by John Vannie
Notre Dame has waited eight months to erase the disappointment of last season’s 34-20 loss in the Fiesta Bowl, and the Irish finally get their chance on Saturday night in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. This year’s squad carries the weight of higher expectations after Charlie Weis engineered a remarkable turnaround in 2005, but the team is poised to improve upon its 9-3 record.
The Yellow Jackets feature several talented and experienced players, and figure to provide solid opposition in the nationally televised contest. Several analysts have gone as far as to predict a Tech upset, but they underestimate Notre Dame’s outstanding core of senior leaders.
Led by quarterback Brady Quinn, top receivers Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija and a veteran front line, the Irish offense will find ways to score against Georgia Tech’s blitzing and stunting defense. Conversely, Notre Dame’s retooled defense should be able to contain the Yellow Jacket’s passing combination of Reggie Ball to Calvin Johnson.
Each defense will take a different approach in attacking the quarterback. Tech will attempt to disrupt Quinn with numerous fronts and blitzes. If they are even partially successful in frustrating the Irish early in the game, the crowd could become an important factor. More likely, however, the Irish signal-caller will demonstrate his skill in reading the pressure and finding the open man. Similarly, Notre Dame’s offensive line saw every conceivable gimmick last season and managed to keep Quinn upright with very few exceptions.
The Irish defensive front should fare slightly better against Georgia Tech’s blockers, who had difficulty maintaining any consistency in fall camp due to injury and personnel shifts. Notre Dame will try to limit the scrambling of Ball, a 50% career passer, and force him to throw. Irish fans do not want a repeat of Troy Smith’s running exploits, and this game represents the perfect opportunity to see if the defense and its coaches learned any new schemes in the off-season.
The most intriguing matchup for the Irish defense will be end Victor Abiamiri against Tech offensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto, a converted defensive lineman. Derek Landri figures to have a good game in his battle with left guard Matt Rhodes, while Tech’s defensive end tandem of Adamm Oliver and Darrell Robertson will provide stern test for Notre Dame’s true freshman and much-heralded offensive tackle Sam Young.
The passing game comparison favors Notre Dame in that Quinn is more accurate than Ball, and he enjoys the luxury of two All-American caliber receivers vs. the dangerous Johnson. The Irish secondary returns intact and figures to improve over last season’s performance, while the Yellow Jackets will deploy three new starters with veteran cornerback Kenny Scott.
Both offenses will benefit greatly if the running game is working, and once again the scale tilts in favor of Notre Dame. The Irish offensive line is simply better than Tech’s, and Ball is unlikely to win the game by throwing over 30 passes. The running backs on both sides are talented and reliable. Darius Walker leads the Irish and Tashard Choice will tote the rock for the Yellow Jackets. Freshman speedster Munir Prince may see action for Notre Dame if the game situation allows.
A key for Notre Dame’s defense, of course, is whether its revamped linebacking crew can tackle. Tech appears to have an advantage in that area with KaMichael Hall and Phillip Wheeler, but Weis will challenge them to cover tight ends or wide receivers in space rather than run right at them.
Special teams are always a mystery heading into the opener, and Notre Dame fans hope that the game does not come down to a field goal try. It might be best if kicker Carl Gioia can ease into the season rather than face a long attempt late in regulation or in overtime. Georgia Tech counters with kicker Travis Bell, who struggled last season after a stellar freshman campaign.
The Irish punt returns will rest in Tom Zbikowski’s capable hands, but the kickoff return team will draw the most scrutiny. Last year’s group underachieved, and the coaches spent a lot of time this fall in an effort to effect improvement.
Neither team holds the upper hand in terms of preparation time in a season opener, nor is there a psychological advantage to be found. The respective coaching staffs will be challenged to adjust to numerous surprises and new wrinkles from the opponent, and Weis is second to no one in this regard. Both teams have proven capable of excellent performances in similar situations. Tech beat highly-regarded Auburn last season in its opening game, while Notre Dame became consummate road warriors under Weis last year. In summary, the teams match up as follows:
Quarterback: Notre Dame
Running Back: Even
Receivers: Notre Dame
Tight Ends: Even
ND OLine vs. GT DLine: Even
GT OLine vs. ND DLine: Notre Dame
Linebackers: Georgia Tech
Secondary: Notre Dame
Punting and Kicking: Even
Return teams: Even
Notre Dame should be able to stop the run and concentrate its defensive resources on slowing the Ball to Johnson connection. Notre Dame is more likely to force Tech into turnovers, and potential Irish weaknesses in the kicking game and at linebacker should not be decisive in this contest. While the Yellow Jackets will field one of the better defenses Notre Dame will face this season, they are not physically dominant and will be unable to hold off an Irish attack that will be even more versatile and potent than last season.
NOTRE DAME 35 GEORGIA TECH 20