Every Notre Dame fan has heard it continually for the past five to ten years. Really, it all started in 2012 when the Irish were blown out in the national title against Alabama. “Notre Dame doesn’t show up in big games,” “the Irish can’t compete on the national stage,” “ND doesn’t have the NFL talent the top programs have,” and so on and so forth. There’s a little bit of truth to this narrative, as there have been instances when ND has simply not shown up when it matters most, such as the Alabama game described above and the Miami game in 2017. The Irish had the opportunity to rid themselves of this narrative last year in the College Football Playoff but failed to do so as they were blown out by Clemson. Personally, I put an asterisk on that blowout because Clemson was just that good, which was evident in their shellacking of Alabama the following week.
But even with these examples, the perception that ND doesn’t show up in primetime games is completely overblown. In 2012, the Irish went on the road and dominated #8 Oklahoma 30-13. In 2014, they lost at #2 Florida State on a ridiculous pass interference call that took away ND’s game-winning touchdown in the final seconds. That call robbed the Irish of a win and a 7-0 start to the season. In 2015, they went on the road and lost to Clemson by just two points. And in 2017, they lost to Georgia by one point at home. All of those three losses came to eventual college football playoff teams. Now, I understand there are no moral victories, especially with a program like Notre Dame that considers itself elite. But do all those near wins against perennial powerhouse programs fit the narrative that ND doesn’t compete against top programs when it matters most? No, it doesn’t, but the national media has built up a nice little storyline that is factually incorrect.
This narrative has run so deep in the college football ether that even Irish fans are starting to believe it themselves. All offseason long I heard “I just hope Notre Dame competes with Georgia this season.” I understand Georgia has had a recent string of great success, but the media continues to glorify them and put them on the same level as Clemson and Alabama. They’re not. They’re completely beatable, as proven in 2017 with ND’s one-point loss.
I understand Georgia has better overall talent right now than two years ago, but so does Notre Dame. Ian Book is a significantly better quarterback than Brandon Wimbush, and last season proved that. In addition, the Irish are once again loaded on the offensive line. Not only that, Julian Okwara, a consensus projected first-round draft pick next year, is more talented than anyone on that 2017 Irish roster. And the defensive end on the other side of the ball, Khalid Kareem, gives Notre Dame arguably the best pass-rushing tandem in the country. Continuing on with the defensive side of the ball, the safety combination of Jalen Elliott, All-American Alohi Gilman, and freshman standout Kyle Hamilton, is as good as any in the country. Don’t just take my word for it, Pro Football Focus preached the same thing pre-season and predicted Notre Dame to return to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year.
Now, to get into the specifics for Saturday’s showdown, the Irish really need to polish up their run defense. In the first two games against some below-average competition, the Irish gave up 4.96 yards per carry, which ranks 107th nationally and would be fifth-worse among Power 5 teams. That’s brutal. The linebacking crew is extremely inexperienced due to the departures of Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, but that’s inexcusable. If Notre Dame doesn’t clean that up, Georgia will run right through the Irish and cruise to an easy win. The defensive gameplan should be to load the box to stop the run, man up on the perimeter, and pressure Jake Fromm as quickly and relentlessly as possible. The goal is to force Fromm into making mistakes and letting ND’s loaded defensive backfield make plays on the ball. ND has the DB’s and defensive ends to execute this gameplan, and it’s really the only option given their limitations against the run.
Moving onto the offensive side of the ball, the biggest concern I see is the lack of explosiveness on the perimeter. With Michael Young ruled out this weekend, junior wideout Javon McKinley and freshman wideout Lawrence Keys must step up in his absence. If they don’t, Georgia will expose ND’s lack of perimeter speed just like Clemson did in the CFP last year. With the exception of Miles Boykin, a current NFL wideout, the wide receivers could not get separation against those Clemson DB’s. This allowed Clemson to man up on the perimeter, load the box, stop the run, and force Ian Book to throw it down the field accurately. With Ian Book’s inability to do so and the wideouts failing to create separation, that gameplan completely shut down ND’s offense. Both Louisville and New Mexico replicated that gameplan, and ND will continue to see it the rest of the year until Book and the wideouts prove they can stretch the field against a national title caliber team.
Continuing on with the offensive side of the ball, with Jafar Armstrong out and Jahmir Smith also likely out, Tony Jones will need to be a workhorse on Saturday. Converted defensive back Avery Davis, who scored last Saturday against New Mexico, will also need to be solid in the backfield when Jones needs a breather. Cole Kmet returning will be a massive upgrade to this offense as Book will have another elite pass-catcher to target in the middle of the field, which has been a hole in the air attack through the first two games. But none of this matters if Book can’t accurately stretch the defense downfield. If he proves his ability to do so, Georgia will not be able to load the box and running lanes would open up considerably.
Last year, Notre Dame proved they had the defense to compete for a national title but the offense failed miserably on the big stage. For the Irish to have a chance of winning, Ian Book and co. cannot run out on the field and put up three points like they did last December. They have to string together drives and come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. I’d like to see Brian Kelly and the staff attack the Georgia defense downfield early and often. It’s hard to predict whether this will be a high or low scoring affair due to the fact neither team has played close to a decent opponent. However, I predict the Irish to keep the game airtight throughout the first three quarters and steal a win on the road, 27-21.
Featured Photo: Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin