We’ve heard the phrase “in the trenches” quite a bit this week. And for good reason. It’s where most football games are won. This week especially so, with the strengths of both teams being their running games. So it’s natural to focus on the offensive and defensive lines for both teams. It’s pretty much they key to the whole thing, right?
The problem with projecting, though, we always pick what’s obvious because the other things, the things that happen in the margins, are variable. So, we look at the match ups. This isn’t wrong, but football is a weird sport and very often games that involve equally matched teams get decided by any number of different factors. And today I want to focus on some of the smaller, marginal things that could decide the outcome for either team.
Who Wins On 3rd And Long?
Notre Dame on offense: The Irish excelled in many phases offensively last week, but one of the areas they struggled was converting 3rd downs longer than 7 yards. Brandon Wimbush was 1-5 passing for 4 yards, an interception, and zero first downs gained in those situations. That’s bad. Notre Dame can try to minimize their exposure to long 3rd down situations a few ways, but Georgia is talented enough on defense that we know they are going to come up. Wimbush is going to have to be more accurate, and receivers not named St. Brown are going to have to gain better separation and make some plays.
Georgia on offense: If Notre Dame is going to try and limit these the Bulldogs are really going to try and prevent these situations for their true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. He wasn’t involved in a lot of five step drops against Appalachian State, and he didn’t complete an intermediate throw all game. In fact, on all of their 3rd and 7+ third down attempts last week (there were 4), all four were runs, and Fromm was 0-2 on 3rd down passes between 4-6 yards. They didn’t even drop him back on 3rd and long. Some of that might be his lack of knowledge of the offense, some might be the lack of confidence in the offensive line.
Overall: In close games, third downs are key, and it can be a factor in deciding the game. As an example, in 2015 against Stanford, the Notre Dame offense was 3 of 9 on third down. The Stanford offense was 8 of 12. Notre Dame loses 38-36. Three more stops on defense and three more conversions on offense and they win easily.
Who Wins The Vertical Game?
Notre Dame on offense: The thing about a strong running game, especially with backs who can hit the home run like Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, is the safeties are always thinking about it. They creep just a little closer than they should and are a little too eager to look for the run, because they don’t want to get caught out of position and forced to chase a back who just went untouched through the line. It also forces defensive coordinators to take some chances and send extra people on a run blitz, like we saw Temple try to do last week on first down in the 4th quarter. They blitzed the corner, St. Brown ran right by the safety, and Wimbush just missed him.
Notre Dame took an over the top vertical shot just the one time, and they’ll need to try a few more this week. They’ve got St. Brown, they’ve got Chase Claypool, and they’ve got Cam Smith. If they hit, it puts more pressure on the safeties and opens up the running game.
Georgia on offense: Everything I just said above also applies to the Georgia running game affecting the Notre Dame secondary. And other than a few sideline heaves with the quarterback under pressure, Temple didn’t challenge Notre Dame vertically, especially the safeties. You can expect Georgia to take some shots, because a.) the Irish are likely to send some safeties in the running game, especially on first down b.) they’ve got some dudes at receiver c.) they don’t require reads by the quarterback and d.) they’ve seen the Texas film from last season.
Overall: Lets say both teams throw it deep four times, one converts three of those for big plays, the other converts none. A three play disparity can make all the difference, if everything else is equal.
Who Wins In The Red Zone?
Overall: The red zone is always a key factor in games like this, it sometimes goes without saying, but scoring touchdowns has been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side in seasons past, and Georgia was 100th in the nation last year in red zone touchdown percentage (Notre Dame was 55th). The Irish were 6-6 last week with six touchdowns, so very good. As in perfect. Georgia was 4-4 with three touchdowns and a field goal. Also good. This one is obvious but still worth mentioning.
Who Wins The Kicking Game?
Notre Dame kicking: Justin Yoon was 0-2 last week on attempts of 44 and 47 yards, although it should be noted both kicks had plenty of distance. This is a question of accuracy, not range. A faulty kicker can alter a play call, drive strategy, and force a coach to do something they aren’t all the way comfortable with, for example on 4th and 5 on the Georgia 30 down two with four minutes left. Yoon has struggled early his entire career, currently 6 of 12 in August/September and 22-24 the rest of the way. Close games often come down to kickers. Which Yoon will we get?
Georgia kicking: For his part Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship had a similar season to Yoon in 2016, going 14-18 and made his only attempt this season. He’s got a similar touchback percentage to Yoon, which tells me he’s got a similar type of leg to Yoon. There doesn’t appear to be a significant advantage either way. Make or miss type of deal.
The X Factor
Brandon Wimbush Can Run And Fromm Can’t
Lost in all of the above analysis about running games, offensive lines, and deep balls, is the fact that Brandon Wimbush can do real damage with his legs and Jake Fromm can’t. College football often comes down to the broken play and Notre Dame has a significant advantage in this area. I could see a stalemate on the lines, both teams hitting their running games and big plays in the passing game. At the end of the day, Notre Dame has a guy who can create something out of nothing and Georgia does not, and we’ve seen it time and time again in college football. It’s hard to prepare for a running quarterback, especially when you are consumed with other things. You can essentially “win” a play on defense with the right play call, only to get beaten by a scramble. Will it be decisive? We’ll have to watch Saturday night to find out.