Georgia native Darius Walker's 13-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter gave Notre Dame its first lead of the contest and the Irish held on late to beat Georgia Tech 14-10 Saturday night. Before a packed and boisterous crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Notre Dame struggled to find their rhythm early against an aggressive Yellow Jacket defense but found the groove at the right moment to avoid the upset bid. This time, unlike last year where the offense carried the defense, the Irish D stepped up with a big performance and allowed just 10 points and 259 yards of total offense.
"Our much maligned defense that everyone has been telling me about," head coach Charlie Weis told the media after the game. "That's all I've been hearing the whole off-season. 617 yards. If I hear that one more time, I'm going to vomit. That's all I've heard. I challenged the defense everyday. I thought the defensive staff and the defensive players showed up. That's the reason we won the game."
Irish fans had to sweat this one out. Georgia Tech punter Durant Brooks pinned Notre Dame at their own 4-yard line with just under six minutes left. With the crowd ratcheted up, Walker quickly silenced them with a 19-yard run. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-9, Brady Quinn found Rhema McKnight over the middle for a crucial first down. A Quinn sneak with under a minute to go on 4th-and-1 sealed the game for the Irish. Quinn finished the game 23-of-38 for 246 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. McKnight was Notre Dame's leading pass catcher, hauling in eight balls for 108 yards in his first game back since sustaining a season-ending knee injury last year. Notre Dame (1-0) now heads home to face Penn State, who today beat Akron 34-16.
"That game right there was a tough win," Weis said. "Give Georgia Tech credit. That was a tough win. They were well prepared, their fans were ready to go and they gave it their best. We were fortunate to come out with a win. We're happy to be walking out of here with a W. There's no such thing as a bad W."
Down 10-7, the Notre Dame defense came up big right out of the gate in the third quarter. They forced Georgia Tech (0-1) to punt after one first down and that's when Walker had a drive to remember. After carrying the ball twice for 20 yards, Walker was nicked up after being hit hard by two Yellow Jacket defenders. After sitting out a few plays, he took a draw off of the left side for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Irish a 14-10 advantage. Walker ended the night with 99 yards on 22 carries, including 77 of those yards in the deciding second half.
Georgia Tech fans will be talking about one play on that drive for awhile. On 3rd-and-10 from the Yellow Jacket 18, Quinn rolled right and was heading out of bounds yards short of the marker when Tech's Phillip Wheeler hit the Irish quarterback by the sidelines. Replays showed Quinn was still in bounds but the issue might have been head-to-head contact. Without the penalty, Notre Dame would have been forced to kick a field goal. Kicker Carl Gioia had already missed one kick and would later be wide left again on another. Nevertheless, Notre Dame got a first down and scored a few plays later.
"I'm not the referee," Weis said when questioned about the call. "They called 11 penalties on us. There were some bogus ones there. How bout the one on the screen pass where we walked in for the touchdown where they called (John) Carlson on a block from behind. Those things even out in the course of the game. To me on the replay, it looked like a clean play."
"I saw both guys in bounds and I saw a guy going to make a tackle," Tech head coach Chan Gailey said. "If you call helmet to helmet every time two helmets hit, you'll call it every time. It's the game of football. They hit our quarterback in the helmet late and it was funny how that one wasn't called."
After spotting Georgia Tech 10 points, Quinn directed a scoring march down the field just before halftime to put Notre Dame on the board. The key play of the drive was a third down conversion to John Carlson in the face of a tough blitz deep in their own territory. That kept the drive alive. Quinn made good on another third and long when he scrambled 16 yards down to the Yellow Jacket 32-yard line. With 16 seconds left and no timeouts, Quinn got gutsy and scored on a five-yard quarterback draw to make it 10-7 heading into halftime.
"That was the call, too," Weis said. "It was a run-pass check with me. If they're bringing the house, he was going to throw a pass. I told him, ‘Don't make me look stupid now.' But if you get the look, run the ball. He got the look we were counting on and he went with the play. It was in his hands."
The Reggie Ball-Calvin Johnson connection was on fire in the first half. The two connected on five passes for 95 yards, including a four-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter over defender Mike Richardson. That gave Tech a 7-0 lead. The Yellow Jackets would add a field goal in the second quarter to push the margin to 10-0. But Johnson got quiet for the rest of the game, only catching two more balls for 16 yards in the second half and seven total for 111 yards.
"They basically doubled Calvin on every snap," Gailey said. "They were trying to keep him from getting the ball, deep or short, and playing over the top of him. Every time we tried to go deep with the ball it looked like we couldn't quite hold the defense out of these long enough to get the ball downfield.
Ball was his usual self, flashy on some plays and head scratching on others. The senior quarterback ended the night 12-of-24 for 140 yards and one touchdown. Ball also was Tech's leading rusher, gaining 55 yards on 11 carries.