No one is giving Notre Dame a chance on Saturday night in Athens. Many pundits are even saying that it was a waste to send College Gameday there this week because this game will be a blowout. Even Notre Dame homers like myself are predicting a Georgia victory. It’s not impossible for the Irish to bring a win back with them though.
A lot is going to have to go right for Notre Dame to leave Athens victorious. It’s not impossible as some think, but it will be very difficult. Here’s all that has to fall right for Notre Dame to exit the weekend undefeated.
Notre Dame cannot play catchup on the road against Georgia. We’ve seen that story play out too many times in recent years – Clemson last year, Miami in 2017, and Clemson again in 2015. Notre Dame can’t fall behind by two scores at any point and expect to have a chance. They just don’t have enough healthy game-changers right now to get back into a game like that.
Now, if Notre Dame can jump out to an early lead, everything changes. When Notre Dame went into Norman in 2012, they jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. In 2017 they did the same in East Lansing. This game will be tougher than both of those, but that is what Notre Dame needs tomorrow night.
Win the Turnover Battle
This one should be obvious, but the Irish clearly can’t lose the turnover battle and expect to have a chance. Notre Dame has played relatively clean so far this season, and that has to continue. Ian Book turned the ball over early against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, and it sealed Notre Dame’s fate early.
At the same time, Notre Dame needs to generate a turnover early and set up the offense with some great field position. This goes hand in hand with point number one here, but if Notre Dame can combine an early turnover with a quick score, they will be in business. A Julian Okwara strip/sack or a Kyle Hamilton interception early would be huge.
Have Ian Book Channel is Inner Johnny Football
Speaking of Ian Book, he needs to play the best game of his career for Notre Dame to have a chance. He’s got to be comfortable in the pocket, confident in his throws, and safe with the football. On top of that, Book needs to extend plays with his legs. He is more than capable of doing that, but it’s something he wasn’t able to do against Clemson.
Think os what Johnny Manziel did to Alabama in 2012. He played out of his mind that night and ended up launching his Heisman campaign in Tuscaloosa. That is what we need to see from Ian Book in Athens.
Hit At Least Two Big Plays on Offense
While Book is running around and keeping things alive with his legs, it would be ideal if he could hit a big play in the passing game. In fact, he is going to need to hit more than one for Notre Dame to win. The Irish have not been able to sustain long drives this year. With Jahmir Smith and Jafar Armstrong both out this weekend, I don’t expect that change much against Georgia. That’s why they will need to hit a couple of big plays.
Lawrence Keys, Avery Davis, and Braden Lenzy have all shown this year that they have the speed to burn when they get the ball in space. Chip Long needs to find some creative ways to get them the ball that does not require Ian Book launching 60+ yard bombs. They might not have enough time to get behind the Georgia secondary, and Book might not have the arm to hit those consistently. Some crossers designed to spring them free or sending Lenzy on a go route off a fake wide receiver screen though could get them open in space.
Last week the big plays came on the touch passes to Avery Davis, and Chris Finke so look for Notre Dame to have something else similar planned. That play has to have been used to set something else up this weekend. Starting Javon McKinley and moving Chris Finke back instead (even if the official depth chart doesn’t reflect it) could create some miss-matches that spring opens a big play too.
Use the Two Tight End Set
Some of those big plays could come from the tight ends too. Notre Dame gets Cole Kmet back this weekend, so we will see what a two tight end set with him, and Tommy Tremble looks like for the first time. That combination has a lot of potential – especially since Georgia hasn’t seen it on film yet either.
Maybe Notre Dame uses a lot of two tight end sets and misdirection to mask the injuries in the backfield and then slips Tremble down the seam for a significant gain. Maybe they use a little razzle-dazzle and have Kmet, a pitcher on the baseball team, throw a pass on a trick play (Notre Dame is 100% going to have a trick play or two up their sleeves this weekend).
Slow Down the Georgia Running Game
Georgia is going to run the ball. We shouldn’t have any grand illusions that Notre Dame will shut down the run game completely – even in pie in the sky scenarios like this column. Notre Dame can win the game if Georgia runs with moderate success. I don’t see any way they win the game if Georgia runs at will.
Watch ball hawks like Alohi Gilman, Shaun Crawford, and Kyle Hamilton when Georgia ball carries reach the second level. A great way to limit Georgia’s ground game is to knock the ball out a couple of times. Notre Dame’s secondary thrives at that.
Have a Clean Game on Special Teams
Obvious, but Notre Dame’s new specialists need to have clean games. Jonathan Doerer needs to make the kicks he’s supposed to make (anything < 40 yards) and Jay Bramblett needs to pin Georgia deep when he can. Any lapses in coverage like we saw against Michigan last year and this blueprint goes out the window. If Georgia is scoring on special teams tomorrow night, it’s going to be a looong night.
At the same time, we’ve seen Lawrence Keys have a spark in the return game already. Think back to the 2000 Nebraksa game and how the Irish nearly pulled off that upset – Julius Jones returned a kick-off for a TD, and Joey Getherall took a punt to the house. Notre Dame doesn’t need two special teams touchdowns to win this one, but a big return or two would certainly help.
Convert Better on Third Down
Another obvious one, but Notre Dame has struggled to convert short-yardage situations this year. They can’t struggle in that department Saturday night and expect to win. They don’t need tor un for every third and short either – they have been very effective with the short passing game on 3rd downs in the past. We haven’t seen much passing on 3rd and short just yet this year – expect to see that on Saturday.
Add this all up, and it could equal a Notre Dame victory over Georgia. The Bulldogs are an elite team, but they are not invincible. If Notre Dame does all of this, they will be in the game until the end if nothing else.