(CBS Local/CBS Chicago)- The highly anticipated matchup between the No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs is just days away, getting the prime time treatment on CBS.
Both teams enter unbeaten on the season after a couple of tune-up games. The last time the two met, in 2017 in South Bend, the Bulldogs knocked off the Irish 20-19 on a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal with 3:34 left. The ‘Dawgs sealed the game on defense when Davin Bellamy strip sacked Brandon Wimbush with 1:27 left and the fumble was recovered by Lorenzo Carter.
Notre Dame looks to pull off the upset this time around in Athens in front of the Bulldogs fans. With kick-off rapidly approaching, it’s time to take a look at how the teams stack up against each other. To do so, we called in former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and former Notre Dame offensive lineman Aaron Taylor to give their insights. We’ll take a look at what to watch for when both teams have the ball and what the guys expect from the night game atmosphere in Athens on Saturday.
When Georgia Is On Offense
The Bulldogs offense has been dominant so far this season racking up 30, 63, and 55 points in their three wins over Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State. Now, aside from SEC foe Vanderbilt, that schedule isn’t much to look at and most would expect the Bulldogs to rack up those kind of point totals against those teams.
The domination has been driven by a ground game that has rolled over opponents to this point averaging 286 yards per game and over 7.6 yards per rush. The running back trio of D’Andre Swift, Chris Herrien and Zamir White have had plenty of running room thanks to that offensive line, but they are dynamic talents in their own right that can change a game on just one play.
That running game, driven by the veteran offensive line, is the area where CBS Sports college football analyst and former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray believes UGA has the biggest advantage.
“It’s the offensive line. I just don’t know many defensive lines that are big enough and can last four quarters going against those guys,” said Murray. “They’re going to run the football and people know they are going to run the football. The goal is the same. They are going to wear you out by the third or fourth quarter.”
Georgia’s offensive line and running game is one that plays to Notre Dame’s biggest weakness according to Taylor who says the defensive tackles and linebackers were a question for the Irish entering the season because despite being talented, they were inexperienced. In order to adjust, Taylor expects the Irish might try to go with a bit more speed across the line and use their depth of defensive ends.
“The Irish have given up almost five yards per carry through two games against Louisville and New Mexico neither of which are particularly strong running teams,” said Taylor. “With that said, maybe the deepest position that they have is at defensive end where they run nine deep. I would expect the Irish to have some kind of NASCAR package if you will where you have four defensive ends on the field at the same time in order to leverage your skill set which is quickness at that position.”
In addition to presenting a different look with four defensive ends, Taylor says another way the Irish could look to slow the UGA running attack is by running games with their defensive linemen like stunts, twists, etc. in order to make the big Georgia offensive line move and deal with the quickness of the ND front.
While the running game is a huge positive for the Bulldogs in this game, the receivers, who have been good so far, are Murray’s biggest question mark heading into Saturday night.
“I am going to be looking at what these receivers look like because this is going to be their first true test against a defense that, is going to give them some difficulty. They are going to play man-to-man, tight inside coverage and say if you’re going to beat us it will have to be over the top or on out-breaking routes,” said Murray. “That makes it a little bit more difficult when it comes to timing between the receiver and quarterback. This is our first true opportunity to see what guys like George Pickens, a true freshman who has looked good in the first few weeks can do against the big boys.”
So far, Jake Fromm has attempted just 56 passes which averages out to about 18 attempts a game. That is largely due to the fact that their opponents to this point have been unable to slow the running game. If the Irish are able to do so, and force Fromm to throw to those less experienced receivers, it could play a bit more into their hands.
When Notre Dame Is on Offense
On the other side of the ball, the Notre Dame offense is led by senior quarterback Ian Book who has shown himself to be more than capable of taking over a game by himself since taking over the starting job from Brandon Wimbush prior to last season. Through the Irish’s two wins over Louisville and New Mexico, Book has compiled 680 total yards and eight total touchdowns while completing 61.5 percent of his pass attempts.
Book’s play has made a fan out of Murray, who thinks that Book’s ability to break out of the pocket and pick up first downs with his legs that presents a big problem for the Bulldogs.
“I have been a big fan of Ian Book these last couple of years. He is very accurate with the football, he can throw a bunch of touchdowns and beat you in a variety of different ways. And he can run the football a bit too,” said Murray. “He is not going to be Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray but he can beat you if you want to play coverage and back up and don’t have eyes on the quarterback. You have to be aware of Book in the run game. Keep him in the pocket.”
Taylor agrees that Book will be key, but he thinks the ability of the Notre Dame quarterback to consistently push the ball down the field will be key, especially given his struggles to do so this year.
“Being able to push the ball down the field vertically is going to be critical,” said Taylor. “The good news is, he was able to do that and settle down a week ago against New Mexico. The Irish exploded offensively in that game with 12 plays of 15-plus yards, six of which went for touchdowns. They are going to need some sort of similar performance against a Georgia defense that is not going to make that easy.”
“But this offense, at this point with its running game having a ton of question marks with its running backs due to injuries, isn’t going to be good enough to do what they did a couple years ago which was to just mash people all the way down the field,” continued Taylor. “They have to be able to hit some chunk plays and that means that Ian Book has to be at his best at-night, on the road, in Georgia against a defense that already has 12 sacks.”
On the atmosphere expected in Athens, Saturday night
Anytime two top 10 teams get together on a college football field, the atmosphere in the stadium is likely to be raucous. But, this game in particular has a bit of a different feel to it because of the two fan bases. Notre Dame, as mentioned at the top of this article, has built a national fan base through the years, leaning into the religious aspect of the university and being the favorite team of many Catholics throughout the country.
Georgia’s fan base is no joke either, with fans routinely filling the 92,746 seats at Sanford Stadium. You can bet every one of those seats will be filled on Saturday night making for a day that Murray says people and players alike will remember for quite awhile.
“This Saturday in Athens is going to be like no other. It’s going to be one of those special days that people are going to be talking about for a long time,” said Murray. “The brand of Notre Dame, two top 10 teams, College Gameday being there, to being on CBS at 8 o’clock, it’s shaping up to be a perfect weekend in Athens.”
Taylor agrees and from the Notre Dame player’s perspective says this is the type of game that you hope for when you sign that letter of intent to play college football.
“These are the games you dream about playing. On the road, at night, in the big bad beast of the SEC. This is what you want: a top 10 matchup,” said Taylor. “At the end of the day when you walk away and you get back on that bus, you’re going to know exactly who you are as a football team and that could be good news or that could be bad news. The Irish have a hell of an opportunity, I think it is one they’re up for and they are going to have to be at their best against what has proven to be a pretty good Georgia team already.”
The Bulldogs and Irish kick off the second half of CBS’ Saturday doubleheader at 8 p.m. Eastern Time with Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Jamie Erdahl on the call.