It was a solid rushing performance by the Irish against a defensive front that has been vulnerable for some time. The Yellow Jackets allowed 5.07 yards rushing per carry last year and Notre Dame – due largely to C.J. Prosise’s fourth-quarter 91-yard run – rushed for 215 yards on 32 carries (6.7-yard average) for its third straight game of more than 200 yards. That’s a first since the 2012 season when the Irish did it against BYU, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh.
Prosise’s 91-yard run is the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history. It ties him with Larry Coutre (91 vs. Navy in 1949) and trails only Bob Livingstone’s 92-yarder at USC.
There were some gaps in the Irish rushing attack. Of the 32 rushes (31 with one sack), Notre Dame had an unofficial seven runs of two yards or less, which was an improvement over the 33 from the first two weeks, but a limitation within the offense, especially when you have four false start penalties, three by left tackle Ronnie Stanley. (Cadence issues with the first-time starting quarterback led to the rash of false starts.)
Notre Dame left itself just one 3rd-and-short (three yards), and Prosise was dumped for a one-yard loss. The Irish were tasked with numerous 3rd-and-mediums, forcing Kelly to pass for virtually all of its 11 third-down attempts (converting a modest four, 36.3 percent). That means the Irish were inefficient on first and second down at times, although they still managed to have 457 yards total offense (but just 17 first downs).
The Irish also had three 2nd-and-2s -- two of which worked out well (seven- and 11-yard runs by Prosise) and one that didn’t (minus-one by DeShone Kizer), in addition to the failed 3rd-and-3 Prosise run.
Prosise had runs of 17 (for a TD), 14, 11, nine, two eights and a seven to go along with that 91-yarder. The only other notable run was by Torii Hunter, Jr. with an eight-yarder. Those are significant chunks out of a defense, despite what probably was the most tentative of Prosise’s first three games (the 91-yarder notwithstanding). His high pad level left him open for a good shot to the chest, which knocked him back for one of the few times this year.
Without Prosise’s run, the Irish had 31 carries for 124 yards, which is exactly a four-yard average. That’s a little disappointing against a front that allowed better than five yards per carry in eight games last season, which Notre Dame also accomplished, thanks to Prosise’s burst. The ground game was effective enough.
Brian Kelly didn’t coddle DeShone Kizer in his starting debut. The Irish worked the quick outs – leading to a career-high eight catches for Chris Brown – and Kizer finished with 30 pass attempts, completing 21 (70 percent). Mix in another four runs (and a sack) and it was a full day for the mature red-shirt freshman.
Kizer continued his quick-developing chemistry with Will Fuller by hooking up with him six times for 131 yards (21.8-yard average) one week after their late-game heroics in Virginia. One-on-one with no safety help over the top is a lethal decision for Notre Dame opponents versus Fuller. Fuller has scored in 14 of 16 games. He makes developing chemistry with quarterbacks pretty easy.
The Irish need to find some consistent, complimentary pieces with Fuller. Brown caught eight passes, but they covered just 65 yards (with seven accounting for 45 yards). Alize’ Jones had a presence with three receptions, but his late-second quarter fumble at Notre Dame’s 34 was a critical error. Torii Hunter, Jr. had a 17-yarder on the first play of a nine-play, 59-yard drive that started late in the third quarter and concluded in the fourth with C.J. Prosise’s one-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 23-7 lead.
Kizer averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and 11.5 yards per completion, which are good numbers. He got deked into a “bracketed” interception, for which he took full blame. He did a good job of keeping plays alive in the pocket, but probably could think about living for another play and getting rid of some of those, although he was sacked just once, which shows pretty good instinct.
Kizer had four pass plays of 20 yards or more – three to Fuller (46, 27 and 36 yards) and one to Brown (20). Nic Weishar, Prosise and Corey Robinson each caught a pass for 10 yards among them.
All told, an impressive debut for Kizer’s first career start.
Georgia Tech had six runs of 10 yards or longer, including A-back Broderick Snoddy’s 48-yarder. There were no other runs of 20 yards plus. Quarterback Justin Thomas had runs of 10 and 19 yards. The other double-digit runs were by A-backs, which is a position in the triple option that will take some big bites. Snoddy had a 17-yarder, as did Clinton Lynch. TaQuon Marshall had a 13-yarder.
But that was it, and when you consider that 46 of the 47 runs accounted for just 168 yards – a miniscule 3.6-yard average – Notre Dame’s run defense was outstanding.
My unofficial count of “stuffs” (two yards or less) was 12, which again, is impressive against an offense that came into the game averaging 8.5 yards per carry against lesser competition after averaging 6.1 yards per tote in 14 games last year. Georgia Tech finished with 47 carries for 216 yards (4.6-yard average)
Fullbacks Patrick Skov and Marcus Marshall combined for 19 carries totaling 66 yards (3.4) while Thomas – with his 14 lost yards – averaged just 2.5 yards per his 11 carries. Nearly 57 percent of Georgia Tech’s 216 yards rushing came from the A-backs (wingbacks), and that was 123 yards on 17 carries (7.2), which isn’t bad for the effectiveness of the position. And again, on 16 of those 17 carries, the A-backs gained just 75 yards.
The Irish forced their first fumble for a turnover this season (the other came on a sack at Virginia) when Matthias Farley and Jaylon Smith collaborated on a four-yard loss that Smith scooped and returned 17 yards.
B-back (fullback) Patrick Skov caught 24- and 15-yard touchdown passes within 26 seconds of one another, both in the final minute. That extended Justin Thomas’ streak of throwing for at least one touchdown pass to 11 games.
Prior to that, however, when the game was still in doubt, Thomas was harassed and ineffective as a passer. He completed a 28-yarder to A-back Clinton Lynch and a 17-yarder to A-back Qua Searcy. Notre Dame was credited with just one sack. But up to the final minute – when Thomas completed 3-of-4 for 67 yards and two touchdowns – he was 5-of-20 for 54 yards. On third down during the first 59 minutes of the game, Thomas as 1-of-7 for 17 yards, which was his only third-down conversion (3rd-and-7).
Georgia Tech’s wide receivers accounted for just two receptions for 21 yards. Skov was effective out of the backfield late. The A-backs accounted for four catches for 61 yards, which again, is where a team defending the triple-option can afford some give.
The Irish do not have an interception on 85 pass attempts this season and the sack total (six) is well below Notre Dame’s desired average of four per game, which would be twice as many as they actually have.
But as for this game – with the exception of the two scores in the last 48 seconds (which can’t be completely discounted) – the Irish did about as well as anyone does against Georgia Tech’s passing game. Georgia Tech’s seven punts – its most since September of 2012 – speaks volumes.
The wind – blowing north-to-south – was challenging inside Notre Dame Stadium Saturday afternoon, although Justin Yoon had the wind at his back on his missed extra point in the second quarter. (The official listing of the wind was 15 mph; it seemed a bit stronger than that at times.)
It was his first missed extra point of his collegiate career after converting his first eight. He bounced back with a 29-yard field goal early in the third quarter, which also was with the wind.
Three of Tyler Newsome’s five punts were against the wind – a 34-yarder, a 38-yarder and a magnificent 53-yarder with exceptional hang time. His two punts with the wind traveled 44 and 29 yards, and both were inside the 20. So his 39.6-yard average is a bit skewed. He was largely effective.
Even with a change of personnel on the kick return unit, Amir Carlisle managed just one return for 16 yards. C.J. Sanders had six- and one-yard punt returns. He also bypassed a return by calling a fair catch when there was some wiggle room. Notre Dame allowed an 18-yard punt return on Newsome’s 53-yarder, which takes a bite out of the net.
Notre Dame’s special teams benefitted from 30- and 43-yard FG misses by Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker who, other than his 53-yarder to send the Yellow Jackets into an overtime win at Georgia last year, has been wildly inconsistent. The misses count toward Notre Dame’s special teams grade. Three of Georgia Tech punter Ryan Rodwell’s seven punts ended up inside the Irish 20.
The Irish allowed a two-point conversion with 48 seconds remaining and then the ensuing onside kick. But after the Yellow Jackets made it an eight-point game, Torii Hunter, Jr. sealed the deal with his recovery of an onside kick.
As a nation of skeptics picked Georgia Tech over Notre Dame, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff prepared the Irish for victory. Notre Dame never trailed. It took 8:20 to take the lead and the Irish were tied for another 3:46. But the Irish responded to Georgia Tech’s first score to knot the game at seven with a 10-play, 82-yard drive late in the second quarter, and the Irish led the rest of the way.
Notre Dame led for 47:54 of the 60 minutes.
From the defensive game plan that was orchestrated and executed to near perfection to a manageable yet still aggressive offensive attack for a first-time starting quarterback, Kelly and his staff controlled virtually every phase of this game, and that is a masterful job of coaching.
For Brian VanGorder to totally out-scheme Georgia Tech head coach/offensive play-caller Paul Johnson virtually from start to finish was a strong statement for the defensive coordinator that Notre Dame fans just can’t seem to wrap their heads around. The defense can look so good one moment and so putrid at other times.
The bottom line is that Notre Dame has dominated two of three opponents, and had five three-and-outs within Virginia’s first eight series to go along with those four 75-yard plus drives. So far, the good has out-weighed the bad.
Credit, too, goes to Bob Elliott – Kelly’s special assistant – who researched and helped direct the defense of the triple-option, which VanGorder presented to a defense that executed it perfectly. Teamwork at its best with a group of supporting players (SWAG – Students with Attitude and Game) finding their niche as well.
As for the “collaboration” of Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford, the Irish are averaging 34.0 points and 481 yards per game, which ranks somewhere in the top 50 nationally in points and top 25 in yardage.
As it pertained to this game, Kelly coached commensurate to one of the top head coaches in the country, which is why the Irish remain right in the middle of the playoff talk three-quarters of the way through the September weekends.