Frank Stams – a running back/linebacker standout out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, Ohio) -- arrived at Notre Dame in 1984 on the heels of leading his prep alma mater to a couple of Division III football state championships and a basketball state title.
Recruited by Gerry Faust at Notre Dame, Stams was stationed at fullback upon his arrival, where he suffered a serious ankle injury early in his tenure with the Irish. When Lou Holtz succeeded Gerry Faust, Stams was moved to outside linebacker/defensive end, where he didn’t move into a full-time role until 1988 – his fifth season.
Boy, what a fifth season. Stams earned first-team AP and UPI All-American status, helping lead Notre Dame to a 12-0 record with a 31-30 mid-season victory over No. 1 Miami, a 27-10 victory at No. 2 USC to conclude the regular season, and a 34-21 victory over No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to give Notre Dame its first national title in 11 years.
Stams was named MVP in the Fiesta Bowl, was selected in the second round of the 1989 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams and spent seven seasons in the NFL.
I thought DeShone Kizer did a very nice job in his starting debut at quarterback for Notre Dame. But when I look at Notre Dame’s (30-22) win over Georgia Tech, it was the defense that carried the day and allowed the offense to get its feet under it before developing some momentum as the game wore on.
The game can be reduced to some fundamental elements. When we were in high school, the big question we always asked was, ‘Do they hit?’ Notre Dame definitely out-hit Georgia Tech and the defense allowed the offense to have a margin for error in the first half.
In some respects, Georgia Tech’s strength of schedule hurt them because they weren’t prepared for the level of competition. You see the improvement that Notre Dame has made from the end of the 2014 regular season to now, starting with the bowl game. They went toe-to-toe with LSU in the bowl game and ran the ball. Here they are three games later and they’re still running the ball well.
When it comes to defending option football, there is the mid-line option game, where you read the three-technique, and there’s the veer, where you read the five-technique. When I played the rush end, I was the five-technique. Regardless of exactly what the opposition was doing, Lou Holtz would say that we had to attack the option, and I thought that’s exactly what Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder implemented in their defensive game plan.
Notre Dame’s defense showed tremendous team speed. They did a great job of tackling in the open field. Most impressive, they played downhill on Georgia Tech. They made Georgia Tech execute the option to his fullest, and Holtz was big on that. He always said that you have to make them execute the option to its fullest. In other words, you have to make the quarterback pitch it and then take care of the pitch. If you let the quarterback run or give the fullback room up the middle, you’re going to have problems.
Granted, Georgia Tech had some big plays with their A-backs (wingbacks). That’s going to happen. But they kept them out of the end zone with those big plays.
Those linebackers pursued well with tremendous speed, and so did the secondary. They were taking it to the option instead of letting the option take it to them. Georgia Tech only was effective scoring when they got away from their triple-option and started going to more of a play-action type of offense, and by that point, Notre Dame had a significant lead.
As an entire unit, the defensive line played outstanding. They controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part. Georgia Tech had no yards passing in the first half. For Notre Dame’s defense to do what they did to a triple-option attack was outstanding.
I thought Greer Martini played very well. Joe Schmidt played well. Drue Tranquill, in the first/second quarter, came up with back-to-back plays by playing the cut block well. The receivers are going to roll up on your legs, and I thought Tranquill did an excellent job of playing off the cut blocks and getting to the football. That was key; they stayed on their feet.
Unfortunately, Tranquill suffered the knee injury. But he’s got a real strong future after he overcomes this knee injury. He is a smart, athletic, physical football player.
Jaylon Smith is an incredibly gifted player. What’s impressive is the way he and the other linebackers ran to the ball. They have that ability to accelerate and get to the football. Plus, they’re big and strong enough that they can play off those blocks.
Kizer played great when you consider that was his first start. They opened the game with that little six-yard out, and for him to complete that pass, he showed poise out of the gate.
Overall, he threw the ball well. He made plays under pressure. There were a number of times guys were hanging around him or hanging around his feet and he’d move to gain some space and complete the pass. He completed 70 percent of his throws, so he was resourceful. The first guy I thought of was Ben Roethlisberger, a bigger guy who’s still mobile and can make plays when he’s pressured.
As a unit, they’ve got some work to do on the offensive line with some costly false starts that they’ll have to work out with the young quarterback. But there’s no doubt, like the defense, it’s a physical group, and it’s a group that’s been productive since the LSU game.
After Georgia Tech scored in the second quarter to tie it, Notre Dame responded in a great way to recapture the momentum. That showed some character, which you like to see immediately after you face some adversity. That was key because Georgia Tech, at that point, really could have made it a game. But the offense squashed it in a hurry, the defense picked up where it started, and the momentum swung Notre Dame’s way pretty much until the end of the game.
C.J. Prosise had a really solid game. He ran hard. That 91-yard run is a record at Notre Dame Stadium, which for a program as storied as Notre Dame’s says something. He was running as hard in the fourth quarter as he was in the first, which is a great sign.
The question I had early on was how big or little was Notre Dame’s margin for error? Can they take a punch? They got punched a little bit in that game and they certainly did in the Virginia game. But they punched back hard in both instances, and with Georgia Tech, they knocked that team out, even with the late scores.
The schedule ahead is tough. It may not be the toughest in the nation, but it’s pretty damn tough. UMass will throw it around and they can’t be taken lightly. They could have and probably should have beaten Temple. So they’re no slouch, but it sets up perfectly before Clemson. I’ve played in that stadium and that’s going to be a tough place to play.
Navy will be sky high, but Notre Dame’s defensive frame of mind – after this game – should be very strong with the knowledge they’ve found a way to make inroads against the triple-option. Then it’s the Trojans.
What’s so promising is that Notre Dame played outstanding defense against an offense that makes you so vulnerable if you don’t play it aggressively. I was impressed with how physical they were with that team speed. You can coach scheme, but you can’t coach the level of physicality and athleticism that they showed against Georgia Tech.
Kizer will have to continue to build upon what he did. He made plays when he needed to make plays, and they have the solid running game to complement it. They controlled the game and the pace of the game until it got a little out of hand at the end.
Notre Dame has kids that can flat-out make big plays offensively. You’ve got to have two or three guys that can make plays to be an effective, explosive, consistent offense. It’s hard to grind it out all the time. Notre Dame’s got the athletes. It starts with the quarterback and then it trickles down to Will Fuller and Prosise. You have to make big plays and this offense has the people to do it.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson summed it up. Johnson talked about the effectiveness of the option, but he also said, “Physical superiority beats theory.” Those were Johnson’s own words, and that’s exactly what happened. Notre Dame had a great plan, but they also were physically superior to Georgia Tech.