This may be underselling it a trifle, but Notre Dame's 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback DeShone Kizer to wide receiver Will Fuller in the first quarter was a flawed play in multiple respects. Tech’s four-man pass rush (the Fighting Irish protected with seven) was unable to affect Kizer. Cornerback Chris Milton gave about a 10-yard cushion on the 3rd-and-20 play and was still unable to stay with Fuller.
With Notre Dame using its “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), the Jackets were in their base nickel defense with two linebackers, Tyler Marcordes and P.J. Davis. Notre Dame’s three wide receivers all ran “go” routes down the field. Had tight end Tyler Luatua or running back C.J. Prosise released into a pass route, Marcordes or Davis could have picked either up, but both stayed in pass protection. With no underneath routes, it rendered the two basically defending against a scramble on a 3rd-and-20.
Safety Jamal Golden, who lined up on the hashmark at the Tech 35 on Fuller and Smith’s east (and wide) side of the field, was about 11 yards from the line of scrimmage. On that side of the field, Fuller was lined up wide and receiver Torii Hunter Jr. was in the slot. Nickel back Lawrence Austin lined up across from off Hunter and ran with him before passing him off in zone coverage to Golden.
Said coach Paul Johnson, “There’s no way you can double cover him unless you turn somebody loose.”
Had Golden chose to help Milton with Fuller, that would have left Hunter open down the seam, with Austin having passed him off to Golden. Lastly, with time to throw, Kizer threw the ball on target, hitting Fuller at about the 6.
“There’s nothing I can say I did amazing about it,” Kizer said. “I tried to execute and put the ball out there for him and he came up with it.”
Milton isn’t the first cornerback to be beaten deep by Fuller, and he almost certainly won’t be the last. The Notre Dame offensive line might be the best that Tech faces this season; that it handled a four-man rush with a back and tight end staying in is not a great surprise.
I’m not sure how I’ve made it sound like Notre Dame had the advantage on a 3rd-and-20. Nonetheless, it was a good call by Notre Dame, with two of its biggest strengths (the line and Fuller) pressing their advantages. Regardless, giving up a 46-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-20 was a crushing start. If Tech fans want to further claw their eyes out, they can note that Notre Dame had missed its past 11 third downs – 10 against Virginia and the first against the Jackets Saturday.
Did schedule prepare Tech?
It’s impossible to know if Tech playing Alcorn State and Tulane inadequately prepared the Jackets for Notre Dame. Certainly, they hadn’t seen the caliber of athlete that they did Saturday in the first two weeks. Further, the nature of the games never put coaches or players in stressful situations.
That said, No. 15 Ole Miss beat No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa Saturday night after whipping up on Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State by a combined 149-24.
It probably didn’t help that neither Tulane nor Alcorn State are at the top of their class (non-power conference team or FCS team). A better AAC team might have sharpened up Tech more than did Tulane. That said, the arrangement was made years in advance, and there’s no way of knowing how strong or weak Tulane was going to be down the road. Plus, Tulane was scheduled in part because it's a series with history.
“We’ve got a lot of really young guys, especially the skill guys offensively,” Johnson said. “The first two weeks, we played teams that were outmatched. We jumped on them. Those guys would fly around and have some fun. (Saturday), their eyes got real big, especially from the start. They struggled a little bit with going the wrong way, falling down, man coverage, just kind of running and stopping, all those things that young guys do sometimes. But it wasn’t just the young guys. Our old guys didn’t play very well, either.”
One example – either Ole Miss or Tech – doesn’t make the rule. Had Tech won, perhaps players might have observed how fresh they felt because of the lighter load in the first two weeks. Regardless, Tech wasn’t ready to play Notre Dame.
"Anytime young guys go into this kind of environment, it can be eye opening, and being a freshman once myself I know how that feels," cornerback D.J. White said. "Those guys, they're going to be O.K. They got a good taste for it, what college football is like, today and they’re going to learn from that."
As noted in a post last night, multiple Tech players left the game with injuries Saturday – wide receiver Micheal Summers, center Freddie Burden, A-backs Broderick Snoddy and Qua Searcy and defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong.
Johnson did not have an update after the game. Tech has had fairly good health – backup quarterback Tim Byerly’s knee injury excepted – particularly compared with many other teams. Notre Dame may have lost a sixth starter Saturday when safety Drue Tranquill tore his ACL celebrating a pass breakup in the end zone. (A cruel turn for Tranquill, who tore his other ACL last season.)
Regardless, losing any of the five for any amount of time would be significant. If that proves the case, you could make the case that playing Alcorn State and Tulane and winning handily helped prepare Tech for the situation by giving playing time to so many players.
On the topic, Byerly was on the field without crutches with what appeared to be a sleeve on his right knee.
Prosise’s 91-yard touchdown run is believed to be the longest running play in the history of Notre Dame Stadium, which is saying something. The stadium was built in 1930. I’d venture to say hundreds of running plays have been called inside either Notre Dame or the visitor’s 10-yard line, but none are believed to have reached the end zone until Saturday.
If you want to play the alternate history game, had Tech managed to stop Notre Dame on that drive, the Jackets' second touchdown in their late fourth-quarter rally would have made the score 23-21 with the possibility to tie the game at 23 with 22 seconds to play. Would Notre Dame have played with a little more focus had it been protecting a 23-7 (and then 23-14) lead instead of 30-7? Possibly, maybe probably.
But, let’s say Notre Dame went 3-and-out on the series that Prosise scored the 91-yarder (remember, it was 2nd-and-15 on that play). The Jackets would have gotten the ball back potentially inside Notre Dame territory with perhaps 5:30 to play, needing two touchdowns.
It would have been unlikely, particularly given the way the Jackets were playing offensively, and, again, Notre Dame probably lost some focus. But a comeback would have been more likely than from down 30-7. It’s obviously moot, though. It was a dagger play.
You may remember Wofford running back Ray Smith ran 92 yards for a touchdown last year against Tech, the longest opponent run on record at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field.
I’m not sure what this indicates beyond two plays that, depending on your perspective, were well executed, poorly defended or both, inside the opponent 10-yard line. Still, not great. Tech is now the only team to give up two rushing plays of 90 yards or more since the start of last season.
What went well?
B-back Patrick Skov ran hard, gaining 66 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown. He also scored two receiving touchdowns in the fourth-quarter rally. However, he also fumbled and had an assignment error on a 3rd-down run play.
Snoddy showed off his jets on his 48-yard run on a triple-option play in the second quarter, leading to Tech’s first score of the game. A-back Clinton Lynch and right tackle Errin Joe provided alley-clearing downfield blocking on the play.
Punter Ryan Rodwell handled his work after two shaky punts early. The punt team netted 39.4 yards on seven punts. (The seven punts tied Tech’s high for punts under Johnson, the last coming in the 2012 game against Virginia Tech.)
The Tech defense held Notre Dame to 4-for-11 on third down, 36 percent. (This is less impressive when considering that, as noted above, the Irish were 0-for-10 against Virginia last Saturday.) But the Jackets defense had played at least even with Notre Dame in the second half until Prosise hit his home run. To that point, Notre Dame was averaging a very average 5.5 yards per play in the second half.
The Jackets forced two turnovers, including White’s strong individual effort to come down with Kizer’s errant jump ball in the second quarter, which was turned into Tech’s first touchdown of the game.
Linebacker Tyler Marcordes tied his career high with seven tackles, had a tackle for loss and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Adam Gotsis.
Lynch made a nice hustle play off Thomas’ lost fumble, chasing down linebacker Jaylon Smith at the Tech 18-yard line after he had scooped up the ball and had no one between him and the goal line. It was the sort of play that could have stood out had Tech come back, as the Jackets held Notre Dame to a field goal.
Despite having lost multiple starters off the offense to injury, the Jackets fought to the end, putting together the back-to-back touchdown drives inside the final seven minutes of the game.
He had the two missed field-goal tries in the first half, but Harrison Butker executed a textbook onside kick on his first attempt, with the ball taking a high hop. A.J. Gray recovered. (The second wasn't as good.)
Linebacker P.J. Davis led the team with eight tackles and was credited with two quarterback hurries.
Notre Dame defensive execution
Irish coach Brian Kelly said that the game plan was more aggressive than anything he had seen done against Tech. Also part of the plan was getting the ball out of Thomas’ hands. Kelly called him a “game wrecker."
Tech again had trouble blocking linebackers, which made Notre Dame’s plan work. The option is effective when it can create a numbers advantage somewhere, and it seemed to rarely do that Saturday.
Said quarterback Justin Thomas, "There just wasn't a lot of running room, whoever had the ball. It's just something you have to go back and watch and correct it."
Linebackers Jaylon Smith, Greer Martini and Joe Schmidt had a combined 23 tackles.
“When we look at the tape, I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot we would want to do differently,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to play. You’ve got to outside release and block the linebacker and cut off the backside and play. We were our own worst enemy.”
Quotes to note
Skov: “They did some quality stuff, but at the end of the day, we didn’t execute. We didn’t do our job. I personally didn’t do enough. I can’t speak for the other 10 guys on the field, but would assume that they would say the same.”
Defensive tackle Adam Gotsis: “We’ve just got to do a better job getting off blocks as a defensive front and affecting the running path and not letting the back just come straight downhill and get a running start at our linebackers.”
Marcordes on the jump in competition: “Coach Johnson told us that before the game. The competition’s going to jump up, it’s going to ramp up, playing Notre Dame. They’re a great team and we came out here flat and didn’t get it done.”
Milton: “They’re a good team. We knew they were going to be good. I guess it’s kind of humbling, you know, because people are hyping you and things like that, so now, you kind of go back and see exactly how good you are.”
White, on College Football Playoff goals: “It’s still early. A lot can happen. We can’t focus on that right now. We’ve got to focus on Duke and focus on getting a win against them.”
On the Notre Dame side
Smith is a really good player. He was on top of the option all afternoon, showing very good lateral speed and tackling ability.
“No. 9 is a tremendous player,” Johnson said, referring to Smith.
Same goes for Fuller. After his touchdown pass in the first quarter, he made two excellent plays in the second, first taking a quick out from Kizer, breaking a tackle and then running through the center of the Tech defense (vacated by blitzes by both Marcordes and Davis) to gain 27 yards to the Tech 5. That was the drive bailed out by D.J. White’s interception in the end zone.
On the next series, he converted a 3rd-and-9 with an over-the-head, falling-backwards catch on the west sideline for a 36-yard reception. He had 112 receiving yards on four catches in the first half.
All that said, the sky isn’t falling. The Jackets let go of an opportunity to make an impression on poll voters, the playoff selection committee, recruits and perhaps the casual fan in the Atlanta market, not to mention give themselves and Tech fans a win they would surely cherish.
They didn’t. But it’s still the third week. There’s a lot left to be written about the Jackets, and they’ll determine what that is. I don’t know that this loss means the Jackets are doomed to 7-5 or whatever fate the most despondent of Tech fans are pondering. Mainly, I think it means that Tech played an opponent with a talent advantage and was probably more ready and outfoxed the Jackets a little bit.
The challenge is answering appropriately and getting ready for Duke.