Brian Kelly: Notre Dame relishes games on big stage

Monday, September 16, 2019 @ 9:57 AM
By Chip Towers - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Remember that ‘pressure is a privilege’ adage Kirby Smart unleashed last season? Well, the Georgia coach doesn’t have a copyright on it.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is free to use it, and he did on Sunday when discussing the No. 7 Fighting Irish’s foray into Sanford Stadium this Saturday to take on the No. 3 Bulldogs (CBS, 8 p.m.)

The two storied programs will square off for the first time in Sanford Stadium history in the nation’s marquee college game and a playoff type of atmosphere awaits. ESPN’s College Football Game Day will provide the backdrop leading into a rare, early-season prime time broadcast for CBS.

“You know, it’s why they come to Notre Dame and they really enjoy it,” Kelly said of the atmosphere the Fighting Irish expect to encounter on Saturday. “The don’t see it as pressure; they see it as a privilege.”

The matchup is the second in a home-and-home series the teams brokered in 2013. Georgia traveled to South Bend in 2017, where the Bulldogs won 20-19 in the second week of what ended up being a championship season. The only other time the Fighting Irish have met UGA was in the 1981 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, which the Bulldogs won 17-10 to claim the 1980 national championship.

This time, Notre Dame (2-0) comes in with a No. 7 national ranking. The Fighting Irish defeated Louisville 35-17 on the road in the opener. Then, after a week off, they dispatched New Mexico 66-14 this past Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Much has changed since the last matchup. Last year, the Irish reached the College Football Playoff, falling to eventual national champion Clemson in the semifinals. This year is considered a bit of a rebuild, especially on defense. But the Fighting Irish have re-ascended under Kelly’s leadership, recruiting on a consistently higher level the past three years with the expectation of annually contending for the national championship.

It’s hard to tell what they have so far this year. Like Georgia, which has played three games against markedly inferior opponents, there’s not a whole lot to draw from Notre Dame’s matchups coming into Saturday’s game. There are concerns as well as validations.

While second-year starting quarterback Ian Book was impressive against the Lobos, completing 15 of 24 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns, the Irish came away with just 157 yards rushing and gave up 212. That meshes with the narrative on Notre Dame this season. The Irish are having to replace more than 600 tackles off last year’s defense, while the offense is expected to be the team strength, with Book and some other returning talent at the skill positions.

There are some health issues, however. Speedy wideout Michael Young (collarbone) definitely will sit out, while running back Jafar Armstrong is also expected to miss with a torn abdominal muscle. Notre Dame starting tight end Cole Kmet is set to return Saturday after suffering a broken collarbone early in preseason camp, and running back Jahmir Smith also is supposed to come back Monday from a sprained abdominal muscle.

But Notre Dame will be typically big and strong on the lines of scrimmage, though it will operate a bit differently on offense than with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback in 2017.

“We had much more of a running quarterback (then), and he certainly played well that night,” Kelly said. “But I think you’re looking at an offense that has a little more diversity in terms of what it can do with the tight end position and wide receivers. … We had some really good offensive linemen then and I think we have some good linemen this year as well. I’d say we’re similar, with a little more diversity.”

A couple of Atlanta players are making a big impact for the Irish. Tight end Tommy Tremble, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound sophomore from Johns Creek and the son of UGA football letterman Greg Tremble, has four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. And true freshman safety Kyle Hamilton of Marist, who Georgia recruited hard, is emerging as the star everybody envisioned. He had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown versus New Mexico.

“He’s done a really nice job for us, especially in passing situations,” Kelly said of the 6-4, 210-pound Hamilton. “He’s a presence for us on the back end of the defense. He’s tall, rangy and has really good instincts. He sees things and reacts really quick. He’s around the football. He just has a nose for the ball. He’s made a big impact as a true freshman and that doesn’t happen very often. I’m really excited to see him continue to impress.”

Of course, Georgia has changed a lot, too. Kelly was asked to contrast the Bulldogs’ squad his team faced two years ago with the one it will see between the hedges on Saturday.

“Structurally, it’s very similar defensively; offensively, it has a lot of the similar tenets – great running game, big physical offensive line,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of similarities. Big players at the running back position. Probably a little bigger physically on defense. I thought they weren’t quite the same size (on defense), but they were extremely athletic two years ago and they are just a little bigger up front this year. But just an outstanding football team in all areas.”

The Bulldogs opened as 12.5-point favorites by Las Vegas oddsmakers on Sunday. If Notre Dame is as overmatched as handicappers believe, it won’t be because of the magnitude of the moment.

Kelly insists his young squad will embrace that aspect of the challenge.

“It’s why they come to Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “It’s like being in a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play. You’re on national TV. They know that all their games are broadcast whether on NBC or CBS or ESPN or ABC. So, they know they’re on that spotlight and they choose to come to Notre Dame because they want that.”