1 – Third-and-forever, or so it seems
It’s actually third-and-short, and the omnipresent down has been an issue for the Irish early this season.
As Notre Dame’s defense is unlikely to stop the Yellow Jackets on better than half of their third-down conversion attempts, it’s thus incumbent upon Brian Kelly’s offense to follow suit, especially when faced with minimal yards to gain.
In a game projected to feature more touchdowns than punts, Notre Dame’s front wall, and as important, running back C.J. Prosise and quarterback DeShone Kizer, can’t afford to come up short.
2 – Vertical Challenges
Part of Notre Dame’s offensive success this season has been its ability to gash defenses with intermediate and deep pass plays. That can’t change in an effort to protect Kizer, a relative neophyte under center.
While seemingly “safe” passes (swings, bubble screens, tunnel screens) are easier to complete, they’re also less likely to loosen a veteran Yellow Jackets defense that will keep an extra defender in the box in an attempt to A.) Stop the run, and B.) Disrupt such comfortable, horizontal throws.
A consistent running game coupled with downfield throws – Kizer is well-equipped to complete the latter – will help the Irish hold serve in a potential back-and-forth offensive showcase.
3 – Can’t Give (Anything?) Away
What do Notre Dame’s aggregate 216 offensive snaps against LSU, Texas, and Virginia have in common? None of them ended in an Irish turnover, and each contest was punctuated by a well-deserved “W” as the end result.
Perfect ball security in Charlottesville last Saturday proved crucial to the outcome and Kelly’s Irish improved to a combined 33-2 when committing one (15-2) or no turnovers (18-0) in a contest.
More of the same is necessary Saturday against a Georgia Tech defense that looks to create turnovers in an effort to “steal serve” for its offense – one that rarely punts. (Among 11 Power Conference foes faced last season, only one, Virginia Tech, forced the Yellow Jackets into as many as four punts in a contest.)
Notre Dame’s current streak of three games without a miscue harkens back to the outset of the 2014 season when the Irish executed their first 213 snaps with nary a turnover. They committed an astounding 11 over their next 213.
Kizer and the Irish offense won’t likely win the day with more than one Saturday afternoon. And a fourth straight error-free outing would likely equate to a 3-0 start for Kelly’s Irish for the third time in the last four seasons.
4 – It’s Already Broken, Right?
Through no fault of his own, injured safety Max Redfield is the definitive player on the spot for defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder’s unit. Redfield has a broken thumb, casted as a result. It’s an injury that clearly affected his play at Virginia and if it does similarly Saturday, Notre Dame has no chance – and no choice, they’ll have to replace him on the back end.
The latter is suboptimal in that Redfield is the team’s only true free safety and a phenomenal athlete in space. His ability to make up ground and tackle as the last line of defense will be called upon to save more than a few long gains.
Rather than opine on something I cannot comprehend, (e.g., tackling a college football player, much less while saddled with a broken thumb) I asked team captain and Redfield’s fellow safety Matthias Farley for how he handled a similar problem. (Farley had wrist surgery prior to a game against Pittsburgh in 2012.)
“What helped me most was (former safety) Zeke Motta. He broke his thumb in the same place in high school,” offered Farley. “After I got injured, I missed a couple of tackles in the first half of that game, and he came up to me and he said, ‘Matthias, your hand is already broken; right?’ He said, ‘It's not going to get worse; it's already broken.’ He said, ‘Don't think about it. If it's broken even worse, they can put it back together.’
(Note: The old school Motta told me post-game that he offered to Farley, “Matthias, you’re not going to die…”)
“So I just went out and didn't think about it…it’s just getting over that mental hurdle.”
Easier said than done – but it must be done.
5 – The Playmakers
Though offense is the order of the day, and Brian Kelly was spot on in his assessment that his Irish will have to produce at a high level to emerge victorious, isn’t it time for Notre Dame’s defense to win a game for its program against an offense with a pulse?
Granted, Georgia Tech’s operation ranks among the best, but a collection of future NFL talent resides in the Irish defensive meeting rooms. Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, and Isaac Rochell are legitimate playmakers, and each must play to or above his best to date if the Irish are to make timely stops vs. an offense guaranteed to gain yardage – but one that doesn’t have to produce an insurmountable number of points as a result.
According to a statistic from K.C. Joyner of ESPN Insider, the Yellow Jackets ranked first among Power 5 teams last season in percentage of rush attempts that gained five yards or more (47.1%), as well as the fewest number of rushes that gained negative or zero yards (only 13.8%). That means a defense must respond in difficult down-and-distance situations (2nd-and-5, 3rd-and-2) that are advantageous to a triple-option offense.
Smith, Day, Russell, Rochell, and mike linebacker Joe Schmidt – you’re on the spot. And this quartet of crucial tacklers -- Greer Martini (#48), Drue Tranquill (#23), James Onwualu (#17), and Elijah Shumate (#22) – must follow suit.