ton of difference, but physically, this is a bigger team along with being just as athletic as the 2017 squad. Georgia averages 6-5 and 330 pounds across the offensive line, led by left tackle Andrew Thomas who is projected as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The backfield is deep, led by D’Andre Swift, but also includes senior Brian Herrien, along with a pair of former five-stars as backups in sophomores Zamir White and James Cook.
Defensively, sophomore nose tackle Jordan Davis (6-5, 330) is a player Georgia didn’t have in its trip to South Bend.
Editor’s addition: Swift: 290 yards on 31 carries this season, a 9.4 yards per rush average.
White: 141 yards on 19 carries, a 7.4 yards per rush average.
Freshman Kenny McIntosh: 128 yards on 13 carries, a 9.8 yards per rush average.
Herrien: 121 yards on 21 carries, a 5.8 yards per rush average.
Cook: 103 yards on eight carries, a 12.9 yards per rush average.
Bigger offensive and defensive lines will worry Notre Dame fans. Let’s focus even more closely than that. The Irish have a first-year starter at center in sophomore Jarrett Patterson. Georgia senior defensive tackle Julian Rochester has yet to play after offseason ACL surgery. Will he be the one attacking Patterson or someone else? The rest of Notre Dame’s line has proven, albeit inconsistently, it can hold up to a front like the Bulldogs in the past, but Patterson is an unknown in that regard. How will Kirby Smart hope to exploit that?
Rochester has been cleared to practice since camp but has yet to get in a game, which has been a bit of a mystery. Truthfully though, he hasn’t been that huge of a loss.
Georgia does not have what you would call a dominant defensive lineman, but they do have some pretty good depth and rotates it defensive linemen frequently. I mentioned Jordan Davis, who does a great job absorbing double-teams, but there’s also senior tackle Tyler Clark, junior tackle Devonte Wyatt, along with ends David Marshall and Malik Herring. Freshman Travon Walker has had his moments, as well.
As far as Georgia trying to exploit Patterson, I’m not sure they will try to do anything special. They’ll just try to execute the same defensive game plan no matter who’s lining up where.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish weakness is again up the middle, both at defensive tackle and at linebacker. Georgia running back D’Andre Swift is considered a home-run hitter, though he is far from the only option in that rushing stable. Will the Bulldogs pound Notre Dame on the inside or continue to rely upon edge-to-edge speed to break loose?
I’d imagine Georgia will try to hit Notre Dame with its full gamut of plays. The Bulldogs will try to make plays between the tackles, but also one of the big changes being implemented by first-year offensive coordinator James Coley is to find more ways to get players the ball in space. That means more plays on the edge — quick passes, speed sweeps and maybe even the occasional toss sweep, a longtime Georgia staple, although it’s a play we’ve yet to see this season.
As far as depth, yes, Georgia has that. Swift is the bellcow, but Herrien is a tough inside runner, as is White, who has looked impressive despite an ACL surgery on each knee. There’s also Cook, who Georgia will use on the aforementioned speed sweeps.
Georgia is going to score. Combining Fromm with this litany of play-makers guarantees that. The best Irish hope may be to keep pace and count on a turnover or two shifting momentum. With a veteran quarterback of its own, Notre Dame has reason to believe it can reach the end zone a number of times. How is the Bulldog secondary this year? It is never as heralded as the defensive front, but that may be unfair.
Georgia graduated first-round pick Deandre Baker, but from an athletic standpoint, the secondary might actually be better than it was last season. However, there are concerns. I would say starting cornerback Tyson Campbell is questionable after injuring his foot against Arkansas State, so if he can’t go, his spot will be manned by one of two first-year players, junior college transfer D.J. Daniel or freshman Tyrique Stevenson.
At safety, J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte are both three-year starters. LeCounte sometimes gets himself in trouble by trying to tackle too high, but Reed warranted preseason All-SEC recognition. Both are considered to be excellent in coverage.
The expectations are steep around Smart and Georgia. Recruiting as they have the last few years, a breakthrough becomes an imperative in the near-term. With those big-picture goals and SEC concerns to worry about, how does this game rate for the team? For the fans? Is it as hyped in Athens as we have made it out to be nationally?
This is the most-hyped non-conference game that I can recall. Even if both teams were not ranked in the top 10 I would still feel that way. Notre Dame is one of the few programs nationally that commands respect by name alone and Georgia fans are fired up for the opportunity to see the Irish play in Sanford Stadium. The atmosphere is expected to be nuts as Georgia officials are predicting just as many fans outside the stadium as in.
As you might expect, it’s also a HUGE recruiting weekend. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of top national prospects set to be here.
In regards to the game itself, it’s also huge. Georgia, obviously, has designs on getting back to the College Football Playoffs. A victory over Notre Dame would be a big spark for the team which has next week off before resuming conference play in two weeks at Tennessee.
The team or the fans, especially the latter, could conceivably look past it. After all, the Bulldogs are favored by two touchdowns. What do you expect to see Saturday night?
It’s been talked about a lot, but the storyline to me is simple: Can Notre Dame slow down a Georgia rushing attack that is averaging 286 yards per game? If the Irish can have success on first down, put the Bulldogs in second- and third-and-long situations, it’s obviously going to help their chances. But, if Georgia is gobbling up six, seven, eight yards per clip, it’s going to make it tough on Notre Dame. Not only would it keep Ian Book and company on the sideline, but it will open up the play-action for Fromm to take some deep shots. It can be a pick-your-poison type of situation, but if I were coaching Notre Dame (or any team that plays Georgia) I’d sell out to stop the run, simply because if that run game gets going, the Bulldogs are very difficult to stop.
And before I let you go, I must selfishly ask: I know to get to campus many, many hours early to avoid traffic. Where should I thus target for Saturday’s lunch?
As far as places to go, if you get here early, definitely take a walk downtown, a very eclectic scene with plenty of good pubs where you can grab a bite.
The Place (yes, that’s it name) has some real “Southern cooking” if that’s your thing, with the Last Resort Grill, The National and DePalma’s also very good.