by John Vannie
For the first twenty-odd minutes of Saturday night’s season opener, it appeared as though Georgia Tech’s defense had either attended fall practice at Notre Dame or had developed a method to sneak into the Irish huddle. So complete was Tech’s control of the vaunted Notre Dame offense that even Charlie Weis had no answers.
As it turned out, the Irish rediscovered their running game and flashed a little defense of their own in recording a hard fought 14-10 comeback victory over the determined Yellow Jackets. Notre Dame dominated the final 35 minutes of the game, but two missed field goals prevented the Irish from creating any breathing room until the game’s final minute.
Tech delivered on its promise to get the ball into the hands of its premier player, wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The All-American took a pass from Reggie ball late in the first quarter and streaked 29 yards down the sideline to the Irish four. The pair connected again on the next play for the game’s first touchdown as Johnson beat Mike Richardson on a fade pattern.
Georgia Tech’s defense continued to harass Brady Quinn and disrupt Notre Dame’s aerial attack. Punter Geoff Price was the only effective Irish weapon in the early going, but he was used much more often than anyone had hoped. Quinn continued to misfire under heavy pressure from tackle Joe Anoia and linebacker Phillip Wheeler, and this turn of events ignited the Tech crowd.
In what was the only real defensive gaffe of the game for Notre Dame, Ball again found Johnson on a deep sideline pass early in the second quarter. Johnson was matched up in single coverage against freshman cornerback Darrin Walls, who managed to drag down Johnson at the Irish 11.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the defense stiffened and held Tech to a field goal. Travis Bell converted for a 10-0 lead while Irish fans watched in stunned silence. The Irish tried to respond with a 42-yard field goal attempt, but Carl Gioia missed it wide right.
As the Irish defense settled in, Weis and Quinn began to adjust to Georgia Tech’s defensive pressure late in the second period. The offensive line tightened up its protection and Weis began to mix in a few running plays. Quinn’s 16 yard scramble highlighted a march down the field with time running out in the half.
Notre Dame eventually found itself at the Tech 5 yard line with 20 seconds to go and no time outs remaining. Needing seven points, Weis gambled on a quarterback draw since its failure to convert would have resulted in no time left to run another play. Quinn correctly read the defense and barreled into the end zone behind John Sullivan for the touchdown.
The score settled the team and its bewildered fans, who had expected the Irish to pick up where they were offensively in the middle of last season. Although the Yellow Jacket defense visibly tired in the second half, penalties and first game mistakes prevented Notre Dame from pulling away.
Darius Walker, playing in front of his hometown fans, led the Irish on their decisive 14-play scoring march on the first possession of the third quarter. Walker ran for 38 yards on 5 carries on the drive, including the last 13 after a penalty on Wheeler for a blow to Quinn’s head. Walker finished with 99 tough yards on 22 carries for the night.
Leading 14-10, Notre Dame’s defense responded well to the task of stuffing the Tech offense and keeping Johnson under wraps. The Irish were able to stop the running game and put pressure of their own on Ball, whose only second half success came on quarterback draws. The offense provided no margin for error throughout the game, and the defense held together.
Momentum temporarily shifted away from Notre Dame early in the fourth quarter when a dropped pass inside the Georgia Tech ten by Rhema McKnight and another missed field goal by Gioia gave the Jackets a boost. The defense responded by sacking Ball to keep Tech from moving across midfield.
The Irish were then pinned deep in their own end, but Quinn’s 42 yard pass to Jeff Samardzija moved Notre Dame out of trouble. Tech’s defense rose to the challenge again to force a punt, but Ball was sacked on consecutive plays to end the next threat with time running down.
The Yellow Jackets tried to create one more chance for Ball and Johnson after once again punting the ball deep in Irish territory, but determined runs by Walker brought Notre Dame out from the shadow of its own goal. Quinn then hit McKnight on a third down pass to maintain possession, and Gailey was forced to consume his time outs in an effort to get the ball back for a last shot.
Weis wanted no part of a Hail Mary pass to Johnson, so he decided to go for it on fourth and one on the next series of downs as the clock wound down to a minute and change. Quinn again ran it behind Sullivan’s block to convert, and the Irish ran out the clock to preserve the 14-10 victory.
Georgia Tech proved to be a formidable opponent and eight months of preparation by an excellent defensive staff served them well in this game. The Irish have plenty of work to do, but there were numerous bright spots despite the close call.
The Irish secondary played extremely well, especially in the second half. Although the defensive line was neutralized by Tech and the linebackers missed several tackles, the front seven did shut down the run except for a few escapes by Ball.
Offensively, the run blocking and Walker’s toughness were definite plusses. Quinn and his receivers will round into form as the season progresses, although future opponents will try to bring pressure after watching film of this game.
Bright spots included improved markedly kickoff returns, the punting of Price, linebacker Mo Richardson’s pass rush, tackle Sam Young (after a bit of a rocky start) and Asaph Schwapp’s lead blocking despite a couple of early whiffs.
Concerns are primarily the kicking game and the overall play at strong side linebacker, where starter Mitchell Thomas was out of position several times and missed a number of tackles. Maurice Crum played decently in the middle, but his lack of ideal size for the position was evident on a few occasions.
At this point, Notre Dame is overrated at number two in the nation. The good news is the team is 1-0 and have an opportunity to demonstrate progress next week against another tough opponent. This game may serve as a reminder for the players not to read their press clippings, but more likely it will cause unrealistic Irish fans to rethink impossible expectations of blowout victories against quality opposition.
- California was obviously not prepared for the physicality of Tennessee in its disastrous visit to SEC country. The PAC-10 once again looks to be USC and nine other non-entities.
- Michigan struggled to get past Vanderbilt, but I like their defense and stockpile of running backs led by Mike Hart, Kevin Grady and freshman Brandon Minor.
- Anthony Morelli displayed an impressive arm in Penn State’s opening defeat of Akron, but he frequently locks onto his primary receiver and will force the ball into coverage at times.
- Montana State’s defeat of host Colorado was the shock of the day, and it appeared not to be a fluke.