Georgia Tech-Notre Dame Preview
(AP) - While the focus will be on new quarterback DeShone Kizer when eighth-ranked Notre Dame hosts No. 14 Georgia Tech on Saturday, the pressure will be on the Fighting Irish defense.
After all, Georgia Tech has the nation's top-ranked rushing and second-leading scoring offense. And while the Yellow Jackets have been rolling, they aren't likely to score their usual 67 points against the Irish.
That's why Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson sees this as a potential trap game of an odd sort.
The veteran Irish defense is coming off a disappointing performance against Virginia. After holding the Cavaliers to no points, 28 yards and one first down in the first quarter, Notre Dame surrendered 27 points, 388 yards and 21 first downs over the next three before Kizer's touchdown pass bailed the Irish out.
Even more troublesome, the defense looked confused at times, with cornerback Devin Butler bumping into linebacker Joe Schmidt on Virginia's first touchdown and safety Drue Tranquill running into linebacker Jaylon Smith on another play.
The Irish (2-0) also had missed assignments, which is especially worrisome heading into a game against Georgia Tech's triple option offense, where playing assignment football is essential.
The Yellow Jackets (2-0) have averaged 457.5 yards and 67 points in games against Alcorn State and Tulane. The good news for the Irish is most of the problems against the Cavaliers came against the pass, not the run.
''We got lost in the misdirection and they didn't pay attention to what our specific responsibility was,'' coach Brian Kelly said.
He also said cornerbacks weren't aggressive enough, giving receivers too much room. It wasn't the type of performance expected by the Irish, who have nine returning starters and another, KeiVarae Russell, who started a year earlier before being suspended. The poor play was especially surprising after dominating in a 38-3 victory against Texas.
Most alarming, though, was the defense's inability to hold onto a 26-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter after quarterback Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending broken ankle. With the Irish now playing a redshirt freshman at quarterback, they likely will need to depend more heavily on the defense as they did in 2012 when Everett Golson was a redshirt freshman and the defense carried the Irish to the national championship game.
Kelly said he doesn't think the problems against Virginia are similar to last season, when the Irish struggled to understand defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's complex system. He said players just need to understand and perform their assignments.
''If you're lost out there, you can be the greatest athlete in the world and if it doesn't make sense to you, you can be a liability trying to defend the triple option,'' he said.
The Irish face that scheme twice in the next four games, with a matchup against Navy on Oct. 10. Kelly said because of that the coaching staff spent extra time this offseason on preparing.
''We are not trying to reinvent anything, but trying to really make certain that we are doing the right things and preparing our football team,'' Kelly said.
Kelly said experience from playing an annual game against Navy should help the Irish a bit, but not significantly.
''The ACC sees Georgia Tech each year and that doesn't seem to help them very much,'' he said.
Johnson is not concerned about players taking the Irish lightly, but taking themselves too seriously after consecutive blowouts.
''Certainly, it's a huge step up in competition,'' Johnson said. ''It's really a tough place to play. They have a great home-field advantage, a lot of tradition, and some really good football players.
''You're never as good or bad as it seems. There's a middle ground, and it's my job to point that out to our guys. Sometimes, when everybody is telling you you're all this and the cat's meow, that's a trap and you better not fall into it.''
The Yellow Jackets know they can count on junior quarterback Justin Thomas, who has run the offense exquisitely. They also have an experienced offensive line and eight starters back on defense, but Johnson has plenty to learn about his team.
Even after 13 players carried the ball against Tulane and with several dozen players having seen action, Georgia Tech has not faced adversity or played a road game.
''I remember my first (road game) because it wasn't the best one I've played in; it was Tulane,'' he said of a game the Yellow Jackets trailed three times last season before winning. ''You're going to have some adversity, especially being young, and you just have to play through it.
''The last two games, we didn't have much, (but) ... I think the games were exactly what we needed. They gave the guys confidence.''
Notre Dame will be quite a first road trip for a relatively young Georgia Tech squad, and Johnson is counting on upperclassmen to set the pace.
''We'll have probably 30 or 40 guys who haven't traveled before so it will be interesting to see how they react,'' Johnson said. ''You hope they don't get big-eyed. I'm pretty confident ... but you never know until you see it.''
Johnson has had success against Notre Dame. In 2007, his final season as coach at Navy, the Midshipmen beat Notre Dame 46-44 in triple overtime to snap a 43-game losing streak to the Irish - the longest in college football history.
Georgia Tech also won at Notre Dame that season, 33-3, in Chan Gailey's final year as the Yellow Jackets' coach. The Irish lead the series 27-6-1.