Opponent outlook: Georgia Tech on a roll heading into Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

After lopsided victories over Alcorn State and Tulane, 14th-ranked Georgia Tech will visit No. 8 Notre Dame Saturday in of the college football premiere games.

Ken Sugiura, Yellow Jackets' beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gives some insight into what Irish fans might look for in this showdown.

ND Insider: How did two games in which Georgia Tech scored a combined 134 points prepare the Yellow Jackets for what they will see at Notre Dame?

Ken Sugiura: Probably one of the biggest ways that it prepared Georgia Tech is that the two lopsided games allowed several freshman or otherwise inexperienced players to get some game experience in relatively low-stakes atmospheres. Tech graduated its top three B-backs (fullbacks) and three of its top four wide receivers, and lost all but one player it used in its A-back (slotback) rotation. Their places have largely been taken by freshmen or players who prior to this season hadn’t played much. Players like B-back Patrick Skov (a graduate transfer from Stanford) and A-back Qua Searcy (two touchdowns on Saturday against Tulane) are likely feeling more comfortable than they did two weeks ago.

NDI: Where are a couple of Tech's vulnerable areas, either offense or defense?

Sugiura: Offensively, blocking can be better. Beyond the line of scrimmage, the offense requires backs and receivers to block on the perimeter and also offensive linemen to reach the linebacker level. It’s those blocks that can transform a five-yard run into a 35-yard gash. Given that Tech has put up 134 points, it’s hardly been awful, but it hasn’t been consistent, and I’d think a faster and more agile defense like Notre Dame’s will expose those missed blocks more effectively.

Defensively, the Jackets had a few missed tackles Saturday, particularly on run plays up the middle where backs were wrapped up but then broke free. Again, I’d hardly say it was epidemic, but those flaws are easier to hide against Tulane or Alcorn State than Notre Dame.

NDI: A common perception is that Tech (which runs an option offense employed by coach Paul Johnson, who came from Navy) is Navy with a lot better athletes. How far from the truth is that?

Sugiura: It’s probably fairly accurate. For one thing, the system that coach Paul Johnson brought with him from Navy is largely the same, if not entirely. And the talent level is inarguably better.

Quarterback Justin Thomas was talented enough to have been recruited to play defensive back at Alabama but chose to play at Tech to play quarterback. He’s also likely a far better passer than what Johnson had at Navy, which opens up that part of the offense. This isn’t to say that Tech hauls in hordes of blue-chip players — the school has historically had recruiting challenges due to its academic rigor and location in the heart of the SEC — but the level is higher than at Navy.

NDI: What do you know about the Yellow Jackets that you didn't know two weeks ago?

Sugiura: I figured Skov would be a good fit, and he has proven to be. He runs hard, doesn’t give up on plays and is just a physical player who moves the pile forward. (Irish fans may note with interest that he has a sour taste from Stanford’s loss in South Bend last year.) Wide receiver Micheal Summers, who has been inconsistent and mostly played in the shadows of DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller (both NFL draftees this year), looks like he could step into a role as a go-to receiver. The defense looks like it has made considerable improvement on third down (46 percent a year ago).

NDI: If Notre Dame beats Georgia Tech, what would have to happen? If Tech beats Notre Dame, what would have to happen?

Sugiura: Notre Dame’s offensive line would have to neutralize Tech’s defensive front, which I think is a strength, on both the run and the pass. DeShone Kizer would have to stay away from mistakes. Linebacker Jaylon Smith will have to be busy, defeating cut blocks and bringing down backs at or near the line. For Tech to win, the Jackets probably need to create big plays, because I think it will be hard to have play-to-play consistency against this defense to produce 10- or 12-play drives. Defensively, they’ll have to continue their improvement on third down, which probably means winning a lot on first down.

Georgia Tech running back Qua Searcy (1) leaps into the end zone for a touchdown against Tulane during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)