Notre Dame controls game and narrative in 31-13 ease at Georgia Tech

Kyren Williams Georgia Tech
ACC Media

Notre Dame easily controlled the ball and the score in a 31-13 win at Georgia Tech on Saturday, setting up the No. 4 Irish for a long-anticipated week of hype. Pointing out that the Yellow Jackets had six plays for six total yards in the first quarter may seem like this recap was written early on in the proceedings, but the reality is, the Wreck’s offensive struggles stayed on that figurative pace all afternoon, only breaking through when Notre Dame’s reserves relaxed in the fourth quarter.

The score distorts Georgia Tech’s offensive struggles, finding the end zone only when the outcome was beyond doubt. The Irish held the Yellow Jackets to 238 yards, a total Notre Dame outgained in the first half alone (240 yards), largely courtesy of its rushing game, to no one’s surprise.

Sophomore Kyren Williams led the Irish with 76 yards and two scores on 15 carries, his only blemish a second-quarter fumble inside the red zone returned 93 yards for the Yellow Jackets’ lone moment of optimism. Freshman Chris Tyree added 47 yards on just five rushes, and junior C’Bo Flemister took care of the late duties, adding a finishing touch with a fourth-quarter touchdown, a reward for his workmanlike 15 carries for 58 yards, including the attempts that sapped the final five minutes of clock.

Those rushing scores provided the hefty Notre Dame margin, but the first Irish score came on an 8-yard pass from fifth-year quarterback Ian Book to junior receiver Joe Wilkins, capping an opening drive that took up nearly nine minutes and underscored the efficient handle the Irish would enjoy throughout their time in Atlanta, even if head coach Brian Kelly would rather his offense have opened a bit more quickly.

“We were extremely methodical and excellent on third down,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to take anything away from it, 15-play drive. Anytime you open up the game with a score and overcome some third-down situations — but we don’t script for 15 plays. We had to overcome some mistakes along the way, so we have to clean that up.”

Book finished with 199 yards on 18-of-26 passing with 46 yards on nine carries. He relied most heavily on fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley, pulling in five catches for 93 yards, including two third-down conversions.

Joe Wilkins Georgia Tech
Joe Wilkins’ first career touchdown catch may help calm some concerns about Notre Dame’s passing game thus far this season. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Consitution)

Clemson ruled out star quarterback Trevor Lawrence for next week’s matchup in South Bend. Lawrence received a positive coronavirus test Thursday, and his 10-day isolation should expire just before the No. 1 Tigers head north. Nonetheless, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made it clear Lawrence will not play following the Tigers’ 34-28 comeback win against Boston College.

“Trevor will not be able to play. Just want to go ahead and get that out there,” Swinney said. “… He’s doing well, but there’s a protocol in place. He will be out (of isolation) in time to play, but then you have the cardiac part of it, you have to ramp back up. Even if he feels great, wants to go play, he’s not allowed to do that simply because of the protocol that’s in place.”

Kelly wasted no time in turning his attention toward Clemson, bringing up the looming challenge in his sideline interview with ESPN after Saturday’s win.

“We have a great team we’re playing next week,” Kelly said. “We’ll enjoy the win, but there were things out there that we can’t let happen next week, obviously.”

When he learned of Lawrence’s mandated absence — the exact timing of his isolation was unclear prior to Swinney’s comments, when Kelly was already on the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium — Kelly expressed the regrets all college football fans should share.

“That’s a shame, obviously, because you want Trevor Lawrence to play in a game of this magnitude when you have two really good football teams playing,” Kelly said. “This thing runs through Clemson. You’re going to have to beat Clemson at least twice, you’re going to see them again.”

Five tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a third strip-sack nullified upon review made for quite the disruptive showing from fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes. Coming into the weekend, Hayes had logged just six tackles and one sack this season, deceptive numbers given his role, as often as not, is to set up linebackers for plays and to remain assignment-disciplined. Hayes knows that, even if he hears outside noise from those who don’t.

“I feel like a lot of people have been making a big deal about my production as far as being a pass-rusher,” the captain said. “A lot of times, I’ve been winning. There have been wins, there have been times I’ve been close to the quarterback. I get good rushes, but sometimes it doesn’t play out. Those plays don’t come to me.

“That’s just part of being one of 11. As long as we’re winning and playing great defense and guys are making plays, that’s all you can ask for. Today just happened to be a day where those plays came to me.”

Hayes is, of course, correct about the defensive performance in the bigger picture. Notre Dame has given up 16 total points in the last three weeks. Georgia Tech averaged four yards per play. Through 50 minutes, the Yellow Jackets had gained 158 total yards.

But Hayes’ individual showing still warranted notice, not only earning him the game ball but also raising the ceiling for the Irish defense moving forward, a difficult task given how stellar and consistent its best has been for a few years now.

“Elevating the play of Daelin Hayes might be singularly as important as anything that happened today,” Kelly said. “He was at a different level of play. If he can continue to play at that level, with a Kyle Hamilton and the other pieces to this defense, then we’re going to get where we want to be.”

To be clear, where Notre Dame wants to be will not be a figure of speech much longer. The Irish have a chance to be where they want to be. As Hayes said …

“It’s an awesome opportunity. We don’t have to beat around the bush anymore. It’s Clemson week, baby.” — Fifth-year defensive end and captain Daelin Hayes.

It will end up a footnote, mentioned alongside Virginia Tech in passing, alongside South Florida and USC with cringes. Zamari Walton’s 93-yard fumble return came only hours after Boston College took a longer scoop into a score in its upset bid at Clemson. The moment gave the Yellow Jackets hope, though shorter-lived hope than the Eagles enjoyed.

Officially, it is the longest fumble return for a touchdown in Georgia Tech history. Unofficially, presumably, Notre Dame also holds that undesirable slot in those three other record books.

“It’s hard sometimes to overcome a 93-yard return for a touchdown,” Kelly said. “We were able to. Those things, you can’t do that too many times and hope to come out on the winning end of things.”

Kelly would know, as the Irish have now gone 2-2 in his tenure in games with such an event.

Four plays later, Notre Dame handed off to Williams again, and then again, and then again for a score. There was no hesitation in leaning on the bull-headed ball carrier.

“You’re just re-emphasizing the things he needs to do in that situation,” Kelly said of his quick sideline chat with Williams. “He’s trying to get extra yardage; this is a defense that’s trying to rip at the ball.

“But also that we trust you. Similar to the Florida State game where he fumbled, we put him right back in the game and you saw what he did. He was outstanding.”

The opening sentence of this recap referenced next week’s game against No. 1 Clemson. Kelly’s postgame, sideline interview steered into next weekend without umbrage. The first two questions Book fielded from media were Lawrence-specific. There is no hiding from the coming attention, drama and tunnel vision.

So yes, every aspect of beating the Wreck is viewed through how it applies to the Tigers. McKinley and Wilkins having good games could lead to graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek having perimeter help; Williams remaining a problem for anyone trying to tackle him should relieve pressure from Book; Hayes showing up adds a dimension to the defense.

Statistically, the Irish continue to dominate the time of possession. Notre Dame entered the weekend averaging 34 minutes per game, second in the country by 24 seconds among teams with more than one game played. It held the ball for 36:54 on Saturday, including the final 5:38.

In theory, this may allow the Irish to shorten the game against the high-powered Clemson offense, keep Clark Lea’s defense’s legs fresh, and — if with the lead late — grind down the clock rather than give five-star freshman D.J. Uiagalelei ample time for a comeback. He showed he is capable of one Saturday, adding more anticipation to this week of hype.

First Quarter
6:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Joe Wilkins 8-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia Tech 0. (15 plays, 81 yards, 8:38)

Second Quarter
14:42 — Georgia Tech touchdown. Zamari Walton 93-yard fumble return. Jude Kelley PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Georgia Tech 7.
10:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:48)
1:49 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. Notre Dame 17, Georgia Tech 7. (8 plays, 35 yards, 2:10)

Third Quarter
10:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Georgia Tech 7. (6 plays, 65 yards, 2:56)

Fourth Quarter
12:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Georgia Tech 7. (9 plays, 74 yards, 4:32)
7:15 — Georgia Tech touchdown. Jordan Mason 1-yard rush. 2-point conversion failed. Notre Dame 31, Georgia Tech 13. (6 plays, 65 yards, 2:56)

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