SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It’s amazing how different Notre Dame’s one-possession wins were from Week 2 to Week 3.
Notre Dame needed a last-ditch heave from DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller to beat an unranked Virginia team Sept. 12 in Charlottesville, with a season-saving win the product of a miraculous touchdown. On Saturday, Notre Dame executed its gameplan to perfection — arguably to a level not seen since the Irish stomped Oklahoma in Norman three years ago — and wrecked Georgia Tech, 30-22, at Notre Dame Stadium.
That win, by a score that wasn't indicative of how well Notre Dame played, over the No. 14 Yellow Jackets was the product of months of studying the triple option to formulate an aggressive defensive scheme. It was due to an offensive plan that put first time starting quarterback DeShone Kizer in good positions to make plays. And Notre Dame had to put it all together and execute it without five injured players, which became six when safety Drue Tranquill suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the second quarter.
“It's a program win because it says that you can overcome injuries, you can overcome adversity and still beat a team that's beaten two SEC teams in the last few games, has had a great run here,” coach Brian Kelly said. “… All the experts picked Georgia Tech to win this game. Didn't faze our team at all.
[MORE: Notre Dame: DeShone Kizer proves his poise against Georgia Tech]
“So I think it's more about where the program is. You can sustain some injuries, some key injuries, and still play at a high level. I think that's what is for me most revealing.”
In topping Paul Johnson’s methodically powerful triple-option offense, Notre Dame earned its first statement win in years. Again, this game wasn’t close — Notre Dame’s defense lost focus near the end of the game and gave up 15 points to make it a one-possession game — and was dominated by the Irish for most of the afternoon. Georgia Tech averaged 4.7 yards per play and converted only three of its 15 third down attempts, a year after having an FBS-best third down conversion rate of 58 percent en route to beating Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Running back C.J. Prosise (22 carries, 198 yards, three touchdowns) almost out-rushed the entire Georgia Tech offense (47 carries, 216 yards, one touchdown) while Kizer completed 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards and responded well after a second quarter interception. Notre Dame’s offense averaged 7.4 yards per play and garnered huge touchdown plays from Fuller (a 46-yard catch in the first quarter) and Prosise (a 91-yard run in the fourth).
But this game was more about Notre Dame’s defensive success than anything else. After Navy’s triple option gouged VanGorder’s defense for 39 points last year, Notre Dame’s coaches re-evaluated their scheme against it. Bob Elliott was moved from an on-field coaching role to an analyst gig, with his primary task to figure out how to stop the antiquated-yet-effective offense ran by Georgia Tech and Navy on Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule.
[RELATED: Notre Dame not optimistic on Drue Tranquill’s knee]
VanGorder dialed up the pressure against Georgia Tech, as Notre Dame’s defense forced Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas into some difficult reads by moving the defensive front around and showing different looks. Johnson said his offense was rattled at times, especially early in the game — Georgia Tech went three-and-out on its first two possessions after not having a three-and-out in its first two games — and made plenty of mistakes.
“You gotta really tip your hat to coach VanGorder and coach Elliott for spending a lot of time on this,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “And the rest of the staff, they had a great plan and the guys believed in it.”
So after the game, the discussion was about Georgia Tech’s mental errors, not Notre Dame’s. That’s the product of Notre Dame exorcising its triple option demons.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans!]
Notre Dame played a complete game on Saturday against Georgia Tech. The Irish were underdogs and weren’t picked by many to win (including on CSNChicago.com). But instead of looking like a team with an inexperienced quarterback and leaky defense, Notre Dame showed itself to be worthy of remaining in the all-too-early top 10 of college football.
Its coaching success had plenty to do with that standing.
“I mean, we live for this stuff,” Kelly smiled. “For us, the plan and developing the plan and then the execution of the plan is really the fun part of it for us. I don't think it's fun when you don't see the execution part work as well. But seeing it come to fruition, seeing it come together, seeing your kids really play with confidence. That's what we asked them to do, to play with some confidence today. I think that was the fun part.”