Even if Notre Dame’s offense struggles or lacks big plays at times, the unit has a tendency to make it happen during critical moments.
The No. 4 Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) continued to be dominant on third down, converting 10-of-15 such scenarios in their 31-13 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Next Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC), the Irish will host No. 1 Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium. Their success at controlling the game flow, dominating the time of possession and converting third downs will be challenged against the stout Tiger defense.
Those areas were pivotal for the Irish against the Yellow Jackets. On its first possession of the game, Notre Dame converted four third downs across a 15-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that lasted 8:44. That possession was the most time-consuming scoring drive for the Irish this season.
They converted their first six third-down opportunities and eventually won the time of possession battle 36:54-23:06.
“I’d rather score quicker, quite frankly,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… But the nature of what we were going up against, with two high safeties and deep coverage, we couldn’t push the ball down the field as quickly as we would have liked. We were extremely methodical and excellent on third down. Obviously a very, very good (first) drive. I don’t want to take anything away.”
Irish quarterback Ian Book completed just three passes that went for gains of at least 17 yards. He finished 18-of-26 for 199 yards and a touchdown while turning nine carries into 46 yards. Book connected with wide receiver Javon McKinley for his two biggest completions, one for 31 yards and the other for 34 yards. McKinley caught a game-high five passes for 93 yards.
Beyond those two completions to McKinley, Book needed to work the short and intermediate passing game when moving the sticks through the air. Wide receivers Ben Skowroenk and McKinley and freshman tight end Michael Mayer have been popular targets in those situations.
Mayer caught a seven-yard pass to convert a third-and-2 on the first drive. A few plays later, McKinley hauled in a 10-yard pass on a third-and-9. Running back Kyren Williams converted the next two third downs that possession in short-yardage situations.
“The first drive in particular, we had them in third-and-long, third-and-medium,” Yellow Jacket head coach Geoff Collins said. “We’ve got to get those stops. I thought (defensive coordinator) Andrew Thacker called a really good game defensively, moving some stress around.
“We have to find ways to shore up our pass-rush lanes. We had great coverage on the back end. The quarterback (Book), he’s a really good athlete. He has hurt a lot of people with his feet. Just making sure the pass-rush lanes are secure to not let those scrambles hurt us on third downs as well.”
By starting that way, the Irish kept the Yellow Jacket offense off the field. They did not get off play No. 10 until midway through the second quarter. Georgia Tech totaled 59 plays. Notre Dame’s defense has been on the field for more than 75 snaps in just one game this season.
The Irish offense entered this weekend at No. 6 (34:11) and No. 14 (51.4 percent) in average time of possession and third-down efficiency. It figures to climb in both rankings after exceeding its averages.
Since its final possession against Louisville, Notre Dame is 24-of-36 on third down. On their opening possession in the previous two games, the Irish have pieced together long, sustained drives. Notre Dame had an 11-play, 75 yard touchdown drive (4:52) to open the game against Pittsburgh last week and a 12-play, 61-yard drive (5:34) that resulted in a field goal against Louisville. The Irish have three 15-play scoring drives this season.
It may not always look pretty, but Notre Dame and Book are making plays when it matters the most.
“At the end of the day the last (three) weeks, we’ve scored on our first drive,” Book said. “It took a while, that’s for sure. But this team is gritty. We had a penalty and had to get a few third downs and we took up a lot of time to go down and get a score on our first drive. That’s two weeks in a row. That’s huge. That is starting fast. It might have taken a little bit longer than we wanted to, but still that was the first time we were on the field and we were able to score.
“What coach Kelly wants is that next possession to keep scoring. It’s not just one and done. You have to keep doing it for the first quarter, the second quarter and keep your foot on the gas. That’s what he wants to see.”
Converting short-yardage situations on third down proved to be challenging for Notre Dame’s offense last season. Not now.
The Irish ranked No. 106 nationally in power success rate (62.2 percent). That metric measures the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or fewer to go, that result in a first down or touchdown.
All five offensive line starters returning, the emergence of running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree and a retooled blocking scheme helped Notre Dame significantly improve when running on third-and-short this season.
The Irish went 3-of-4 in those situations against Georgia Tech, improving to 22-of-28 (78.6 percent) on the season. It appears Notre Dame will likely crack the top 25 in power success rate following this performance.
Defense by the numbers
Coordinator Clark Lea has helped Notre Dame’s defense play at a high level.
Under Lea, the Irish have held 31-of-32 opponents to 30 points or fewer. Notre Dame averages 10.3 points yielded per game in 2020. No team scored on the Irish in the fourth quarter this season until Yellow Jacket running back Jordan Mason found the end zone on a one-yard run. That touchdown marked the first against Notre Dam's defense in eight quarters.
Notre Dame entered the game top 10 in scoring defense, total defense, pass-efficiency defense and third-down efficiency defense, and No. 13 in run defense. The Irish defense has yielded only 16 points from their last 185 plays across 34 possessions.
They have allowed just two passing touchdowns in the last 335 days, dating back to the game against Stanford on Nov. 30, 2019.
“The brotherhood,” said Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes on why they have been successful. “We go out and we play for each other. We love each other. We take that personally. Honestly, the six points that we gave up was six points too many in our minds. We’re going to go back, we’re going to go watch the film and see where we had our mistakes to have to clean up.
“Because we can’t make any mistakes against Clemson next week. We want to be perfect. We want to be the best defense.”
• Notre Dame has the longest active winning streak in the FBS with 12 consecutive victories. The Irish have started 6-0 for the fourth time under Kelly.
• Georgia Tech entered the game ranked No. 1 in the ACC with 1.67 sacks allowed per game. Notre Dame generated five sacks, including two from Hayes.
• The Yellow Jackets recorded their longest fumble return touchdown in program history at 93 yards. Irish running back Kyren Williams coughed up the football in the red zone before defensive back Zamari Walton recovered it and ran for the score during the second quarter.
• Graduate senior defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji represented Notre Dame on the opening coin toss.