Notre Dame (9-1) plays its final home game of the season on Saturday as the Fighting Irish host the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets (3-7). The program will honor its outgoing seniors and their families during the pregame ceremonies. Among those to be recognized are Jayson and Justin Ademilola, Bo Bauer, Braden Lenzy, Jarrett Patterson, Jonathan Doerer and Joe Wilkins. NBC will provide national television coverage of the game beginning at 2:30 PM Eastern time.
Georgia Tech has lost its last four games, all against ACC opponents. Head Coach Geoff Collins is in his third season and is turning over a roster that was geared to run an option attack favored by his predecessor, Paul Johnson. Collins is transitioning to a pro-style offense and has been recruiting players that fit his concepts. Although this year’s roster is still quite young and has only 13 seniors, the natives are getting restless. The Jackets are 9-23 in the Collins era with Notre Dame and top-ranked Georgia remaining on the 2021 schedule.
As we’ve seen recently at other programs in the college football world, a head coach does not often have much time to deliver results. Collins originally signed a seven-year contract and still has the support of his boss, Athletic Director Todd Stansbury. Fans have recently been less patient though. Empty seats were plentiful in last week’s home loss to Boston College, and boos rained down on the team during a fourth quarter collapse.
Tech had pinned its hopes for a reversal of fortune on quarterback Jeff Sims, who started last season as a true freshman and appeared to have a bright future. Sims has struggled this year and the coaches have not hesitated to replace him with backup Jordan Yates. In fact, Yates got the start last week against Boston College after Sims faltered the previous week against Miami. The coaches attempted to downplay any controversy regarding this move by claiming Sims was suffering from an unspecified lower leg injury.
Meanwhile, the eighth-ranked Irish are singularly focused on winning their final two games. As of today they appear to have very slim hopes of qualifying for the four-team playoff, but several teams above them have more difficult paths to navigate.
The more immediate concern for Notre Dame is the health of its players. Injuries and the flu have hit the team in recent weeks, causing several upperclassmen and four captains to miss time. Among them are Kyle Hamilton, who will be out for the rest of the regular season at minimum, and Avery Davis, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. Last week, the defense lost Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to the flu. Both should return to action this week.
Georgia Tech lists injured offensive lineman Kenny Cooper as questionable for Saturday. The status and availability of Sims has not been clarified as yet.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. GEORGIA TECH’S DEFENSE
The Jackets deploy four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs in their base alignment. Linebackers Quez Jackson and Ayinde Eley are very good athletes who lead the team in tackles. Charlie Thomas is a hybrid linebacker/safety who rotates into the mix when Collins elects to go with a 4-3 set. Thomas is versatile and productive. These three make up the strongest unit on the Tech defense.
The front four has not been very productive in terms of pressuring the quarterback, with one notable exception. They have only 16 sacks this season but eight of them came against North Carolina. The defense may be getting a boost this week from end Keion White, a highly regarded transfer from Old Dominion. White has been eased back into action this month after recovering from a preseason injury. Freshman Jared Ivey showed promise in this role and will get plenty of snaps.
Overall, Tech’s run defense is average by comparison to other Division 1 teams. The larger problem is stopping the pass. Safety Juanyeh Thomas and cornerback Tre Swilling are the best players along the back end but have been unable to slow down opponents. The Jackets have only three interceptions this season (the Irish have 14) and have surrendered a disturbing 14.5 yards per completion. They rank 117th out of 130 teams in total pass defense.
Notre Dame should have success through the air and be willing to take a few deep shots down the field. This is another opportunity for freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie to gain experience. Quarterback Tyler Buchner will hopefully be utilized more than in last week’s romp over Virginia. He won’t get better by sitting on the bench in blowout victories.
It may be too late in the season to alter the Heisman narrative that is controlled by ESPN, but Kyren Williams should be given every opportunity to exceed 100 yards rushing on Saturday. It’s a shame that Williams hasn’t been given more respect this season by the national media but he clearly deserves to be a finalist.
GEORGIA TECH’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Unlike the Virginia offense without Brennan Armstrong, Tech will not be significantly impaired if Yates starts at quarterback over Sims. Although Sims is a better runner and can deliver big plays with his arm and legs, he has come under fire for poor decision making and drive-killing mistakes. Yates has been the steadier of the two.
Notwithstanding the issues at quarterback, the Jackets have scored 28 points per game. Tailback Jahmyr Gibbs is the main weapon in this offense and one of the best players in the ACC. He has scored on several 50+ yard plays this season. These include runs, pass receptions and a kickoff return. Gibbs leads the team in rushing and receiving. It may fall to Notre Dame’s Jack Kiser to cover him out of the backfield. This matchup will be a key factor in the overall outcome. Jordan Mason, who like Gibbs averages more than five yards per carry, is the backup tailback.
Georgia Tech does not have a superstar at wide receiver but their three starters are more than adequate. Kyric McGowan, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, is the best of a group that includes juniors Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders. Tight end Dylan Leonard has caught only seven passes this season.
The offensive line is a patchwork that includes two grad transfers and a pair of freshmen. They have done quite well in terms of run blocking, where the Jackets have rushed for an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. They have yielded 24 sacks, which is not an unusually high number. Both Sims and Yates are mobile and often extend plays when they are threatened in the pocket.
Talent is not a problem here. Georgia Tech can move the ball quite well but they don’t make winning plays when it matters most. This is evidenced by a poor 37% success rate on third down as well as a 50% touchdown rate in the red zone. When you lose as many close games as Tech has this year, one look at these stats to gain a measure of understanding. As to whether the root cause lies in player execution or subpar coaching, I’ll leave that to others to decide.
Tech kicker Brent Cimaglia has converted 11 of 15 field goals. All four misses were from greater than 40 yards. His longest successful kick is just 37 yards and one attempt was blocked. Punter David Shanahan boasts a 42.5 yard average.
With Gibbs returning kickoffs, the Yellowjackets prefer to turn him loose rather than settle for a touchback. He rewarded his mates with a 96-yard touchdown last week. Backup receiver Azende Rey is the main punt returner who has a 35-yarder to his credit.
Notre Dame remains conservative with regard to the return game. It appears the coaches would rather fair catch the ball rather than risk a penalty on a return that would yield poor field position. Meanwhile, specialists Doerer and punter Jay Bramblett continue to enjoy strong seasons.
Georgia Tech has the raw ability to cause discomfort for the Irish in this game. Their track record suggests it is unlikely but not impossible for them to put things together well enough to pull off an upset. Their romp against North Carolina underscores the point. Notre Dame must be productive on offense because the Yellowjackets can conjure up big plays and score from anywhere on the field. Tech’s defense is still shaky, however, and the Irish skill players will enjoy favorable matchups all day long.
Notre Dame has struggled at times on Senior Day. The higher level of distractions during the week and on game day can cause a team to be less than fully prepared for a motivated opponent. With the Irish and Georgia remaining on Tech’s schedule, Collins will pull out all the stops to motivate his troops to salvage their season (and quite possibly his own job).
Here’s a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will Notre Dame’s freshmen continue to make winning plays when called upon?
Can Gibbs extend his streak of long scoring plays in each game?
Which defensive line will do the best job of pressuring the quarterback?
Will the Irish finally get off to a fast start on offense?
Will Tech continue to struggle on third down and in the red zone?
Which tailback (Williams or Gibbs) will have a better afternoon?
Will we see Rudy play a few snaps late in the fourth quarter?
The Yellowjackets have several talented pieces but they are a young team that has not yet found a recipe for winning. Sims gives them a better chance of winning if he plays well, but no one except Collins knows whether he will start. Notre Dame’s offense has been inconsistent for most of the season, so it would be nice to see them finally score on their first possession and keep their foot on the accelerator. Unfortunately, the Irish rank 113th in first quarter scoring despite starting every game with the ball. At this stage of the season, the young Irish players can no longer be used as an excuse. If the team wants to be considered for the playoffs, it’s time to dominate rather than slog past an inferior opponent. Can such a dream come true on Saturday? I wouldn’t bet on it.
NOTRE DAME 34 GEORGIA TECH 20