Sept. 20, 2015
My mother referred to them as red-letter dates on the calendar.
Neither Irish head football coach Brian Kelly, nor his assistants, nor any of his players tried to suggest this was just another game.
This was different—and Kelly didn’t mind telling you he and his staff had been working on this one since the calendar turned to 2015.
This was Georgia Tech, with the triple option offense that put up pinball numbers--and came into Notre Dame Stadium Saturday leading the country in both rushing and in passing efficiency.
What got Notre Dame’s attention?
-- Maybe it was those jaw-dropping recent Georgia Tech rushing totals—476 yards against Alcorn State, 439 against Tulane--that smacked the Irish in the face.
-- Maybe it was the impact of the Yellow Jackets’ emphatic late-season victories in 2014 over 19th-ranked Clemson, ninth-rated Georgia and then seventh-rated Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
-- Maybe it was the recollection that this same Paul Johnson, now Georgia Tech coach, brought a Navy team into Notre Dame Stadium in 2007 and won.
-- Maybe it was Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who had an interest in showing Notre Dame fans that his defense intends to look more like what those fans saw against Texas as opposed to what they saw against Virginia.
-- Maybe it was Irish special assistant Bob Elliott, who Kelly gave the mission of helping prep the coaching staff on how to win this football game.
Maybe all of that came together in rather impressive fashion to motivate every single person on the Irish sideline with a stake in the result.
So, all things considered, Notre Dame’s 30-22 victory—and it wasn’t really that close until Tech managed 15 points in the final 48 seconds—was the ultimate “program win,” as Kelly called it after the contest.
Remember watching The A-Team on television in the 1980s? Actor George Peppard played Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith—and his favorite phrase went like this:
“I love it when a plan comes together.”
That was Kelly on Saturday, filling in for the late Peppard.
The plan involved Elliott traveling last winter to the West Coast to visit with San Diego State coaches who held Navy’s option attack to 17 points and 271 total yards despite losing the 2014 Poinsettia Bowl.
It involved leaning on two former Notre Dame Hall of Fame coaches for some advice. Lou Holtz sent Kelly a couple of pages of notes in the offseason, and Ara Parseghian came over to the Irish football offices two days before the Virginia game and spent an hour with Kelly, VanGorder and Elliott.
The Irish practiced against Tech’s scheme during August workouts at Culver, and Elliott suggested he spent most of the month of May concentrating solely on this assignment. There were far more than the usual number of hours of film study involved in this exercise.
How did it play out? Of Georgia Tech’s 14 offensive possessions, 11 involved six plays or fewer and 10 produced 26 or fewer yards. The Yellow Jackets were abysmal on third down, finishing three for 15 in that category and coming up empty on their first nine attempts. They didn’t convert one until a pass completion three minutes into the final period, and by then things were looking desperate for the visitors from Atlanta. And that’s virtually the same Tech team that led the nation in third-down conversions in 2014.
Georgia Tech finished with 216 net rushing yards, significantly less than half its average. For long stretches the Irish seemed to have every defensive answer—one or more defenders to handle the fullback, someone to corral talented quarterback Justin Thomas and a few others to take care of the pitch on the corner.
“We felt good from the start,” said Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt, who led the Irish with 10 tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.
“We liked our plan. Once we were confident against the speed of their offense, we were good—that’s the biggest thing. Our scout team did a great job (as Kelly called it, the self-named SWAG team—students with attitude and game). And we were ready to play.”
On the offensive side it was business as usual. Worried about sophomore DeShone Kizer making his first career start? Kelly told Notre Dame nation a week ago his team could play winning football with Kizer—and Kelly proved prophetic.
Kizer may not have been perfect (cadence and footwork and touch will earn some reps this week), but 21 of 30 passing for 242 yards and a beautifully lofted 46-yard scoring strike to speedy Will Fuller told the story.
“I love his presence and confidence,” Kelly said. “Our guys like playing with him. We told him, ‘Just do the ordinary things well.’”
Fuller has logged three straight 100-yard receiving days--and that hasn’t happened in 45 years. C.J. Prosise put up 198 yards, including a 91-yard scoring run that tied for second longest in Notre Dame history. The Virginia product looks comfortable enough as a runner that his days as both a safety and wide receiver now appear blurry in the rear-view mirror.
By about 7 p.m. Saturday, the sky was bright blue, the sun still shone bright on the Notre Dame Stadium grandstands—and most everything seemed right in the Irish football world.
The Notre Dame student body amused itself in the final two minutes by chanting, “Rudy, Rudy,” and there weren’t many Georgia Tech fans left to clap for the two late Yellow Jacket scores because about half already had left the premises.
VanGorder hugged his fellow defensive assistants in the locker room—and when Kelly joined his staff in the coaches’ locker room a distinct cheer rang out.
“Rally sons of Notre Dame, baby,” Kelly told his squad.
“When you play with that kind of confidence, there’s a belief out there. Just know you’ve got to do it for four quarters, for every single play.
“We took advantage of our offensive opportunities (to the tune of 457 net yards), but today was about our defense.”
Kelly awarded the game ball to safety Drue Tranquill, who left with a knee injury.
“He (Tranquill) set the tone with the way he played in the first half (four solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup in the opening 30 minutes).
“The plan was excellent, and you executed the plan.”
George Peppard couldn’t have said it better.
-- by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director