SOUTH BEND — The venue will be different, but the stage and the stakes shouldn’t be unfamiliar to Notre Dame football.
The Irish have played in prime time against nationally ranked opponents with College Football Playoff implications on the line multiple times in the last two years. A mixed bag of results have provided many lessons for how to prepare for those moments.
That leaves little room for excuses if No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) can’t meet its expectations in Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Georgia (3-0) at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
Head coach Brian Kelly can use the loud sound system in the Irish Indoor Athletics Center to prepare for crowd noise. The forecasted warm and humid conditions in South Bend with high temperatures expected in the 80s daily should help prepare for the Georgia heat too.
The rest falls on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and players.
“If we do a great job preparing, we can go play the game, play fast, play free and then the best team wins,” Kelly said. “So it will be in our preparation. It won’t be because the crowd was loud or that it was hot. It will be because they executed better than we executed.”
Executing better than Georgia won’t be easy. Kelly spent nearly four minutes listing the strengths of this weekend’s opponent before taking questions at Monday’s press conference.
Kelly said the Bulldogs have no perceived weaknesses. He pointed to quarterback Jake Fromm, who made his first career start as a freshman in Georgia’s 20-19 win at Notre Dame in 2017, as the top reason Georgia is tough to beat.
“He’s efficient. He’s unflappable,” Kelly said. “You can pressure him, and he doesn’t panic. He makes great decisions. He’s sound with the ball.”
Like Fromm, Notre Dame’s roster has made strides since 2017. The Irish built depth on the defensive line, improved its safety play and showed glimpses of a deeper pool of playmakers at the offensive skill positions in Saturday’s blowout of New Mexico.
There’s still room for improvement, but Kelly sees a Notre Dame roster with the depth necessary to compete nationally.
“We have areas that we have to address every year,” Kelly said. “It is an ongoing battle in this recruiting process that you’re never exactly where you want to be. You’re always trying to augment, strengthen areas.
“We’re at a point within our program where we feel good about where we are, but yet we’re always looking to strengthen the depth of our program. We’re in a much better position, but one that we always have to address every year.”
The offensive depth on display against New Mexico came from players with limited experience. Senior wide receiver Javon McKinley’s second and third career catches went for touchdowns against the Lobos. Junior running back Avery Davis turned his sixth career catch into his first career touchdown. Even sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy recorded his first career touchdown reception late in the game.
Though the spotlight wasn’t nearly as bright in the home opener, Kelly said those kinds of plays give the coaching staff reason to utilize those players against Georgia. A confident player is easier to trust.
“There is no doubt the competition will be greater,” Kelly said, “but you need to make some plays to build that inner confidence that you can do it all the time.”
The rotation at inside linebacker won’t be ending soon. The New Mexico game provided more evidence of players improving at the position.
Kelly identified graduate student Asmar Bilal, who led the Irish with eight tackles and two tackles for a loss, and sophomore Bo Bauer, who had four solo tackles and one tackle for a loss, as linebackers making important strides.
The Irish used six inside linebackers — Drew White, Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon, Jordan Genmark Heath, Bilal and Bauer — with its No. 1 defense Saturday.
If two players emerge as the top linebackers, Kelly said, the coaching staff would be willing to cut down the rotation.
“We’re getting guys that are just evolving, so we’re still in that process,” Kelly said. “Then all of the other guys are playing pretty good too. We’re going to keep on letting this thing play out until we find them. And when we find them, we’ll have two really good players in there.”
No pass rush concern
Notre Dame’s defense failed to record a sack against New Mexico. The Lobos still struggled to throw the ball against the Irish.
The lack of production by New Mexico (10-for-29 passing for 151 yards and three interceptions) has helped Notre Dame start the season ranked No. 3 nationally in passing efficiency defense. Though the pass rush has only produced four sacks through two games, Kelly said he’s pleased with the effort of the defensive line.
“They’re doing a great job,” Kelly said. “The ball comes out so fast. It is most of the time under 2 seconds where the ball is coming out both against Louisville and New Mexico.
“We just have to clean up some of the penalties on the perimeter, but we’re getting exactly what we want in terms of pressuring the quarterback, making them get the ball out of his hands quickly.”
• A thigh contusion kept sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s participation limited in garbage time against New Mexico.
Jurkovec replaced starting quarterback Ian Book late in the third quarter with Notre Dame leading 52-7, but he only played for one series before being replaced by freshman Brendon Clark. Kelly said he wanted to be careful with Jurkovec because of the contusion.
“(Jurkovec) pushed the ball down the field vertically. Made a couple of tough runs,” Kelly said. “We saw what we needed to see in that situation.”
Jurkovec’s one series included a 52-yard completion to Lenzy on the first play and a 23-yard run. The nine-play, 58-yard, penalty-riddled drive ended with a one-yard touchdown run by C’Bo Flemister.
• Kelly wasn’t willing to commit to the fact that junior tight end Cole Kmet will return to the starting lineup on Saturday against Georgia. But Kmet has completely finished his recovery from a broken collarbone and will play, Kelly confirmed.
Kmet was listed as the starting tight end on Notre Dame’s depth chart released Monday.