While more time might be spent discussing No. 1 Clemson and Nov. 7 — both implicitly by the Irish and explicitly by this space — No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) still needs to face Georgia Tech first (3:30 ET; ABC). The Rambling Wreck has pulled off two upsets this season, but otherwise has looked like, well, a wreck. To shed some light on what has curtailed the Yellow Jackets’ momentum, let’s chat with Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
DF: I find Georgia Tech to be one of the more intriguing programs in the country right now, given the magnificent project ahead of Geoff Collins, but one he is already ahead of schedule on. I am not intending to look past this weekend — though Notre Dame is essentially saying it is doing exactly that — but these two will meet again next year (and in 2024), so framing some of this conversion in long-term parameters isn’t completely off-topic.
The headline with the Yellow Jackets is freshman quarterback Jeff Sims, a one-time Florida State commit. Leading an upset of the Seminoles to open the season gave both him some momentum and Collins evidence his rebuild is working. Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent a good amount of time Monday praising Sims, standard coach-speak, but he is throwing for nearly 200 yards per game with a 55.3 percent completion rate. They may not be stellar numbers, but they are far from troublesome. What does Sims do well?
KS: Among other things, he’s got a pretty strong arm, throws a good deep ball and can throw on the run. He can also hang in the pocket and hit targets. As a dual-threat guy, he can make plays with his feet on draws as well as when the pocket breaks down. Two numbers that tell you something about him: Sims is second on the team in rushing (45.8 yards per game) and he has thrown 21 passes of 20 yards or more in 150 attempts, a pretty solid rate.
He is fairly poised for a freshman, not showing many of the typical traits you might expect to see in a quarterback starting as a true freshman – taking off at the first sign of trouble, firing fastballs on all of his throws, happy feet in the pocket. Even from his first start, Sims has looked pretty calm.
I don’t ask what Sims does poorly, because I know that is turnovers. 10 interceptions through six games is — how do I put this gently? — rough. I will assume these are simply the mark of a freshman, but they certainly play a role in the Rambling Wreck scoring only 22.8 points per game. How have Collins and Sims discussed that penchant for recklessness?
It is rough, although it’s interesting – I think four of them were bad bounces, though that said, he’s had other passes that could have been intercepted but weren’t. A couple of them have been thrown under pressure and others have just been bad decisions or instances where it certainly seemed like he didn’t see a defender or expect him to be there. For those thrown under pressure, Sims has been reminded he is good on his feet and sometimes just tucking and running isn’t a bad play, nor is throwing the ball out of bounds and punting or playing the next down. As for misreading the defense on occasion, that is something Collins is willing to accept as part of Sims’ growth process.
Those turnovers fit hand-in-hand with a rash of penalties, fundamental mistakes you outlined after the loss at Boston College. I only think I am reading these stats correctly: 52 penalties in six games? Is that correct? For 390 yards? For all the progress Collins has already made in Atlanta, this is a worrisome sign of sloppiness. Am I making too much of it? 52 penalties?
No, it’s definitely a problem and so many have been pre-snap fouls, namely false starts, that have often been drive killers. It’s odd, because the Jackets were actually pretty good with penalties last year in Collins’ first season (57 penalties in 12 games, or 4.8 per game). Collins acknowledged after the Boston College loss that some of the flags represented a lack of discipline.
Obviously, for Georgia Tech to have a chance against Notre Dame, it cannot make mistakes like fumble or jump offsides and give the Irish unearned first downs.
One of the biggest challenges for Collins is revamping Georgia Tech’s offensive line. The decade of triple-option offense before him relied on smaller, nimbler linemen. He used a few SEC transfers to flip that in this second season. How has that strategy worked out?
That part of it has worked especially well. Right guard Ryan Johnson, a grad transfer from Tennessee, has probably been the best offensive lineman of the group. Jack DeFoor, from Ole Miss, actually transferred in during the Paul Johnson regime, but has been effective, too. Those two and freshman right tackle Jordan Williams (6-6, 330) fit more closely to the prototype that offensive line coach Brent Key is looking for.
In the first four games, they were at the heart of the offense generating 400 yards in each after Georgia Tech hadn’t recorded a single 400-yard game last season. It reflected the improvement caused by the additions of Johnson and Williams but also the progress after a year in the system for the other three and their increased size. More notably, in those first four games, the offense yielded one sack over 125 pass attempts, a ridiculous improvement from last season. (269 pass attempts, 28 sacks) The rate has taken a bit of a plunge in the past two games – nine sacks, 46 pass attempts – but the line is clearly better than it was last year.
On the other side of the line, the Yellow Jackets are giving up 4.62 yards per rush, lowlined by six per carry to the Eagles last week. Notre Dame’s strength is the ground game. Is there any reason I shouldn’t expect the Irish to rush for 250 yards?
In the past two games, the coaching staff took calculated risks that, as the scores would indicate, didn’t work out so well. The first was to try to take away Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who was held to a pedestrian 44 yards on 11 carries (his lowest yardage total against an ACC opponent since the middle of the 2018 season) but it created the space for Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have a field day (22-for-27, 391 yards, five touchdowns, one interception – in the first half). Against Boston College, the defense gave attention to tight end Hunter Long and receiver Zay Flowers, which was relatively successful, although Flowers scored on a 22-yard jet sweep. That defensive approach somewhat helped the Eagles go off for 264 rushing yards, which was more than they’d gained on the ground in the previous four games combined.
So, to get to your question, if Collins and his staff make stopping the Notre Dame running game the focal point (although stopping the run is generally the first priority anyway) and take away from the back end in order to support the run defense, maybe the Irish don’t pile up their standard allotment of rushing yards and place more of the game in the hands of Ian Book. But we’ll see. Notre Dame’s run game is, as you say, pretty stout. Tech coaches have a lot of concern about how the Irish use their tight ends not just in the passing game but also in the run game. I could certainly see where Notre Dame coaches could believe they can pound it out on the ground.
Before you see Georgia Tech's "Black Watch" uniforms against #NotreDame on Saturday, it's worth learning what the "Black Watch" was, a group/tradition that I'm struggling to find an adjective for that fits on my profanity-free timeline. I'm failing.https://t.co/bFUQa9HxEq
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 28, 2020
I haven’t spent as much time focusing on the macro of transitioning from the triple-option as I intended to. Perhaps it is harder than I thought to frame that big-picture conversation in terms of one weekend. Collins won three games last year and has already notched two this season. I don’t think it was overly-skeptical to doubt that progress would already have occurred. It is not that Collins inherited a bad roster; it is that he took over one not designed for his spread intentions. How has Collins turned this in his favor so quickly?
The progress made thus far can be attributed to a few things. While Johnson’s recruitment brought in some different types than what Collins is looking for, it’s not like he was recruiting chess players. Plenty of players whom Collins inherited are quite capable and could play elsewhere in the conference, including running back Jordan Mason, wide receivers Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp, cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Juanyeh Thomas.
Another factor is that Collins has made a concerted effort to add strength and weight to the roster. A third is that his staff has done a good job of recruiting and developing. A walk-on who played little before last year, defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, has become a starter. Defensive end Jordan Domineck, recruited by Johnson’s staff to play linebacker in a 3-4 defense, has gone from 225 pounds last year to 247 this year and has become a solid player. The freshman running back Gibbs, a star in the making, picked Tech over LSU and Florida, a recruiting battle that the Yellow Jackets haven’t always won. Key, the offensive line coach (previously on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama), has done a remarkable job making over his group.
Looking through my notes, I don’t see anything in particular I am missing, but I assuredly am overlooking quite a bit. What obvious item has evaded me that Notre Dame fans should have in mind this weekend?
I don’t know that I’m expecting the game to come down to a field goal (although longtime Notre Dame fans surely remember a lowly Georgia Tech team stunning the No. 1 Irish in a 3-3 tie in 1980), but the Yellow Jackets have had all kinds of trouble even converting point-after tries, 1-for-5 on field goals and 14-for-17 on point-after tries. All four field-goal misses have been blocked, as have been two of the three PAT tries. Collins was going to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Boston College 24 (which would have been a 41-yard try) until a false start pushed it back five yards, at which point he sent out the punt team, which attempted an unsuccessful fake. Speaking of the punt team, Jackets punter Pressley Harvin is making a strong bid for All-America consideration. He is a legit field-flipping weapon.
This isn’t terribly relevant, but it occurred to me this game was originally scheduled to be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the $1.5 billion sports palace in downtown Atlanta. It would have made for a great event and atmosphere, but Georgia Tech chose to move it back to Bobby Dodd Stadium in case the game had to be moved on the calendar (and presumably also for financial reasons). The next Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game in Atlanta (2024) is still scheduled to be played there (assuming the Irish haven’t joined the ACC by then, ha ha ha) as part of a six-year series the Jackets will play there.
A 20-point spread might seem hefty, but giving up three turnovers per game sets up a team to be blown out. What are you expecting Saturday?
This isn’t exactly a daring take, but I think a lot of it hinges on the turnovers. Tech can be competitive when it doesn’t turn the ball over, and the wheels can fall off when it does. I don’t know that the Jackets are bound to give it away and commit penalties. The common opponent game is always tricky, but Tech didn’t turn the ball over against Louisville, took it away three times, was OK with penalties and won going away (46-27).