It's dark irony that the result that likely knocked No. 10 Notre Dame out of playoff contention on Saturday night came from a performance that may have convinced America that the Irish are actually playoff worthy. Notre Dame, then No. 7, traveled to Athens, Georgia, for a night game that was being billed as one of the biggest home games in the history of Georgia football. The No. 3 Bulldogs, already branded as a playoff front-runner with a championship roster, had to overcome a halftime deficit and hang on late to preserve the 23-17 win.
The most impressive aspect of Notre Dame's showing was its ability to defend the powerful and brutish Georgia rushing attack. The Bulldogs were held to 152 yards on the ground, a pedestrian 4.6 yards per carry and had no runs of 20 yards or more. It was a stout effort in what has become a daunting challenge for teams that play the Bulldogs.
The growth of spread variations around college football have dictated a shift in the way rosters are constructed. The number of heavy, thumping linebackers has thinned out, replaced by the hybrid-body types that can run and play in space. But Georgia challenges that notion, turning back the clock and running behind a massive athletic offensive front and challenging the toughness – and stoutness – of defenses to hold up.
Notre Dame's defense has been adapting along with the rest of the nation. Irish linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is that hybrid defender today's defense needs. On Saturday he showed the ability to tighten windows down the field as a vertical defender in the pass game but also proved to be a much tougher task for Georgia tight end Eli Wolfe blocking on the perimeter than your typical nickel defender.
Going through ND-UGA and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a stud. Sheds the block like its nothing, first instinct is going for the ball, great break up pic.twitter.com/khKTbmsnVJ— Peter Hofmann (@Hoflax24) September 23, 2019
But for Notre Dame, the hybrid body types aren't limited to the linebacking corps. Because Georgia challenges convention, versatile body types at linebacker necessitate versatile body types at defensive back as well. In particular, safety Alohi Gilman was a huge factor in Notre Dame's ability to slow down Georgia's run game.
Forty percent of Notre Dame's defensive snaps against Georgia featured a safety in the box at or near linebacker depth. Typically, that safety was Gilman and the majority of those snaps came in the first half. Good luck handling Georgia if you don't have a safety that can man up in run support.
Those 40% of snaps don't even include the quick trigger that Gilman showed at times as a two-deep safety supporting the run like the clip below in the second quarter.
Georgia's second half adjustment was to spread things out offensively and that pulled Gilman out of the run game and his snaps inside the box dropped dramatically. But few teams have a safety that can give you value in both facets like Gilman and few teams have the ability to counter with pinpoint vertical shots to big, athletic receivers like Georgia.
That's why what we saw on Saturday night was so fun. It was a talented offense with versatile personnel matching wits with an equally talented and versatile defense. It was a fitting ending to see the decisive touchdown come on this play:
The play featured one of the best safeties in the country, Gilman, and his five-star true freshman running mate Kyle Hamilton on a double A-gap blitz, Jake Fromm, Georgia's NFL-caliber quarterback throwing it to Lawrence Cager, his 6-foot-4 receiver that was a 6-8 high jumper in high school, defended closely by Notre Dame's best cornerback Troy Pride, a 10.5-100 meter athlete. It took an elite play among elite athletes to win that game.
Georgia can leave that game knowing that it beat a really good football team playing really good football. Notre Dame leaves Athens knowing that, at least on defense, it has the right combination of talent and versatility to line up with anyone in the country.
Alabama's quarterback future gets boost
I was ready to sell some Alabama stock. I wasn't going to dump it all but with the impending likely departure of Tua Tagovailoa to the NFL Draft along with one, two or three likely early-round picks at wide receiver, it was starting to look like time to diversify the ol' portfolio. Then something happened that made me ready to buy back in: five-star Class of 2020 quarterback Bryce Young committed to the Tide.
Alabama has undergone a real shift in identity on offense that caters to its best players. Those players on offense are Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Nick Saban has embraced offensive modernization and his roster reflects that.
As the passing game thrives, the running game has taken a step back. Alabama is 35th in the country in yards per carry at 5.34. It's 57th in rush yards per game at 178. As a team that regularly hangs around the top two or three in the national rankings in defensive yards per play allowed, the Tide finished 24th last fall and is at 15th this season. Mind you that none of this is overly concerning in the grand scheme of things, especially while Tua and his receivers have the Tide cooking on offense at an all-time pace.
But at Saban's behest, let's look past this season and into 2020. Gone is the bulk of that passing attack and in comes Mac Jones or Taulia Tagovailoa at quarterback. Both are competent and capable quarterbacks in the vein of the Jacob Cokers, Blake Sims or Greg McElroys of years past. That's good enough to win a national championship with the right team around them, but would they have the right team around them?
With Saban's ability to adapt and evolve, I don't doubt there would have been a plan. But if Young indeed signs with Alabama and enrolls early in January as expected, Saban can stick to the same blueprint he's been working off of under Tua Tagovailoa.
Young is a special talent at quarterback, fittingly stationed in the same tier as quarterbacks recently ranked before him like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Tua Tagovailoa. He has a live arm, rare instincts, has dominated at the highest level of competition in high school and he has the maturity and physical traits to be a true freshman starter. So say goodbye to Tua, but settle in for three more years of elite quarterback play in Tuscaloosa under Young.
Three who impressed in Week 3
1. Nebraska all-purpose back Wandale Robinson: When Nebraska landed Robinson in the 2019 recruiting cycle, it looked like a perfect match for Scott Frost and his offensive system. Robinson was the Rondale Moore of the 2019 cycle. Like Moore he's a Kentucky native, like Moore he's undersized and like Moore he's a dynamic do-it-all type of athlete. Last week against Illinois was a breakout performance of sorts for Robinson. He had 89 yards rushing, 79 yards receiving and three total touchdowns and he just looked different every time he touched the football. Robinson had 19 carries on Saturday after having eight in the previous three games combined. The newfound workload is coming at a time when Nebraska needs every last ounce of big-play ability with Ohio State coming to town. Last year, Moore delivered a Purdue home upset over the mighty Buckeyes. If Nebraska is going to pull off a similar shocker, it will be because Wandale is the next sparkplug from the Bluegrass that plays big.
2. LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase: Against Vanderbilt, Chase had 10 catches for 229 yards, fourth highest total in school history. It's a byproduct of this new high-flying LSU offense but it's also a visual of what happens when teams try to challenge LSU's wide receivers. Vanderbilt tried to bring pressure and dictate the game with Heisman front runner Joe Burrow at quarterback but it just didn't have anyone that could keep pace with Chase at the line of scrimmage. A former five-star recruit, Chase is the kind of wide receiver that just two years ago might have been shackled by LSU's offensive style. Now he's emerging as one of the best in all of college football.
3. SMU quarterback Shane Buechele: Engineering SMU's upset over TCU on Saturday was former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele. A former four-star recruit under Charlie Strong, Buechele flashed as a freshman starter in 2016. Tom Herman showed up in 2017 with a true freshman quarterback in Sam Ehlinger. The two battled back and forth in 2017 before Ehlinger eventually won the job in 2018. The inevitable transfer came and on Saturday, after losing to TCU as a starter twice at Texas, Buechele took the Mustangs into Fort Worth, Texas, and pulled off a Top 25 upset. Sparking the upset, Buechele threw for 288 yards, two touchdown passes and rushed for another. It's a satisfying next chapter for a quarterback that battled through injuries and was a good teammate through some tough competitions with Ehlinger.