One week after losing starting quarterback Malik Zaire to a fractured ankle, Notre Dame proved it should not be written off yet. The No. 8 Fighting Irish thoroughly dominated No. 14 Georgia Tech for a 30–22 victory Saturday in South Bend.
Here are three thoughts on Notre Dame’s win:
1. This was a masterpiece by Brian VanGorder and his defense
Preparing for a triple-option offense mid-season is always an arduous task—defensive coordinators have one week to prep their unit for a scheme unlike any other they’ll face all season. VanGorder made it look simple Saturday. The Irish smothered a Yellow Jackets attack that entered Notre Dame Stadium averaging 457.5 rushing yards per game (best in the nation) and 7.8 yards per carry (second in the nation). Instead of matching those lofty averages, Georgia Tech gained just 216 yards on 47 carries, and its second and third touchdowns came in garbage time with the outcome long since decided.
With the exception of a 48-yard run by Broderick Snoddy that set up the Yellow Jackets’ first score, no Georgia Tech rusher found much room to work. Fullback Patrick Skov rushed 18 times for 66 yards while Justin Thomas picked up 27 yards on 11 carries. Notre Dame’s defensive line consistently won at the point of attack. Its linebackers shot through openings, forcing Thomas to pitch to equally surrounded tailbacks.
The Yellow Jackets failed to convert on their first nine third downs and finished the game just 3 of 15 on third-down tries. Thomas found some late success on play-action passes, but the final score was a misleading representation of the Irish’s defensive dominance.
2. Notre Dame’s offense is still dangerous without Zaire
Notre Dame was expected to be a run-first offense before the season. Then tailback Greg Bryant was declared academically ineligible, Tarean Folston tore his ACL and Zaire picked apart Texas’s defense. Suddenly, the Irish’s greatest offensive strength seemed to be its passing game. With DeShone Kizer taking over for Zaire, the correct distribution for Notre Dame might be … balance.
C.J. Prosise gives the Irish a potent threat on the ground. The converted slot receiver gashed Georgia Tech for 198 yards on 22 carries, including a 91-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter that iced the game. He also had two other scores Saturday, and has now rushed for 353 yards with four touchdowns in the past two games.
But Kizer showed Saturday that Zaire’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of Notre Dame’s aerial attack. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards with a score and only made one costly mistake, when he lobbed a pass to the end zone that was intercepted by D.J. White. It helps the Irish sophomore to have a weapon like Will Fuller at his disposal. Fuller burned the Yellow Jackets’ secondary for a 46-yard touchdown to open the scoring and finished the day with six catches for 131 yards. The combination of a quarterback with fantastic arm strength and a receiver who might be the best deep threat in the country will serve the Irish well.
3. Georgia Tech’s defense is still its Achilles’ heel
Even during last year’s successful season, when the Yellow Jackets won 11 games, including the Orange Bowl, their defense was a clear weakness. Georgia Tech gave up 6.2 yards per play in 2014, 111th in the country. Despite returning eight starters, another year’s worth of experience doesn’t seem to have helped much.
Notre Dame picked up 7.4 yards per carry, and the Yellow Jackets were fortunate not to give up more than 30 points. Between Kizer’s interception in the end zone and a fumble by tight end Alize Jones, the Irish only managed to turn 257 first-half yards into 13 points. Georgia Tech will almost certainly have better offensive days than Saturday, but if it can’t hold superior attacks to less than 8.1 yards per pass attempt and 6.7 yards per carry, it’ll have little chance of taking down Clemson and Florida State.