NOTRE DAME, Ind. – DeShone Kizer arrived at the postgame press conference dressed like a backup. The new starter wore one of those custom-issue red hats usually reserved for third-string quarterbacks.
Maybe Kizer wanted to downplay his own performance, a grinding 21-of-30, 242-yard stat line. It takes a lot to overshadow a new quarterback making his first career start in Notre Dame Stadium. Yet that’s exactly what the Irish defense did against No. 14 Georgia Tech during a 30-22 victory that entered blowout territory until the final minute.
The Yellow Jackets finished with just 337 yards.
When CJ Prosise exploded for a 91-yard touchdown run with 6:58 remaining it pushed No. 8 Notre Dame ahead 30-7. That margin delivered two messages. One, the Irish remain a College Football Playoff contender. Two, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has a grip on the option.
“I think our defensive plan was outstanding,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “I think our team executed it up until maybe the last couple of minutes where we probably lost a little bit of our focus. But all in all, just a tremendous performance by our football team.
“It was a program win today.”
Notre Dame swapped three starters to fit VanGorder’s plan, repped since the start of training camp after an off-season of research by special assistant Bob Elliott. Greer Martini, Jerry Tillery and Drue Tranquill moved into the lineup as James Onwualu, Daniel Cage and Max Redfield slid out.
That combination held Georgia Tech to back-to-back three-and-outs to start, a first for Paul Johnson’s offense all season. The triple option never really recovered, starting 1-for-11 on third down and snapping off just one explosive play – a 48-yard run by Broderick Snoddy in the second quarter – with the game in doubt.
“You have to control the line of scrimmage,” said defensive lineman Isaac Rochell. “We knew if the defensive line played well and the linebackers played well, we were gonna win the game.”
Georgia Tech won the rushing battle, but by just one yard.
Kizer did play his age in spots, sometimes flashing the frantic energy of a first-time starter. Yet Kelly corralled that in the big picture and is now 16-1 at Notre Dame when starting a freshman or red-shirt freshman quarterback.
At the Georgia Tech five-yard line midway through the second quarter, Kizer forced a pass to Alize Jones in the end zone that could have been picked. A snap later Kizer did get intercepted by D.J. White after forcing a jump ball to Corey Robinson, who was bracketed by the Yellow Jacket defense.
“It was 100% on me,” Kizer said. “I didn't read the safety route as I was supposed to read it. I was trying to do a match-up play. (Robinson) ran the route he was supposed to run. I threw the ball I wasn't supposed to throw.
“We had a really safe game plan and obviously that was great for me in my first start.”
Georgia Tech marched 80 yards in four plays following the pick, a drive powered by Snoddy’s 48-yard run and capped by Patrick Skov. Otherwise, VanGorder owned the first half, holding Georgia Tech to just 117 yards. Quarterback Justin Thomas didn’t complete a pass before halftime.
The defense also held in a critical spot just before the break, following Prosise’s 17-yard touchdown that put Notre Dame up 16-7. When Jones lost a fumble in the final minute of the second quarter it put Georgia Tech at Notre Dame’s 34-yard line.
A pass interference moved the Yellow Jackets closer, but then Joe Schmidt dropped Thomas for a seven-yard loss. Two incompletions and a missed field goal closed the drive, although that sequence included a right knee injury to Tranquill after celebrating a pass breakup.
Tranquill tore his left ACL last November.
“Doesn't look very good right now,” Kelly said. “But we'll get an MRI tomorrow morning and then we'll have definitive results. But we're not optimistic at this point.”
Instead of returning to Redfield, who struggled at Virginia with a broken thumb, Kelly recalled captain Matthias Farley at safety. The fifth-year senior forced a fumble on his second play, which Jaylon Smith recovered.
For all the halftime adjustments Johnson made, Georgia Tech managed just 78 yards in the third quarter and ran just six plays in Irish territory.
Prosise removed all doubt with two fourth quarter touchdowns, wrapping his 22-carry, 198-yard, three-score day. That 91-yard score to close the game is believed to be the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history.
But for all the fireworks between Prosise and Will Fuller – six catches for 131 yards and a 46-yard score – plus Kizer’s home debut, that group played a supporting role.
“That’s probably one of the most explosive triple option teams we’ve played and we just locked it down,” Fuller said. “Great team defense. That’s why they got the game ball.”