Opponent Outlook: Notre Dame facing a Georgia Tech squad in mid-reconstruction

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

After taking over Georgia Tech’s football program Geoff Collins introduced a comprehensive reconfiguration.

In 10 seasons under Collins’ predecessor, Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech found some success. The Yellow Jackets finished first in the ACC Coastal division three times and won at least nine games on four occasions. They went 24-25 in Johnson’s last four seasons combined, ending in 2018 when he retired.

Then Collins took over and tossed out Johnson’s triple-option flexbone offense. That rare scheme calls for specific types of players who fit that system. It also excluded common positions like slot receiver and tight end.

Collins’ preferred offense features more of a pro-style/spread look. He served as a defensive coordinator at Florida International (2010), Mississippi State (2011-14) and Florida (2015-16) before serving as head coach at Temple (2017-18), then moving on to Georgia Tech.

On Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) will face a Yellow Jackets (2-4, 2-3) squad still adjusting to Collins’ changes.

The Irish football program provided another COVID-19 update on Monday. Of 248 COVID-19 tests administered last week, two football players tested positive. They remain in isolation and did not travel to this past Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh. Three players are in isolation, while another is in quarantine from contact tracing.

Cornerback TaRiq Bracy, wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and offensive lineman Josh Lugg were the only players from Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart who were unavailable against the Panthers. A non-coronavirus illness sidelined Bracy. Austin re-injured his foot in practice and is not expected to return until the spring, per head coach Brian Kelly. Lugg was sidelined by an ankle injury.

What more is there to learn about Georgia Tech and Collins? We caught up with Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for some insight on the Yellow Jackets.

How would you assess what Geoff Collins has done and where this program is headed?

Sugiura: “The area where Geoff Collins has probably made the biggest impact on the program is in recruiting. The 2020 class, the first he had a full year to recruit, was ranked in the top 30. The classes of former coach Paul Johnson were typically in the 40’s or lower. Three of the most notable signees will (barring unforeseen circumstances) be on the field Saturday — quarterback Jeff Sims, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and right tackle Jordan Williams.

“Collins’ second season has brought significant wins over Florida State and Louisville (which gave Notre Dame problems). But certainly the last two games (a 73-7 loss to Clemson and a 48-27 loss to Boston College) have raised eyebrows. That said, this is a project that won’t reveal itself entirely in 1 ½ seasons. I think things are generally going in the right direction.”

How has Georgia Tech’s transition been from its option-based offense to Collins’ offense?

Sugiura: “Last year was a rough ride. The offensive line was having to learn new techniques and style of play, and those challenges were particularly reflected in ineffective pass blocking, which obviously doomed the passing game. The run game wasn’t bad, particularly due to running back Jordan Mason, who was named All-ACC last season.

“This year has looked like a step forward. The offense started the season with four consecutive games of 400 total yards, something Georgia Tech didn’t do once last year. The line has largely looked much more effective. Sims, while turnover-prone, is a dual-threat quarterback who has shown plenty of flashes of his ability in both aspects. Gibbs is a star in the making and there is a lot of talent at wide receiver, namely slot receiver Ahmarean Brown and outside receiver Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp.”

Three teams’ scoring highs this season have come against Georgia Tech. What have been the biggest issues for this defense?

Sugiura: “A few different things. One I’ve heard a lot is eye discipline — players keeping their focus on their assignments and not getting mixed up by pre-snap movement or misdirection plays. It has happened a good deal, and I’m sure it’s something that Notre Dame will try to exploit, whether by play action, shifting before the snap or speeding up its tempo.

“The tackling can definitely be better and was a major factor in the loss to Boston College on Saturday. Whether it’s tackling high, taking poor angles or arm tackling, Tech was guilty. Also, while better than last year, the pass rush has not imposed itself enough, enabling quarterbacks to have time to throw downfield and convert third downs.”

Georgia Tech ranks No. 88 out of No. 101 nationally in penalties per game (8.67) and second-to-last in turnovers lost (18). Why have those two areas been a problem for the Yellow Jackets? Other than limiting penalties and turnovers, what will be their biggest keys against the Irish?

Sugiura: “With the penalties, it’s often seemed like a case of a lack of discipline. There have been a lot of false starts that have been impactful on drives, for instance. It’s a little unexpected, because last year Georgia Tech was among the least penalized teams in FBS. Of the team’s 18 turnovers — second most in the FBS — some back luck counts for some of it with unlucky bounces and the like.

“Part of it, though, is having a freshman quarterback making poor reads or decisions. Sims had one interception against Clemson and Boston College each where it didn’t seem like pressure was as much a factor as him not being aware of defenders in the area he was throwing. Saturday, simply getting off to a good start — or at least avoiding a bad start — will be a focus. Tech has been outscored 72-21 in the first quarter of games this year and 168-62 in the first half.”

Who are the keys players who could make an impact against Notre Dame?

Sugiura: “I think Gibbs could be one. I would think his playmaking ability both in getting the ball in the backfield and catching it downfield give Georgia Tech a shot at neutralizing the obvious advantages that Notre Dame has. Gibbs is also a dangerous kick returner who had a touchdown called back because of a penalty against Boston College. I think you could say the same (playmaking speed) about Brown at receiver. There have not been many defenses that he hasn’t been able to get behind, so in a game where I’m sure Collins will take as many explosive plays as he can get, Brown could be a source.

“Defensively, against a team that runs the ball so frequently, linebackers Quez Jackson and David Curry will have to stand up and make stops close to the line, which will obviously mean the tackles and ends in front of them will need to do their jobs as well.”

Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) breaks a tackle against Boston College last Saturday.
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) passes against Boston College at Alumni Stadium last Saturday.

Who: No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. Georgia Tech (2-4)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium; Atlanta

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 19