Joe Schmidt takes lead in defining moment for Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Joe Schmidt still watches “Rudy,” still professes the violin-heavy instrumental soundtrack is the greatest movie music ever.

“Embarrassingly enough, like two or three weeks ago,” the Notre Dame linebacker confessed when pressed about his most recent screening.

The admitted extreme reach of a tie-in is that the actual Rudy moment unfolded 40 seasons ago, on Nov. 8 to be exact, when the Irish subdued Georgia Tech, 24-3, in one of their 34 previous meetings. And the two teams clash again Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m.; NBC-TV).

And yes, once upon a time, when Schmidt was a walk-on with five-star sound bites and a then-limited bio, it sort of invited the lazy comparison.

The stakes are so much higher now, though — for eighth-ranked Notre Dame (2-0), a Vegas underdog at home to a lower-ranked team.

For 14th-ranked Georgia Tech (2-0) an aspiring college football playoff team playing an annoying, throwback offense, and fresh off the most prolific two-game scoring spree (134) at the school, literally since the program’s leather-helmet days (1921).

For ND second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, still trying to convince a suspicious Irish fan base his Rex Ryan-esque, multi-layered, NFL style defense can work consistently on the college level.

For middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, still VanGorder’s star pupil.

“Everyone that comes here knows that what Notre Dame stands for and what the people before us have kind of laid down,” the grad student and team captain from Orange, Calif., said. “But at the same time you need to write your own story and do everything you can to build upon that legacy.”

The crossroads moment for Schmidt, the team’s reigning MVP, and the entire Irish defense for that matter, is right in front of them.

Brian Kelly’s teams have played eight squads whose offensive identity is some strain of the triple-option in his six seasons as ND’s head coach. Georgia Tech represents the one with the biggest offensive line and the best athletes in the sequence, and with a quarterback in Justin Thomas who is 13-3 as a starter and 2-1 against top 10 teams.

Kelly’s 7-1 record against those teams, with a seven-game win streak since a 35-17 beatdown from Navy in 2010, camouflage just how taxing those games have been — and their aftermaths as well.

Starting with the encore games, the Irish are 4-4 under Kelly in games directly after facing a triple-option team. And of those four wins, the one with the widest margin was a 24-17 victory at Wake Forest.

The most recent triple-option encounter, a 10-point survival of Navy in Landover, Md., last Nov. 1, the Irish yielded the most points (39) of the eight Kelly option games and the second-most total yards (454).

It was also a game in which Schmidt’s dramatic ascendance came to a cruel halt. Lower leg injuries — some attributed to the triple-option teams’ legal-but-unconventional cut blocks — have been commonplace in such games.

A lower leg fracture knocked Schmidt out for the final 5 ½ game of the 2014 season and limited him to non-contact work last spring. Even now, he’s still trying to gain the elusive half step of speed the injury hasn’t given back to him.

“That's the game of football,” Schmidt said. “And injuries happen. So I would never put it on a scheme or a player. It wasn't malicious. You know, the people from Navy were not malicious. They were just playing the game and I was playing the game, and things happen.”

What Schmidt hopes happens Saturday is that his own background as an option quarterback will help him decode Tech coach Paul Johnson’s intentions and Thomas’ reads.

“I was the quarterback until my freshman year of high school,” Schmidt puffed. “I broke my hand. Surprising. And then I moved to linebacker.”

Schmidt, who played for California prep football power Santa Ana Mater Dei, was behind eventual USC star Matt Barkley in that quarterback lineage and would have been competing with Max Wittek, who originally ended up as QB at USC (now at Hawaii).

In fact, Schmidt’s first multi-tackle game in college came in a 22-13 win at USC, quarterbacked by Wittek, in the 2012 regular-season finale that sent the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game.

Where ND made its deepest investment in figuring out the option was having former Irish assistant coach Bob Elliott, now an off-the-field analyst, spend his offseason researching trends and methods in defending it.

“I think what we were looking for were some common threads,” Kelly said “So finding that commonality more than anything else and where are the areas that get you in trouble?”

That also meant radically extreme film study of Georgia Tech’s own tendencies — not just the waxings of Alcorn State and Tulane in this season’s first two weeks or the 2014 catalog that ended in an 11-3 record and an Orange Bowl crushing of Mississippi State.

“We're going back as far as we can to make sure some of those things don't happen,” Kelly said. “Navy last year brought out some stuff that they did in 2009, with bunch packages that outflanked our defense. So, yeah, we're not taking anything for granted.”

Even with all the data, VanGorder has to figure out which personnel fits best for this week and in three weeks, when Navy and Johnson protégé coach Ken Niumatalolo visit Notre Dame Stadium for a game sandwiched between showdowns against Clemson and USC.

One of ND’s least successful anti-option defensive configurations under Kelly was using its then-base 3-4 defense in the 35-17 whipping from Navy at the Meadowlands five seasons ago.

Its best, later that same year in a 27-3 smothering of Army at Yankee Stadium, was a 4-3 alignment in which then-coordinator Bob Diaco dropped cornerback Robert Blanton down into the box to play linebacker.

This particular X’s and O’s showdown apparently is quite personal between Johnson and VanGorder, two former head coaches at Georgia Southern, a former FCS power now trying to find its football at the FBS level.

That is if you believe Johnson’s alleged sharp quotes from his past about the man who disassembled the option offense at Georgia Southern during his one-year, 3-8 run as a head coach there, in 2006. Johnson sanded off the jagged edges when asked about the relationship earlier in the week.

That won’t make it any less intriguing Saturday, or any less of a referendum on VanGorder’s way of teaching and calling a defense.

“Really he teaches conceptually,” Schmidt said. “Once you understand how to play this play out of this coverage, it just kind of all builds on each other. It's easier to do, because then you stop memorizing. You just play from a central point of understanding.”

But that’s not entirely universal.

“Depends on the day of the week,” defensive tackle Sheldon Day offered of what the weekly defensive install is like. “Mondays, it's like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what did he just do?’ But then, as we get into the week and we start to run them and take reps at it, it kind of clears up.”

Sort of unclear and clandestine in Georgia Tech’s winning formula is the role of its defense. While the Yellow Jackets ranked below average last season in just about every pertinent statistical category, they were the best nationally in one.

Twenty-six percent of its oppositions’ possessions in 2014 ended in a turnover. In Tech’s 11 wins, the Yellow Jackets averaged 2.5 takeaways. In its three losses, the average was 0.3.

Notre Dame has strung together three turnover-free games on offense for the first time in almost a decade and is looking to make that four straight Saturday for the first time in the 2000s, with redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer making his first collegiate start.

“It doesn't matter what position across the board, I have full faith and confidence in everybody to do their job when they're called upon,” Schmidt said of Kizer.

He also has faith in a defense, in a scheme, in a culture VanGorder has brought that will have greater context, for better or for worse, after this weekend.

“This is one of the reasons you come to Notre Dame,” Schmidt said. “This is one of the reasons you play football. I can’t wait.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Joe Schmidt celebrates after forcing a fumble during the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina college football game on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)