There were plenty of storylines prior to last Saturday when it came to discussing this weekend’s Notre Dame-Georgia matchup.
It is the Bulldogs’ first game above the Mason-Dixon Line since 1965; it is the veteran, highly touted Georgia defensive front versus the seasoned, ballyhooed Notre Dame offensive line; it is a crucial early season matchup to gain better positioning in the rankings ...
Most of that now seems to be overshadowed by the change in Georgia’s quarterback situation.
Sophomore starter Jason Eason suffered a knee injury in last week’s opener versus Appalachian State, and will be replaced by freshman Jake Fromm.
That in itself might help explain why now the Fighting Irish, who are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, are a 4.5-point favorite as of Tuesday against No. 15 Georgia. Head coach Brian Kelly understandably is not buying the usual chatter that comes with playing a freshman quarterback.
Yes, Eason was the more experienced quarterback and the No. 1-ranked recruit at his position by Rivals in 2016. Fellow five-star recruit Fromm was ranked as the No. 3 QB in 2016 — and he also was an early enrollee, which enabled him to partake in 15 spring practices in addition to August camp.
While replacing Eason, the freshman completed 10 of 15 passes for 143 yards with a score last week in Georgia’s 31-10 home win over Appalachian State.
“He looked very comfortable playing the game to me,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get the ball out of his hands. … He threw some balls where some people perceived to be up for grabs. I thought he put them in position where his guy was going to catch it and that was it. … Obviously, if we give him one [defensive] look the whole time, he's capable of hurting us.
“We go into this game expecting a guy very capable in Jake running their offense and doing the things necessary to be successful. The narrative might be that Eason is out, and he’s a fine quarterback certainly, but I think they’re in very capable hands. He’ll do a great job for them.”
Kelly doesn’t have to go back far into history to prove that just because a true freshman starts at quarterback for the opposition, Notre Dame’s defense has it made.
• In last year’s opener, Texas’ Shane Buechele (also an early enrollee), was 16-of-26 passing for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, plus he added 33 yards on five rushing attempts, in the 50-47 double-overtime victory versus the Irish.
• In 2014, Louisville came into Notre Dame Stadium with a true freshman quarterback in Reggie Bonnafon — later converted to wide receiver — and emerged with a 31-28 win. Bonnafon’s eight pass completions netted 180 yards and a touchdown, and he also tallied the first two touchdowns for the Cardinals on 12- and eight-yard runs.
• In 2009, the Irish lost to two freshman quarterbacks. In his second career start, Michigan’s Tate Forcier completed 23 of 33 passes for 240 yards with two touchdowns, and ran for 70 yards on 13 carries, to guide the Wolverines to a 38-34 win.
The next month, USC’s Matt Barkley propelled a 34-27 conquest at Notre Dame Stadium by completing 19 of 29 passes for 380 yards (20 yards per completion) with two scores.
Whether it was going to be Eason or Fromm at the throttle against Notre Dame, Georgia’s identity on offense was going to center foremost on their ground attack that is led by what Kelly describes as elite backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb has more than 3,500 career rushing yards, second to the peerless Herschel Walker on Georgia’s illustrious running backs chart, and Michel also is in the top 10.
“They’re difficult to tackle one on one at the second level,” Kelly said. “If you let these guys go through to the second level and you’re relying on your safeties one on one from 12 yards off to make tackles, they need to be of NFL pedigree to make those tackles consistently. And I don’t know that they will because these two kids are extraordinary talents. So we need a close space, get down closer.”
Defensively, Kelly said the Notre Dame defense has to continue to focus primarily on the fundamentals, not about whether the quarterback is a freshman or not.
“You have to run your defense, do the things that you do,” Kelly said. “I think [Fromm is] very comfortable running any offense. I always liked his presence and his savvy. He always just seemed to be somebody very comfortable. He reminds me a lot of a quarterback we have, Ian Book. Just has that ‘it’ as a quarterback.”
In addition to a stellar running back corps and some top receiver targets, Fromm might be able to lean on a defense that returns nine starters. Defense is where second-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart made his coaching bones while working as the coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, including the 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2013. The line of scrimmage is where the game will be determined this Saturday, per Kelly.
“Georgia’s offensive line against our defensive line and vice versa,” he summarized. “They’re going to feature both their backs. We’re going to feature our running game, and somebody’s going to come out on top.
“So it’s going to be an old-fashioned kind of find out who’s got that grit and determination, because somebody’s going to have to find a way to run the football late and control the line of scrimmage.”