Notre Dame defense makes statement in win over Georgia Tech

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Isaac Rochell couldn’t remember when his body ached so much.

And someday maybe the Notre Dame defensive lineman will look back, and the indelible takeaway will be how much that didn’t matter.

No. 8 Notre Dame’s 30-22 smothering of 14th-ranked Georgia Tech Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium — the dominance vandalized by a late, flailing burst of Yellow Jacket offense — didn’t reek of upset, but rather a big-picture big step.

“I think it contributes to the overall attitude that we’re trying to develop and our culture,” said Rochell, a junior from McDonough, Ga., who was courted by the Yellow Jackets out of high school.

“We kind of bowed up and we held up the majority of the game, and that’s against the No. 1 rushing offensive in the country. I think we responded to a lot of hype around this game. We were the underdogs, which was frustrating, but I think we just responded well.”

Almost historically well.

Until Georgia Tech (2-1) splashed the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard with 15 points in a 26-second span in the game’s final minute — helped by an onside kick, the Irish (3-0) were on a trajectory to holding the nation’s No. 2 offense to its lowest scoring output since a 38-3 squelching from LSU in the Peach Bowl seven seasons ago.

As it was, last year’s FBS rushing champion (342.1 per game) labored for its 216 on the ground. And while the Yellow Jackets did end up outrushing Notre Dame, they did so by just one yard, and it took them 15 more carries to do it.

A team that hadn’t had a three-and-out this season and had a nation’s-best on 7.9 of its possessions last season, had two on its first two possessions Saturday. A team that had scored touchdowns on all 12 of its red-zone trips coming into the game, was successful on just 2-of-4.

And a team that set an NCAA record for third-down efficiency in 2014 at 58 percent, was 0-for-9 on third down heading into the fourth quarter and finished 3-of-15 for the game.

“Giving him different looks he had not seen before,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of how he made one of the nation’s most dangerous quarterbacks, junior Justin Thomas, look more like the QB getting his first collegiate start than Kelly’s, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, who actually was.

“Moving the fronts around, giving him different edge looks. We needed to mix it up. We didn't believe we could line up in one or two fronts and give him vanilla looks. That was not going to work for us. So moving around a little bit and, again, being aggressive with our defense.”

Georgia Tech doesn’t pass very often, but with Thomas they have passed very well the past two seasons. The Yellow Jackets were 12th in passing-efficiency in 2014 and were No. 1 and by a mammoth margin coming into Saturday’s game.

Thomas ended up 8-of-24 for 121 yards and two late TDs, and was just 3-of-12 for 26 yards heading into the fourth quarter. On the ground he had 27 yards on 11 carries.

“It was like popcorn,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said of the Irish defense. “One guy you’d get fixed, then the other guy would mess up.”

Thomas was the player singularly most responsible for Georgia Tech’s ascendance last season into a New Year’s Bowl Six participant, a status that seemed reasonable for this season.

If Alabama coach Nick Saban had his way, the 5-foot-11, 189-pound redshirt junior would be playing defensive back for the Crimson Tide. Unlike a lot of triple-option QBs, Thomas was very highly recruited, with an offer list that included Florida, Florida State, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State … but at what position?

Georgia Tech promised him a chance to play quarterback, and the state 100-meter dash champ from Prattville, Ala., eventually reneged on his almost year-old commitment to Alabama to make a run as a QB.

He’s one of four elite QBs, all varying in styles, that hit the Irish schedule in the next month — with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and USC’s Cody Kessler all queued up. That’s why the Irish defense – so dominant against Texas and so skittish against Virginia – needed to find some traction for sustainable growth and success.

“We showed we’ve got a lot of grit, toughness,” said Irish sophomore linebacker Greer Martini, ND’s triple-option defensive specialist. Martini has 17 of his 34 career tackles in two games against triple-option offenses, including eight Saturday against Tech.

“We’ve got a lot of things to improve on, but as a defense, that was a great stand. We were out there and we got smacked in the face, but we reacted and played really well.”

Kelly, now 20-13 in his career against teams ranked in the AP top 25 and 13-2 at ND while playing as a top 10 team, reveled in the mechanics behind the turnaround from last season’s 39-point yield to triple-option Navy.

From analyst Bob Elliott’s offseason research, to second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s implementing that info into a game plan, to his SWAG team, which took pride in simulating Georgia Tech’s offense in practice to prep the No. 1 Irish defense.

But the real satisfaction was more big picture, especially with yet another key player appearing to be lost for the season with an injury.

Sophomore safety Drue Tranquill, making his first start of the season, was in the midst of his most dominant collegiate performance when he broke up a pass in the end zone late in the first half.

As he jumped up to celebrate, he appeared to seriously injure his right knee.

“Doesn't look very good right now,” Kelly said. “We'll get an MRI here. We only have a manual exam to go on right now. The manual exam was not a good one. But we'll get an MRI (Sunday) morning and then we'll have definitive results. But we're not optimistic at this point.”

Tranquill tore an ACL in the other knee, his left, late last season. He was replaced to start the second half by grad Matthias Farley, who forced a Georgia Tech fumble on his first play in the game. Farley finished with four tackles, as did Tranquill.

Grad linebacker Joe Schmidt, once upon a time a middle-school option quarterback, led the Irish defensive effort with 10 tackles, including two for loss.

The Notre Dame offense did its part with 457 total yards and Kizer becoming the fifth successive Irish quarterback to win his first start – with the current streak, all under Kelly, starting with Dayne Crist.

Kizer finished 21-of-30 for 242 yards and a touchdown. He was responsible for ND’s first turnover since the USC game in last year's regular-season finale – this one an interception in the end zone.

He also found Will Fuller six times for 131 yards and his fifth TD reception of the season. Senior Chris Brown had a career-high eight catches.

Former receiver and current running back C.J. Prosise powered the ground game with a career-high 198 yards on 22 carries and three touchdowns. That included a 91-yard scoring run, the longest rush by a player in Notre Dame Stadium history.

“I wasn't worried about where we were going to be win or lose,” Kelly said of the game. “I mean, I want to win and these kids want to win. What I like about it is it's a program win, because it says that you can overcome injuries, you can overcome adversity.

“All the experts picked Georgia Tech to win this game. Didn't faze our team at all. So I think it's more about where the program is. You can sustain some injuries, some key injuries, and still play at a high level. I think that's what is for me most revealing.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9), far right, scoops up a fumble Saturday, September 19, 2015, during the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ