What a difference a day makes. The third Saturday of the college football season was a crazy one, with the happenings in South Bend far from the only eye-opening outcome on the weekend.
Alabama went down. USC lost to Stanford at home for the fourth time in their last five contests in the Coliseum. Big bad Ohio State looked far from that as they struggled to beat Northern Illinois 20-13, while future Notre Dame opponent Clemson’s defense carried the Tigers against Louisville in a closer-than-expected 20-17 win.
On a day where Colorado, Kansas State, Miami, South Alabama, Syracuse, Toledo and UTEP all won in overtime, Notre Dame served notice with its convincing 30-22 victory. The AP moved Notre Dame up to No. 6, while the coaches slid the Irish up to No. 8.
With UMass set to visit South Bend next Saturday, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly from the big Irish victory.
The Defense. A day later, the performance of Notre Dame’s defense is just as impressive. A week after looking much more susceptible than we ever expected, the Irish were completely locked in (at least for 58 minutes and change) as they turned Georgia Tech’s well-oiled machine into a mistake-prone unit that lost its composure.
“I thought right from the start we kind of got rattled a little bit,” Paul Johnson conceded after the game. “When it wasn’t going good at first, we didn’t respond very well.
“I think you have to give Notre Dame some credit. They had something to do with that.”
A season after leading college football in third down conversion rate, Georgia Tech started 0 for 9 on 3rd down, and finished the game just three of 15. Entering the game without a three-and-out on the season, Notre Dame forced two straight to open the game.
Even more important, after starting the season 12-of-12 with a ridiculous 12 touchdowns in the red zone, Paul Johnson’s team got nothing on its first red zone appearance, scoring just twice in four appearances.
Notre Dame’s athleticism in the front seven matched Georgia Tech’s, with Joe Schmidt phenomenal from his middle linebacker spot. The schematic tweaks the Irish utilized paid immediate dividends, as Greer Martini stepped into the starting lineup and made eight tackles at outside linebacker.
Keeping Max Redfield on the sideline was a bold move, but it paid off, as Drue Tranquill put together an impressive first half working the alleys before his season was ended just before halftime. And when Matthias Farley was called into action after Tranquill went down, Farley immediately made a big play, forcing a fumble and holding his own with four tackles.
Best of all, it was finally revealed that there wasn’t just some “solution” for the option. Notre Dame’s defense succeeded by being aggressive, being multiple, and continually making changes, varying three and four-man fronts, one and two-high safeties, with the only constant aggression. And after five years of looking for a solution to the option, Kelly and company seem to have found their firmest grasp on it yet.
The SWAG team.
Nothing better illustrates Notre Dame’s commitment to stopping the triple-option than the SWAG team. Assembled in training camp and utilized on a near daily basis to give the starting defense consistent work against an option opponent, the SWAG team is a specialized unit comprised of walk-ons, scholarship players and scout teamers whose sole job was running Georgia Tech and Navy’s triple option.
“I’d be remiss without mentioning our swag team,” Kelly said. “That is our triple option team. They named themselves swag. It’s been kind of this thing that’s gone on since camp started. They wanted their own identity. They did such a great job preparing our defense.”
According to Kelly, SWAG stands for Students With Attitude and Game. But fancy wordplay aside, “swag” is a shortened version of swagger, and how kids these days talk about confidence, uniqueness and style.
That isn’t usually how you’d describe a group of freshmen, walk-ons and career back-ups whose job it is to get knocked around by the starting defense on a daily basis.
“The Swag team does an incredible job week in and week out. And I think they just have complete buy in,” captain Matthias Farley said after the game. “There’s guys on that team who are on scholarship and are very talented, fast and dynamic. When you have guys like that giving you a great look, they’re not down, they’re busting their tails and that gives us an incredible look.”
Notre Dame’s coaching staff. It had to feel pretty good inside the coaches’ room on Saturday evening. With just about every national pundit picking Georgia Tech to win, the self-belief in the locker room was instilled by the staff this week and carried onto the field by the players.
Notre Dame’s game plan for slowing down Georgia Tech was nine months in the making. And a continual approach to facing off with the option as opposed to one week of focus is now the way you should expect Kelly and company to move forward.
“For me personally and moving forward as we see that the option is going to be something that we see each and every year, I wanted something that definitely could be duplicated and replicated from year-to-year,” Kelly explained on Sunday.
“The way we play it, you know, is something that I want to continue to do, and we don’t have to have such a huge adjustment each year with our defensive football team. I think we may have found the right kind of balance with the way we’re teaching our kids.”
The Irish aren’t in the clear yet, especially considering Keenan Reynolds is every bit as dangerous as Justin Thomas. But this game meant something, and there was no hiding that.
We already knew about the Brian VanGorder-Paul Johnson subplot. Now add to it this little tidbit, revealed by Eric Hansen and Al Lesar in the South Bend Tribune, and it likely tasted even a little bit sweeter.
There’s a reason that Brian Kelly called this game a “program win.” I think it’s probably the most impressive regular-season victory of his time in South Bend, considering what the option did to him early in his tenure, the injuries that have accumulated and being forced to start DeShone Kizer for the first time.
Turnovers and Mistakes. Probably the most impressive thing about Saturday’s win was the fact that the Irish weren’t perfect. DeShone Kizer’s ill-advised throw to Corey Robinson was the product of a bad read by Kizer, who missed bracket coverage that forced Robinson to convert his route. It took points off the board.
Freshman tight end Alize Jones did his best to test the blood pressure of his head coach when he coughed up the football in the final minute of the first half. The defense bailed him out. And kicker Justin Yoon was shaky again, clanging one extra point off the upright and missing another completely. But Kelly sent him right back out there after halftime, and Yoon converted the kick.
Kizer, Jones and Yoon are all doing this for the first time, thrown into the deep end as the Irish have won three games against Power 5 conference opponents. So credit goes to the Irish for overcoming their mistakes and still winning the game.
The last two minutes.
With the majority of the working press bundled on the sidelines, Georgia Tech made the game interesting. Too interesting. With just a victory formation left, the Irish couldn’t get the ball back, allowing Tech to march down the field and score a touchdown, then follow it up with another score.
It didn’t get close. But it certainly got a little uncomfortable. And while Torii Hunter recovered the onside kick to end things, it took a little too long to do so.
Drue Tranquill’s knee. You can’t help but feel horrible for Tranquill, who tore his right ACL celebrating a pass breakup before half time, his second major knee injury in as many seasons.
Tranquill was a key piece of the option package, and his loss will be felt against Navy. He’s also a piece of important depth at safety, where the Irish will be looking for considerable answers.