Most important element in Notre Dame-Georgia QB battle? The supporting cast

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Ian Book’s only practical experience against a Georgia defense was a singular play in the Bulldogs’ 20-19 victory in South Bend a couple of season ago, prompted by a contact lens.

Then-Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s contact lens.

Once Wimbush popped it back into place, Book popped back to the Irish sideline.

Still, that’s actually one play more than Book has ever played as a starter against a defense that finished the season in the top 10 in pass-efficiency defense.

And the now-senior starter for the Irish has faced only one team in 10 career starts coming into this season that even finished in the top third (top 45) in either pass-efficiency defense or total defense.

That was eventual national champion Clemson last Dec. 29. And Book produced a career-low passing efficiency rating as a starter (83.65) in that 30-3 College Football Player loss to the Tigers.

That’s not to say the nation’s No. 5 player in pass efficiency (202.7) won’t rise to the occasion Saturday night (8 EDT; CBS) at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., where the No. 7 Irish clash (2-0) with No. 3 Georgia (3-0).

It’s just that he really has little frame of reference for a Bulldogs team that projects as elite defensively. Against admittedly three soft opponents to date (Vanderbilt, Murray State, Arkansas State), Georgia has emerged No. 17 nationally in pass-efficiency defense, No. 9 in total defense, No. 5 in rushing defense and No. 3 in scoring defense.

Gary Danielson, CBS Sports’ lead college football analyst, does have a strong frame of reference on how those numbers might translate in a big game.

He’s been tracking the Georgia program closely for the first three games of this season and the three seasons that preceded that, all under Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart. And Danielson will be calling the game Saturday night alongside Brad Nessler and Jamie Erdahl.

“They have never played better,” Danielson said of Georgia this week on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast.

“So you’re going to get a measurement,” he continued. “It’s nothing to be afraid of, but it’s going to be a good measurement for (coach) Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame fans, because you’re going to be playing Georgia at their best. I think right now they’re playing better than anyone in the country.”

Jake Fromm, Book’s counterpart at QB, is one of main the reasons.

The junior has made 30 more starts since his first career start as a true freshman unfolded in Notre Dame Stadium. In the meantime, two five-star QBs have transferred out (Jacob Eason to Washington and Justin Fields to Ohio State) after being unable to pry him from the top of the Bulldogs’ QB depth chart.

“Jake really sneaks up on you,” Danielson said. “When you first see him, he seems like a really nice college quarterback. He had some really good coaching earlier in his career with Jim Chaney, his offensive coordinator, who was Drew Brees’ offensive coordinator at Purdue.

“But when he was being measured against Jacob Eason his freshman year, when you go out and watch practice, Jacob is 6-5. He’s got a gun for an arm. I mean, he’s zipping it all over. Jake comes in there and he’s kind of tossing it around, and he never really catches your eye in practice.

“Then you watch him game after game after game and ... I realize he makes everything look really simple.”

Danielson said Fromm, No. 8 nationally in pass efficiency (194.6) this season and No. 2 career-wise among active FBS quarterbacks, is the best college quarterback pre-snap since Brees (1997-2000).

And Fromm has experience against good and great college defenses. Thirty-three percent coming into this season of his starts came against teams that finished in the top third nationally in total defense. Thirty-nine percent came against teams in the top third of pass-efficiency defenses.

The Irish come into the matchup third in pass-efficiency defense, but 29th in scoring defense, 68th in total defense and 120th in rushing defense.

Danielson was much less familiar with Book, even though he’d studied him on film. So Danielson flew to South Bend to take in an Irish practice in person.

“He’s much quicker than I thought with his feet,” Danielson said. “He is so much more nimble. He’s an effortless thrower.

“I think he’s everything you need to win at the college level. With the right players around him, he’s a handful for any college defense. And with the right game plan and healthy players, he’s definitely in the top tier of quarterbacks in college football.”

The biggest difference in this game between the two QBs may be who surrounds each of them. Georgia has one of the best running games in the nation and has backs with “home run” potential. ND couldn’t match that firepower even before starter Jafar Armstrong suffered a torn abdominal muscle in the Sept. 2 season opener that will likely keep him out until late October.

The team’s best short-yardage back, sophomore Jahmir Smith, hasn’t played since Louisville (sprained toe) on Sept. 2 either and is doubtful for Georgia, Kelly said Thursday on his radio show.

“A quarterback is asked to do so much because of the RPOs, the zone reads, the keeps,” Danielson said. “Ian Book is asked to produce way more, not only physically but mentally, throughout a game than Jake Fromm will.

“Jake Fromm 20 times is going to turn around, hand it off and take a rest. And don’t underestimate a mental rest for a quarterback. Ian Book is not going to get five mental-rest plays. And after 70 of those plays, your concentration has to fade and you start to make mistakes.

“Ian Book has to play the perfect game, and Jake Fromm has to play a B game and he can probably (still) win the game.”

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Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11), here against Arkansas State, has grown up a lot since making his first college start against Notre Dame in 2017.