NOTRE DAME, Ind. – When Notre Dame headed back up the tunnel Saturday evening after its 30-22 upset of Georgia Tech, the moment left Drue Tranquill alone the end zone on crutches.
Matthias Farley approached Tranquill, now lost to another torn ACL, with some advice.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why things like that happen,” Farley said. “Just to stay positive. We’ve got his back no matter what happens.”
Tranquill stared straight at Farley. He didn’t turn the meeting into a conversation. Just yards from where he tore his right ACL while celebrating a pass breakup with Joe Schmidt, Tranquill didn’t have anyway words.
After the game Brian Kelly gave the game ball to the entire defense, but he handed it to Tranquill, a symbol of what went right Saturday and what threatens to go wrong with Notre Dame. The Irish remain College Football Playoff contenders for another week. They also know how abruptly that run can end.
To continue beyond Saturday meant Notre Dame dug deeper than ever before under Kelly, a soul search that began last winter and picked up in August when the Irish began option prep. Kelly took 20 players, including eight recruited scholarship guys, and made them Notre Dame’s option scout team.
Known as S.W.A.G. – Students With Attitude And Game – the group symbolized Notre Dame going beyond its scholarship limits. When Kelly called beating Georgia Tech a “program win” he meant it. The Irish recruited freshman walk-on quarterback Rob Regan to run option in practice after he did it in high school. Kelly kept Bob Elliott as a “special assistant” just to research the scheme.
Kelly could sell S.W.A.G. to those players because the head coach wanted a piece of it too, personally coaching the group at Culver before turning it over to Elliott. The results showed Saturday when Notre Dame almost out-rushed Georgia Tech, forced back-to-back three-and-outs to start the game and allowed one score until the final minute.
Georgia Tech hadn’t gone three-and-out all season and scored 19 touchdowns in its first two games. S.W.A.G. helped reverse those trends as Kelly got creative. The Irish started linebacker Greer Martini, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and Tranquill for the first times this year.
“They gave us a real realism. It’s hard to simulate the real speed of it,” Martini said. “It’s really the speed that gets to you. They came out and were flying around and they knew their stuff. It made it a more realistic look and it better prepared us.
“The whole week it was a mentality that we’ve gotta go out and kick some butt.”
Most years option prep just means a couple cut block periods and picking a new scout team quarterback. After last season’s scare, now too common in the Navy series, Kelly went all in by employing a whole team of option imitators. It was an investment of time, money and attention. The Irish logged a couple option periods every practice.
Saturday showed the value there.
In the same way Notre Dame’s roster runs deep to replace shelved talent – Malik Zaire, Jarron Jones, Tarean Folston, Durham Smythe, Shaun Crawford and now Tranquill – it worked overtime to prepare for Georgia Tech. There’s no guarantee any of this will get Notre Dame into the playoffs, but it will keep the Irish in contention longer than most expected.
That doubt fueled Notre Dame, starting with Will Fuller last week when he called the point spread favoring Georgia Tech “disrespectful” even as the Irish broke in a new quarterback, new running back, new defensive game plan, new defensive tackle and new tight end.
On the outside, it was easy to understand why the Irish were underdogs.
Around the program, less so.
“Winning a game like this, it kind of sends a message to everybody in the country,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “A lot of people were doubting us. That was frustrating. We kind of responded, were using that to our advantage.”
Wherever Notre Dame can find an edge this year, the Irish will take it.
When Kelly opened camp he had his deepest and most talented roster. That’s no longer true without six frontline players. Yet where Kelly undersold this squad is its resourcefulness.
Notre Dame goes beyond “Next Man In” now, that overused catch phrase some think can stretch to infinity. Kelly is smarter than that. He knows there’s a breaking point with injuries and it’s coming soon. What he can control, what Notre Dame’s players can control, is their willingness to work.
That’s where culture and scheme connect. The Irish had both working against the Yellow Jackets. They had the scheme to stone one of college football’s best offenses. They had the culture to prepare for this moment, starting back in August.
Scheme put Tranquill in position to harass the Georgia Tech. Culture meant Farley could takeover in the second half and keep the sophomore’s head up postgame.
Notre Dame needs both elements working in tandem. The Irish had that Saturday.