Mistakes didn't matter in Notre Dame's easy road win at Georgia Tech
The warts for Notre Dame football can be hard to look past with the knowledge of what comes next.
No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) likely won’t be able to withstand a red-zone fumble returned for a 93-yard touchdown, a missed touchdown pass, and a holding penalty that results in a first-and-20 on the opening drive when No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0) comes to South Bend next weekend.
All three mistakes occurred for the Irish on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, but they weren’t nearly enough to put in doubt the eventual outcome of a 31-13 victory at Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets (2-5, 2-4) didn’t have the talent to exacerbate Notre Dame’s issues. Even without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who will miss his second consecutive game next weekend because of a positive COVID-19 test, Clemson can still make the Irish pay for their miscues.
Head coach Brian Kelly, who hasn’t been afraid to address with his team the looming Clemson game throughout the past two weeks, didn’t wait long to get his team looking forward after the road win Saturday. The Irish won’t take Sunday off due to the NCAA-mandated off day for Election Day on Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say it was our best performance (Saturday),” Kelly said during his postgame press conference. “We did some good things. We've been preparing for this opportunity to play the best team in the country in Clemson at home. So our guys are excited about it. They're ready to go back to work.”
To Notre Dame’s credit, it navigated around Saturday’s mistakes well. The Irish scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game for the third time this season, despite being backed up to first-and-20 from their own 24-yard line. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer dug the hole when he was called for a holding penalty on a 19-yard pass to freshman running back Chris Tyree.
Fifth-year quarterback Ian Book overcame the extra yardage with a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Javon McKinley, who finished with a team-high five catches for 93 yards, on third-and-nine. The offense converted four third downs on the 15-play, 81-drive that took 8:38 off the clock. Junior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. ended the drive with an eight-yard touchdown catch, the first of his career.
Georgia Tech tied the game at the end of Notre Dame’s second drive. The Irish rolled into the red zone again, but running back Kyren Williams fumbled trying to get inside the 10-yard line. Cornerback Zamari Walton picked up the loose ball and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown.
It was the third fumble of the season for Williams and the second recovered by the defense.
“We put him back in the game, and we trust him,” Kelly said. “It's hard sometimes to overcome a 93-yard return for a touchdown, but we were able to. But those things — you can’t do that too many times and hope to come out on the winning end of things.
“You’re just trying to be positive with them. Mistakes are made. We're not perfect. But next time in there, you’ve got to do a great job of holding onto the football.”
Williams redeemed himself on the next drive with a two-yard touchdown run to regain the lead for the Irish. The running back trio of Williams, Tyree and C’Bo Flemister were able to find big running lanes all game long. Williams led the way with 15 carries for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Flemister turned his 15 carries into 58 yards and one touchdown. Tyree added 47 yards on just five carries.
The offense totaled 227 rushing yards with Book's contribution of 46 yards.
Notre Dame’s final misstep of the first half came on its last possession, which stalled at the 14-yard line with three Book incompletions. The drive started at the Georgia Tech 49-yard line thanks to safety Kyle Hamilton sniffing out a fourth-down attempt for a six-yard loss.
Book, who finished 18-of-26 passing for 199 yards with one touchdown, was interrupted by pressure up the middle on the first two plays. He still had a chance to hit tight end Tommy Tremble for a touchdown on second down, but while being chased Book overthrew Tremble. The Irish settled for a 32-yard field goal by Jonathan Doerer to secure a 17-7 halftime lead.
“(Saturday) we hurt ourselves a few times,” Book said. “We understood that Georgia Tech’s a really good football team. But we felt like we could drive up and down the field, and then we would get down there and we would make a mistake that would hurt ourselves.
“We noticed that. We’re going to go back to the drawing boards (Sunday) and get that fixed.”
Book was sacked twice by Georgia Tech and twice the week before at Pittsburgh, but Kelly wasn’t displeased with the pass protection.
“Can we be better? Absolutely,” Kelly said. “But on my list of things, it’s probably not going to be the first thing I’m chasing down is our protection issues against Georgia Tech. There are other things that we’ve got to get better at across the board.
“Yeah, they got some penetration and missed a couple of opportunities down there, but by and large, it didn’t really jump out at me — when I take notes on the sideline — that what the heck’s going on with our protection today?”
That thought may have been going through Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins’ head Saturday. Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims was sacked five times as the Irish defense continued its stingy ways.
The Yellow Jackets mustered only 238 yards of offense. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs accounted for 100 of those yards with 14 carries for 61 yards and five catches for 49 yards. Sims finished 15-of-26 passing for 150 yards.
The lone touchdown for Georgia Tech’s offense came on a one-yard run by running back Jordan Mason with 7:15 left in the game. Notre Dame’s defense has only surrendered 16 points in the last three games combined.
“You have to give credit to Notre Dame,” Collins said. “That is one of the top defenses in college football. We kept trying to move things around and get things started.”
Fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes, a captain, led the defensive effort with arguably the best game of his Irish career. He totaled five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles on his sacks. They were his first sacks of the season and the first since the season opener at Louisville last season.
Hayes, who missed the final nine games last year with a shoulder injury, said his play has outpaced his statistical output so far this season. But making a splash in the box score helps. Only one of his strips sacks was recovered by the Irish.
“Today just happened to be a day where those plays came to me,” Hayes said. “I was excited and glad. The first one is the sweetest, but it’s also the hardest one to get out the way. Glad I could put that behind me and just keep moving forward.”
Safety Kyle Hamilton led the Irish in tackles with six and two tackles for a loss in a return to his hometown. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and linebacker Jack Kiser each added five tackes. The defense registered nine tackles for a loss.
The tougher challenge comes to town Saturday with Clemson. Lawrence’s replacement, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, helped the Tigers complete a 34-28 comeback victory over Boston College with 342 passing yards, 25 rushing yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. Clemson running back Travis Etienne totaled 224 yards of offense and two touchdowns on the day he broke the ACC career rushing record of 4,602 yards.
The challenges Notre Dame will face will be plenty on offense, defense and special teams. But they're all challenges for which the Irish have been waiting.
“We don’t have to beat around the bush anymore,” Hayes said. “It’s Clemson week, baby."