The objective is straightforward. Accomplishing it? That’s much more difficult. As Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech team travel to South Bend, they bring with them an offense that’s provided sleepless nights to opposing coaches all around the country.
Johnson’s triple-option attack stresses defenses in ways others do not. Its ability to be both singular and multiple, simple and yet complex; it starts to feel like we’re discussing a Sherlock Holmes villain, not an offensive scheme concocted in a long-ago era of football and improved upon by Johnson over the last two decades.
So while Georgia Tech leaves half of the offensive menu largely untouched (so far, Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown the ball 13 times this season, the same as DeShone Kizer), the challenge is a singular one, and will likely determine the path Brian Kelly’s football team will travel this season.
As we crack open this pregame six pack, we’re going to focus on six key members* of the Irish who will play a large part in determining if Notre Dame sings the alma mater undefeated, or if the home crowd heads to the parking lot with frowns on their faces.
Notre Dame’s defensive star needs to be one on Saturday. Last year against Navy, Smith only made six tackles. Against Georgia Tech, that number should double if the junior is on his game.
Also playing a factor is where Smith lines up. After being taken out of certain plays schematically, Notre Dame’s staff has made certain that whatever the Yellow Jackets plan on doing, they’ll need to accomplish it by going through Smith.
“We’ve made sure that regardless of the situation, Jaylon is going to be central to what happens on the field on Saturday,” Kelly said on Tuesday.
That should mean a move to the middle for Smith, likely in tandem with Joe Schmidt. And while that’ll mean tougher sledding in the trenches for a linebacker who is still learning how to shed blockers and excel in the interior, Smith’s other-worldly athleticism and skills need to be on display.
Making his first start, Kizer carries the weight of the Irish offense on his shoulders. But this week Kelly and the Irish offensive staff did their best to tell Kizer he was just one-eleventh of the equation.
“We want to make sure that he understands that he’s got a lot of good players around him,” Kelly said. “He needs to just be who he is and we’ll take advantage of what his skills are.”
That’s easier said than done. Kizer’s life has been turned inside out this week. After shuffling through his first year on campus as just another football player, the biggest news heading into spring football was that Kizer would see the field…as the holder.
But after the transfer of Everett Golson and the injury to Malik Zaire, Kizer is now the starting quarterback on a Top 10 football team.
“I’m trying my hardest to make it as normal as I can,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth this week for our Stay Gold podcast. “Obviously there’s some things you just can’t get around… It can become overwhelming at times, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job trying to push myself into my academics and push myself into preparing for Georgia Tech, trying to ignore some of the extra stuff that comes with the position.”
If Kizer’s on-field performance is anything like his game-week remarks, the Irish offense won’t miss a beat. From the moment he took the podium after Notre Dame’s win over Virginia, everything that’s come out of Kizer’s mouth has been a really impressive display for a young kid seeing and doing things for the first time.
Now it’s time for him to parlay that into a heady afternoon on the football field, with Kelly’s continual reminder to simply stay within himself.
“He doesn’t need to come in here and put everybody on his shoulders and say I’m going to save the day for Notre Dame when Malik goes down,” Kelly said. “We have a system here in place. Just do exactly what we ask you to do and you’re going to be fine.”
THE OTHER SAFETIES (DRUE TRANQUILL & MATTHIAS FARLEY)
You thought we’d spend a few hundred more words on the play of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate? (Believe me, I could…) No, the safeties that I’m most interested in are sophomore Drue Tranquill and graduate student Matthias Farley. Both will likely play critical roles in the defensive game plan, asked to make plays in space and tackle the pitch man on the edges of the defense.
Tranquill’s size and speed has quickly made him a useful cog in Notre Dame’s sub-packages, with Brian VanGorder utilizing Tranquill in dime packages and as a blitzer. On Saturday, expect to see Tranquill around the line of scrimmage, asked to come up and tackle from the edge, a 225-pounder who should be able to run with Georgia Tech’s backfield.
Farley’s role might come at the expense of Redfield’s, with the veteran a nearly forgotten part of the defensive scheme last season against Navy. But when he got his chances, Farley did some serious damage, notching two sacks of Keenan Reynolds (the only two of the game) and five tackles in limited minutes.
Notre Dame’s secondary needs to tackle better. They need to do their jobs better. And while Farley doesn’t have the athleticism that Redfield does, he has two working hands and a head on his shoulders that should help keep missed tackles—and mental mistakes—down.
That’s a critical piece of the puzzle for the secondary this week, with everybody tasked with a different objective. And the game plan demands excellence from this group if the Irish are going to pull out a win on Saturday.
“They’re all going to play a role in our success. And they’re all going to have to tackle well and they’re all going to have to be so locked in on their keys,” Kelly said, when asked about the back-end of his defense.
After a tough weekend at the office against Virginia, can this group rally to stop a Georgia Tech offense that was 76 spots better in scoring offense in 2014?
“The answer to that question will not be evident until Saturday around seven o’clock,” Kelly said with a smile.
Notre Dame’s returning captain on the defensive line needs to wreak havoc and lead from the front. Against an offensive line that’s done a dominant job run blocking and controlling the point of attack, Day needs to fill the stat sheet, but also drag along with him Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery and defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.
There are so many factors that’ll determine whether this game is won or lost. But it’s hard to find a position group more important than the defensive line. After looking like a unit that wore down last week against Virginia’s offensive line, how Keith Gilmore’s position group handles the non-stop challenge of the Yellow Jacket’s ground game will be fascinating.
Day will shift inside and out, asked to do everything from tackle the dive, stop Justin Thomas and destroy blockers to free up the linebackers behind him. And just as important, he’ll have to stay healthy against an offensive line that utilizes a cut-blocking scheme to trigger some elements of its ground attack.
(Before you say it, let’s get this out of the way: It’s legal. Get over it.)
Day is four years into his college football career, one that started in Dublin against a Navy offense running a similar scheme. As he plays his two final games against the triple-option, taking all his acquired knowledge and leading his position group with a big afternoon is a key to victory.
Color me unimpressed by the short-yardage performance of Harry Hiestand’s group last week. And while the Irish are averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and 233 yards a game running the football, none of it will matter if the offense can’t convert on 3rd-and-short.
Martin is the leader of the unit and triggers the point of attack. Earlier this week, he made it clear that he understands that the problems the Irish had up front and knows they need to be corrected by Saturday afternoon.
“As an offensive line we talk about where to find the obvious run and the obvious pass,” Martin said Wednesday, when asked about the struggles on third down and in short yardage situations. “And plain and simple we haven’t been good enough in that situation. Good thing is every week’s new, every week’s different. You can’t dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”
There will be opportunities to exploit Georgia Tech’s defensive line. The Yellow Jackets gave up a shade over five yards a carry last season, a dreadful 105th in the country in that category. And while defensive coordinator Ted Roof returns most of his defense, they are still susceptible up front, as long as the Irish offensive line puts together a complete game.
There is a lot on Martin’s shoulders this week. Communication with a first-time starting quarterback. Making sure the chains move and protections get picked up. But as a fifth-year player and a returning captain, that’s part of the gig.
Everybody inside Notre Dame Stadium knows it’ll be important for the Irish ground game to hold its own. It’s Martin’s job to make sure the offensive line imposes its will.
Enough about the subplot between Paul Johnson and Brian VanGorder. This game will come down to the head of the Irish football program getting the most out of his team and out-coaching Johnson.
That means finding solutions on defense. It’ll mean orchestrating a better offensive game plan than the one in Charlottesville. And it also requires a victory on special teams.
“We don’t have big margins for error in any one of those three areas. Guys need to be locked in,” Kelly said on Thursday. “The challenge this week was to be a smarter football team. A more efficient football team. And then (have) a great will to win. We need to bring that as well.”
Kelly has shown an ability to rally his team. And in many ways entering Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog will be helpful, though it’s hard to think anybody in the Irish locker room needs added incentive to play well.
Contrary to public opinion, Notre Dame doesn’t need to be perfect to beat Georgia Tech. But they need to be very good and very efficient.
As we look back on past victories, this game calls to mind the Irish’s impressive Shamrock Series win over Arizona State in 2013. The defense held their own against the Sun Devils’ high-powered attack. Tommy Rees engineered an efficient day in Dallas. And the special teams executed, with Kyle Brindza making three second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder.
A victory over Georgia Tech will go a long way toward providing a road map to the lofty places the Irish want to go. A defeat? Well it could very well do irreparable harm to mission objectives that still stand intact, even after five dispiriting injuries.
Kelly is viewed as an elite coach in college football circles. Days like Saturday are where he’ll earn that reputation. So if the Irish are going to win against the Yellow Jackets, the troops aren’t the only ones who’ll have to do a great job. The man leading the charge needs to push all the right buttons, too.