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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 1:00 am

Irish focused on Bulldogs, not naysayers

Head to Georgia as big underdogs

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame

at Georgia

Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Records: Notre Dame (2-0), Georgia (3-0)

TV: CBS

Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame is not expected to win Saturday.

The Irish are 2-0 and ranked seventh in the country, but they're traveling to Sanford Stadium and taking on No. 3 Georgia, widely considered one of the country's elite teams. The neutral prognosticators peg Notre Dame as a 121/2-point underdog and some of those who follow the Bulldogs have gone even further.

“I'm telling you, there's not a script for Notre Dame to win this game,” Mike Griffith, a reporter at DawgNation, said during an appearance on Paul Finebaum's talk show on the SEC Network.  “Unless Ian Book has an unbelievable performance.”

Book and the rest of the Irish seem completely unconcerned with anyone else's opinion about their chances. They are in an unfamiliar role as the underdogs, but they have no problem playing that part. 

“I don't think anyone's too worried about what anyone is saying outside of this building,” Book said. “Coach (Brian) Kelly just got done saying that at practice, it's about what we do, it's about our preparation, it's about our process.

“Honestly, don't care at all what anyone says,” the quarterback added. “We're supposed to lose by double digits. It's a chip on our shoulder, we're going to use that as motivation. I think it's great, the pressure's not on us.”

Of course, Notre Dame has been here before. The Irish have fallen short in big games in the recent past, including against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, against Miami late in 2017 and against these same Bulldogs at Notre Dame Stadium earlier in 2017, a game that ended 20-19 and helped catapult Georgia back to elite status nationally.

Those are the games, the losses on the big stage, that have defined Notre Dame in its latest iteration, even as it has also won high-profile matchups against Michigan and Stanford in 2018 and against LSU in the Citrus Bowl following the 2017 season. Irish skeptics exist, but Notre Dame isn't worried about proving its ability to them.

“I think that's the attitude of this team,” wide receiver Chris Finke said. “I mean, I don't watch 'SportsCenter.' I don't really listen to anything that anyone says. You can tell me that people are saying whatever, but I don't really know what it is. 

“We're pretty intrinsically motivated on this team, we feel like we don't have to prove anything to anyone except for ourselves. Just go out there and make plays,” he added.

Finke did admit to being a little motivated by his performance the last time the Irish played Georgia. At the time, Notre Dame was coming off a 4-8 season and was trying to steer its program back in the right direction. 

The Irish had a chance to win that night in September 2017 against a team that would go on to appear in the national title game. Finke had three catches for 36 yards but missed a catch on third-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, a play he remembers vividly. 

“The idea of playing a team this good, every play is very important,” Finke said. “We're going to have to make big plays. Mistakes we make can turn into big plays for them.”

The Irish's ability to dismiss outside noise and stay focused before such a big game comes from the top down.

A win would be the first against a top-five opponent in Kelly's Notre Dame tenure, but he isn't thinking about that. He's practicing what he preaches to his players.

“It is not even part of what we do for preparation,” Kelly said of how this game could impact Notre Dame's national image. “To me, it's about our players, it's about our coaches giving them a great game plan, it's about my job to make sure we put together the best possible preparation for our team.

“The rest of that stuff, I really (couldn't) care less about.”

dsinn@jg.net