Prister’s Preview: ND vs. Georgia Tech

The best way to slow down Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack is to force the Yellow Jackets into 3rd-and-longs. No small task against its efficient, machine-like offense.

Georgia Tech head coach

Paul Johnson (8th year at Georgia Tech, 20th overall) – Johnson, 58, has won the ACC Coach of the Year Award three times in his first seven seasons at Georgia Tech, including last year when the Yellow Jackets won the Coastal Division, played for the conference championship against Florida State, and finished with an 11-3 record after knocking off Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Johnson, the architect of the vaunted triple-option attack at Georgia Southern and Navy before arriving in Atlanta, sits eighth among active Power 5 conference head coaches with 167 victories. In addition to his 11-victory season last year, Johnson took Georgia Tech to a 10-3 mark in 2009 and played in the first of his three ACC championship games in seven seasons.

Johnson spent five years (1997-2001) at FCS Georgia Southern, where he fashioned a 62-10 mark. The Eagles finished as the 1-AA runner-up in 1998 before claiming national titles in 1999-2000. After a 2-10 campaign in his first year at Navy in 2002, he recorded a 43-19 mark over the next five seasons, including a 10-2 record in 2004.

Key personnel

• QB-Justin Thomas (Jr.) – The straw that stirs Georgia Tech’s triple-option drink, but also a major threat in the passing game. In addition to his 1,086 yards rushing and eight touchdowns last year, Thomas threw for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns. One of every 5.3 of Thomas’ 96 completions went for touchdowns. Three of his 10 completions so far this year have gone for scores.
• CB-D.J. White (Sr.) – Ball hawk of the Yellow Jackets secondary with four of the team’s 18 interceptions in ’14. Also led the defense in passes broken up with eight. Has one of two Georgia Tech interceptions this season.
• DE-KeShun Freeman (Soph.) – Georgia Tech’s up-and-coming defensive line standout who recorded a team-leading 4.5 sacks last season and has one of five sacks by the Yellow Jackets in the first two games this year. Active (and a bit undersized) frontline player with a team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss in ’14 while also pacing the defense in QB pressures (3).
• CB/ST-Chris Milton (Sr.) – D.J. White’s cornerback running mate picked off two passes in ’14 and has one of the team’s two so far this year. Where he really excels is on special teams. His blocked punt against Tulane last week was the fourth of his career. He is the active leader in the FBS with six total blocked punts/kicks.
• K-Harrison Butker (Jr.) – He doesn’t get much work with the productivity of the Georgia Tech offense in the red zone, other than kicking extra points. He’s a perfect 18-of-18 in two games this season. He hasn’t attempted a field goal, but last year, he was just 11-of-18, including 2-of-7 between 30-39 yards. He was 4-of-6 from 40 yards and beyond, including a 53-yarder with no time on the clock that sent the game at Georgia into overtime, which the Yellow Jackets won, 30-24.

What Georgia Tech does well

• Run the ball: The Yellow Jackets averaged 342 yards rushing per game last season – second in the country – with a 6.0 average per carry and 47 rushing touchdowns. Through two games this season, Georgia Tech is averaging an absurd 457.5 yards rushing per contest, albeit against Alcorn State and Tulane. The Yellow Jackets already have 10 rushing touchdowns, which 10 FBS teams didn’t achieve in all of 2014.
• Third-down conversions: Georgia Tech easily led the nation in third-down conversion rate last season with quarterback Justin Thomas returning and four starters along the offensive line. The Yellow Jackets converted 57.9 percent of their third downs, 5.3 percent better than No. 2 Auburn. Through two games this season, they are 9-of-15 (60.0 percent).
• Avoiding three-and-outs: To put in perspective how infrequently Georgia Tech fails to notch a first down, Texas – Notre Dame’s 2015 season-opening opponent – had eight three-and-out series on Sept. 5. In 14 games last season, Georgia Tech had 11. Needless to say, they’ve had none so far this season against Alcorn State and Tulane.
• Red-zone efficiency: The Yellow Jackets ranked 20th nationally last year in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring 51 touchdowns on 73 red-zone entries (69.8 percent). Georgia Tech is a perfect 12-of-12 so far this season.
• Turnover differential: There were just nine FBS teams in the country last year that had a better turnover margin than Georgia Tech’s plus-11. The Yellow Jackets coughed it up 18 times, but the defense created 29 takeaways, the latter of which tied for 17th nationally. Five of the team’s 18 interceptions were returned for touchdowns in ’14.
• Blocking kicks: Since 2013 – a period of 29 games – Georgia Tech has blocked 12 kicks, the most in the FBS.

Where Georgia Tech struggles

• Defending the run: Georgia Tech was one of 26 FBS teams last season to allow as much as five yards per carry (5.07), which is astonishing for a team that won 11 games. The 167.5 yards rushing allowed per game ranked 64th. Eighty-five teams allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the 24 surrendered by the Yellow Jackets.
• Pass rush: The 6.32 yards allowed per play by Georgia Tech was 111th in the country, due largely to the fact that the Yellow Jackets’ 20 sacks were fewer than 94 FBS teams. Georgia Tech does, however, return its top two sack men in defensive end KeShun Freeman (4.5) and linebacker P.J. Davis (4).
• Completing a high percentage of passes: Quarterback Justin Thomas averaged 9.1 yards per his 187 pass attempts and 17.9 yards per his 96 completions in 2014, which are off-the-chart numbers. It compensates for his low 51.3 completion percentage.

Kelly’s Call

“They’ve averaged 46.8 points over the last 10 games, which includes wins over Clemson, Georgia and Mississippi State. (The Georgia Tech) offense is going to score points. We know it. It’s in the history of what they do. Heck, they’ve scored 54.4 (ppg.) over the last five games.

“We’re not going to sit on the ball. Don’t expect DeShone to come out there and hand the ball off and just play vanilla offense. We’ve got to be aggressive and we’ve got to move the football. DeShone’s got to play his butt off. He’s got to play really well, and we’ve got to put him in a position to play well. The other 10 guys around him have to play very, very well (too).”

Odds and ends

There are just eight college football programs that have squared off with Notre Dame more often than Georgia Tech – Navy (87), USC (86), Purdue (86), Michigan State (77), Pittsburgh (69), Army (50), Northwestern (48) and Michigan (42). This will be the 35th meeting between the Irish and the Ramblin’ Wreck with Notre Dame holding a 27-6-1 advantage. The Irish played the Yellow Jackets eight straight years on three separate occasions – 1922-29, 1938-45 and 1974-81 -- with four straight played from 1967-70. Georgia Tech defeated Notre Dame, 33-3, in the 2007 season opener in South Bend, which is the last time these two teams met. The Yellow Jackets also defeated the Irish in the 1999 Gator Bowl (the 1998 season), 35-28. Notre Dame has held Georgia Tech to 14 points or less in 28 of the 34 clashes…Notre Dame is 13-2 under Brian Kelly when ranked in the AP top 10; Notre Dame has played Georgia Tech 11 times when ranked in the AP top 10 and has gone 10-0-1…C.J. Prosise’s 155-yard rushing effort against Virginia last week was the most by a Notre Dame running back since Cierre Wood ran for 191 yards against Purdue in 2011…Notre Dame is 16-6 in its last 22 games (since 1985) with a first-time starting quarterback. The last four started in Irish victories – Dayne Crist vs. Purdue in 2010, Tommy Rees vs. Utah in 2010, Everett Golson vs. Navy in 2012, and Malik Zaire vs. LSU in 2014…Notre Dame has not turned the ball over in each of its last three games (LSU, Texas, Virginia), a span of 218:13…Notre Dame has opened a season with consecutive 200-yard rushing efforts for the first time since 1996…Buzz Preston, running backs coach under Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame (2002-04), is Georgia Tech’s receivers coach.

Prister’s breakdown

The first of three red-letter games within the first seven of Notre Dame’s 2015 season arrives Saturday when No. 14/16 Georgia Tech visits the No. 8/10 Irish in the 35th overall matchup between the two schools and the Yellow Jackets’ 19th visit to Notre Dame.

Much has changed since the last time Georgia Tech came into South Bend (2007). The Irish were beginning a 3-9 season with a 30-point thrashing administered by the Yellow Jackets, who were led by head coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.

Gailey would be gone by the end of the (7-6) season while the beginning of the end had just begun for Charlie Weis, who would lose to Paul Johnson’s Navy squad in triple overtime that same year to snap a 43-game skein over the Midshipmen.

Now Johnson’s back in Notre Dame Stadium versus Irish head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, with whom Johnson holds a grudge. Long story short, Johnson developed the great Georgia Southern program – winning two 1-AA national titles – landed the Navy job, and watched VanGorder take over the Eagles’ program in 2006.

VanGorder said he’d take Georgia Southern football into the 21st century – a shot at Johnson’s triple-option attack – and Johnson has craved revenge ever since.

He certainly has a quality football team to exact his revenge. After winning just 28 games (and losing 25) from 2010-2013, the Yellow Jackets broke through under Johnson last year, winning its first five, falling to Duke and North Carolina, and then closing out the regular season with five more wins. including conquests of Clemson and Georgia before falling by two points to Florida State in the ACC championship game. Georgia Tech added luster to its first double-digit-winning season since 2009 by rushing for 452 yards in a 49-34 hammering of Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

With eight starters returning from a shaky 2014 defense and just five starters back on offense – quarterback Justin Thomas and four of the five starting offensive linemen – the Yellow Jackets have picked up where they left off against lesser competition. While Notre Dame was defeating two Power 5 conference teams to open the season – the only FBS team in the country to do so – the Yellow Jackets were compiling freakish numbers against FCS Alcorn State and downtrodden American Athletic Conference entry Tulane (3-9 in 2014). They’re averaging a mere 67.0 points per game.

The Irish must press forward with five starters out for the season, adding quarterback Malik Zaire and tight end Durham Smythe to the list during Notre Dame’s 34-27 victory at Virginia last week. (Nickel Shaun Crawford, nose tackle Jarron Jones and running back Tarean Folston are the other three.)

Notre Dame’s undefeated season now rests on the shoulders of first-time starter DeShone Kizer, the veteran offensive line, a pack of playmakers led by Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, and a defense that is tasked with stopping – or at least slowing down – Johnson’s vaunted triple option.

Often lost in assessing the Georgia Tech program is its vulnerability on the defensive side of the football where the Yellow Jackets allowed five yards per carry last year while ranking 111th in yards allowed per snap. Georgia Tech compensates with a takeaway defense through the air, even with a spotty pass rush. From that standpoint, it’s a pretty good defense for Kizer to be making his first start against.

The Irish will need to possess the football, whether that’s with a somewhat modified version of the rushing attack or the Notre Dame passing game with Kizer at the controls. Notre Dame’s offense probably won’t look much different than it did with Zaire, other than fewer designed running plays. Otherwise, it’s business as usual in Brian Kelly’s spread offense.

Georgia Tech will try to limit Notre Dame’s possessions. It’s imperative that the Irish narrow the time-of-possession gap as much as possible. The ideal setting is to make Georgia Tech play catch-up from the outset and/or continually put the Yellow Jackets’ offense in 3rd-and-long, which is no small feat.

It gets tricky for the Irish defense because quarterback Justin Thomas can wing it, too. He doesn’t complete a high percentage of his passes, but when he does, they’re usually lethal as Johnson lulls those safeties up into the box and then goes over the top. Eighteen of Thomas’ 96 completions last year went for touchdowns.

They’ll hammer it inside with B-backs (fullbacks) Patrick Skov, the Stanford graduate, and Marcus Marshall, who has breakaway capabilities. Thomas will get his yards inside and outside the tackles while featuring A-backs (wingbacks) Broderick Snoddy, Isiah Willis and Qua Searcy on the perimeter.

The Irish likely will try to build off a 4-4 defensive look that VanGorder employed a year ago against Navy that features some combination of Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara and Notre Dame’s big but young interior linemen with Jaylon Smith, Drue Tranquill and James Onwualu prowling off the edge. Joe Schmidt and Greer Martini were the top choices at inside linebacker last year against Navy.

Every possession counts, so it’s important the Irish build upon their three-game turnover-less streak or something close to that. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Kizer turns one or two over through the air because of his inexperience and Georgia Tech’s penchant for taking the football away via interception. Five of their 18 picks in ’14 went for scores.

This is the first of back-to-back challenging road trips for the Yellow Jackets as they travel to Durham, N.C. next week to take on Duke, which defeated Georgia Tech last year in Bobby Dodd Stadium. Georgia Tech also lost at North Carolina last year, although that was the Yellow Jackets’ only setback on the road in six games.

As mature as Kizer is, this remains his first career start. Without Malik Zaire, the hunch here is that Georgia Tech and its veteran quarterback are the slightly better football team. Then again, a magic Notre Dame Stadium moment could be awaiting the Yellow Jackets.

This has the makings of a real shootout. The most confident pick from this corner is the over.

Pointspread: Georgia Tech by 2 1/2; over-under 55
Prediction: Georgia Tech 38, Notre Dame 31
2015 Season Record: 2-0 straight up; 0-2 vs. points; 1-1 over-under

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