NOTRE DAME, Ind. – As the final seconds of No. 8 Notre Dame’s 30-22 victory over No. 14 Georgia Tech ticked off the clock, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder – after an inadvertent physical run-in with an official as his exuberance toward a big play overcame him – sought peace as he searched through the mass of humanity for Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson.
The Johnson vs. VanGorder matchup – so heavily anticipated because of comments by the latter regarding triple-option football and 21st century offense when he served as head coach of Johnson’s precious Georgia Southern – quickly turned into a beat-down of epic proportions.
The triple-option master would have resigned early on if this really were the chess match it was made out to be. VanGorder -- Notre Dame’s sometimes-beleaguered defensive coordinator – figuratively reached across that chess board with his pawns leading the charge and slapped the smugness right out of Johnson.
“Developing the plan, and then the execution of the plan, is really the fun part of it for us,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who himself had a bit to throw back into the face of the grudge-seeking Georgia Tech head coach.
“I don’t think it’s fun when you don’t see the execution part work. But seeing it come to fruition, seeing it come together, seeing your kids really play with confidence…That’s what we asked them to do. That was the fun part today.”
VanGorder clearly sought out Johnson as the teams converged in the middle of the field after the game. Johnson greeted VanGorder with what looked like a genuinely contrite smile. The exchange was more than a cursory greeting. The hatchet looked as if it was buried and, surprisingly, it wasn’t in each other’s back.
VanGorder’s defense had kicked Johnson’s offense to the curb. Johnson is, if nothing else, a pragmatic, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. When he gets his backside handed to him, he can appreciate the heart, will and physical superiority of that by which it was administered.
“I thought right from the start, we got rattled a little bit,” said Johnson, whose offense failed on its first nine third-down attempts and 12-of-15 in the game. “When it wasn’t going at first, we didn’t respond very well. We just didn’t play very good. They had something to do with that.”
So dominant was Notre Dame’s performance – the Irish never trailed and led for 47:54 of the 60 minutes – Johnson had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable loss, albeit with some dramatics in the final seven minutes of the game to make it much closer on the scoreboard than in reality.
“You think?” quipped Johnson as a question was framed to inquire about Georgia Tech’s poor performance on third down.
At one point, Johnson compared Georgia Tech’s attempt to pick up a fumble to The Three Stooges.
“Nobody could make a play,” Johnson summarized.
Not a bad performance by a Notre Dame defense that looks like knights in shining armor one moment and wannabe royalty without the pedigree or papers to back it up.
It also was a notable orchestration of an entire game plan by Kelly, himself the target of a Johnson barb when the Irish swayed former defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt back to Notre Dame after a dalliance with the Yellow Jackets.
“You’re going to Notre Dame?” said Johnson on a speakerphone conversation between Tuitt and Johnson, of which Kelly was privy to. “That guy from Grand Valley State?”
Yeah, that guy from Grand Valley State has the Irish 3-0 for the third time in four seasons, which is no small feat at Notre Dame when you consider: a) the Irish opened with Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech, a more ambitious commencement of a season than virtually any FBS program is willing to take and b) the Irish had just one three-win start (2002) since 1997 – spanning 13 seasons -- before Kelly’s arrival.
Notre Dame won this fistfight by punching the Yellow Jackets in the stinger and disarming Johnson’s vaunted triple-option after experiencing a fair share of fits-and-starts since 2010 against Navy’s similar offensive approach.
But this wasn’t Navy. This was a program that won 11 games last year, including late-season victories over Clemson, Georgia and Mississippi State with a narrow (two-point) loss to Florida State. This was Navy on steroids, if you will.
“We knew it was going to be a fight,” said Irish defensive lineman Isaac Rochell. “I haven’t been this sore in a long time. We knew this was going to be a game won in the trenches. (VanGorder) matched that with his attitude.”
Led by Rochell, Sheldon Day and freshman Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame’s defensive front took what many consider to be a quality offensive line and slapped it around.
“I love our defensive line,” said Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt, himself under fire from the uninformed lineup-changers before finishing with a game-high 10 stops.
“They come to work every day. They’re a blue-collar, hard-nosed group of guys, and they came to fight today. They did the same thing from play one through play whatever.”
Yes, there were other story lines in this game, such as the mature red-shirt freshman quarterback – DeShone Kizer – making his first career start. He more than held his own, completing 70 percent of his passes after looking in pre-game like he was about to undertake the most enjoyable task he could think of on this windy September afternoon in northern Indiana.
Kizer bounced around the football with joy, not anxiety, and then put forth a body language once the game began that said he had come to play like a champion. Save for a poor throw into the end zone that resulted in Notre Dame’s first turnover of the season and a couple anxious moments in the pocket under pressure, he looked like a young man who expected to belong, which he did.
College football teams/programs are judged in “transient” fashion. Opinions – positive or negative – generally don’t last long for more than a game, particularly if it’s counter to the previous impression. Every seven days, opinions are reshaped instead of being viewed as a week-by-week building (or imploding) process.
To wit, Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory over Texas validated the notion that maybe they were a playoff-caliber team after all, although there were doubts about the Longhorns. After the 34-27 victory at Virginia, the Irish were paper tigers again, particularly with the injury to Malik Zaire.
“That’s not a playoff team!”
Seven days after that it’s, “Damn, that’s a playoff team!”
Such is the fickle nature of amateur football analysis so easily swayed by the image freshest in the mind.
Behind Kelly’s leadership, VanGorder’s scheme and a football team ready to explode on the Yellow Jackets after a great save in Charlottesville, Notre Dame is once again a playoff-contending darling, particularly after Ohio State limped to the finish line, UCLA, Clemson and Missouri hung on by their fingernails, Florida State continued to look like a rebuilding powerhouse, and the mightiest of the last decade – Alabama and USC – fell to defeat.
The view of the Fighting Irish – 3-0 with Massachusetts up next – suddenly offers a more promising, more progressive view.
Today, it’s a worthy top 5 candidate that almost undoubtedly will head into Clemson the first weekend of October undefeated and vying for a playoff spot with a seat in the front of the bus.
The Johnson vs. VanGorder/Kelly battle didn’t quite live up to its hype. It was a one-sided affair that few would have thought possible when Notre Dame boarded a bus in Charlottesville to return home one week earlier.
Check and mate. The beast from the Midwest is back and riding high again, only this time, no one should question the validity of its accomplishment. Notre Dame over Georgia Tech was fluke-free.