This week, Georgia Tech coach Johnson wasn’t much in a mood to wax eloquent about the 2007 Navy win over Notre Dame. It ended a 43-game losing streak to the Irish, which was an NCAA record for most consecutive wins by one major college football team over another.
“To me, honestly, it was just like any other game,” he said. “The last one we were there (in 2007), we won, which was huge, and we celebrated, and then almost lost to North Texas the next week.”
Navy won 74-62 over North Texas, setting an NCAA record for most combined in an FBS game.
One of his former assistants, Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon, was a little more willing to jump in the time machine. He recalled how Notre Dame Stadium had an aura about it and how, everywhere he turned, someone was offering a warm welcome to Notre Dame.
“That night we beat ’em, shoot, I remember to this day walking on the field, looking up at the scoreboard after the game,” he said. “That was probably one of the neatest things I was a part of.”
Navy won in triple overtime, scoring on a 25-yard touchdown pass to open the third overtime and then scoring on the required two-point conversion try. Notre Dame answered with a touchdown but fell short on the two-point try.
“When that (Notre Dame) game came up, they took it to another level that game,” Bohannon said of the Midshipmen. “Wherever it was played, it didn’t matter whether we played Notre Dame up there, they took it to another level. We got into the game, it was close and our kids fed on that and the belief grew as the game went on. But, shoot, what a heck of a game.”
The 2007 season was, you may also remember, the last time Tech played Notre Dame, a 33-3 win over the Irish in the season opener. Notre Dame finished the season 3-9, the worst in school history.
It began Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis’ downfall. He was fired after the 2009 season and replaced by Brian Kelly. The most decisive Tech win over Notre Dame in series’ 34-game history (there are six wins to choose from) proved perhaps not quite the trophy as originally thought. That season ended, of course, with the firing of coach Chan Gailey and Johnson’s hire.
The end of the season also marked a transition for two more names familiar to Tech at Notre Dame. Former Tech head coach Bill Lewis left the Notre Dame coaching staff to become the director for the athletic department’s community relations staff. With the opening, Weis hired Jon Tenuta, who had served as defensive coordinator for Gailey, undoubtedly making an impression with the nine-sack beating the Jackets put on Weis’ Irish offense.
The calendar year for Tech would end in Boise, with Tenuta serving as the Jackets’ interim head coach at the Humanitarian Bowl in a 40-28 loss to Fresno State, with Johnson observing the proceedings from the press box.
Another Notre Dame opponent that year? Duke, which lost 28-7 in what turned out to be the second-to-last game in the tenure of coach Ted Roof.
“It was a good experience, except for the game,” Roof said this week of his trip to Notre Dame Stadium. “The game wasn’t very good, so that certainly put a cloud over the experience.”
For good measure, Duke and Roof also lost to Johnson’s Navy team by a 46-43 score, nearly identical to Navy’s winning score over Notre Dame (46-44).
Butker waiting for first field goal
If Georgia Tech fans are looking for a reason to be nervous about Saturday, how about this – kicker Harrison Butker hasn’t attempted a field goal in a game this season. It’s conceivable that the game could come down to his leg as he lines up for his first field-goal attempt since last November.
This is interesting: The last field goal he took, you probably remember.
Tech didn’t try any field goals in the ACC championship, Orange Bowl or the first two games of the season. That’s got to be some sort of weird record or a “first time since the Mayflower landed” kind of result.
At any rate, Butker said that he tries to compensate by treating each extra point as he would a game-winning field-goal try. He admitted that point-after tries can be taken without much concentration, but that now, “I’m trying to treat it like a pressure situation and (try) to hit the ball perfect down the middle.”
Butker is 18-for-18 on his point-after tries – the one miss was on a failed snap and he never actually kicked the ball – and I have noticed that he’s been pretty centered on those.
He also does visualization exercises, which he has found effective. And he seems to have the right mindset.
“You kind of force pressure on yourself,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a game. You’ve got to treat it like there’s no fans, we’re in practice. I’m just trying to kick the ball straight.”
Keeping tabs on Fuller
I don’t know if I’d call Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller an X-factor, but he could undoubtedly have a huge imprint on the game. Fuller has burst out of the games with 12 catches in the Irish’s first two games, averaging 22.2 yards per catch with four touchdowns. Roof referred to him as a “jet” who “runs by everybody he plays on tape.”
“It’ll be a big game for everybody to stop their passing attack,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to pressure and you’ve got to cover. Certainly, the safeties are going to have to give the guys some help over the top when we’re in those kinds of coverages.”
Fuller typically stays to the wide side of the field, meaning a big challenge for cornerback Chris Milton, who is Tech’s field corner.
One aspect of the matchup between Notre Dame’s offense and the Tech defense will be how much can the Jackets get away with rushing four and creating pressure in order to provide as much support to defending Fuller and receiver Chris Brown. The Notre Dame offensive line will likely be one of the best that the Jackets will face this season. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is being touted as a first-round pick.
Interestingly, though, when Johnson spoke about the Irish passing attack in the quote above, the last thing he said in his answer was, “Our big thing is, we’ve got to stop the run.”
Offensive line coach Mike Sewak said he wants to use backup guard Trey Klock and backup tackle Will Bryan, both freshmen, against Notre Dame. Both got into the game fairly early against Tulane and improved in their play from the Alcorn State game.
“They have to go in there, because they’re going to have to perform down the stretch because we’re going to get some players nicked and dinged up a little bit, so they’ve got to be able to handle these situations,” Sewak said.
Safety A.J. Gray is another freshman who could see time subbing in at free safety for Demond Smith. Roof praised his production (tied for team lead with eight tackles) and his work in practice.
“At the same time, he’s not where he wants to be,” Roof said. “He’s working to get better. As a coach, that’s all you can ask.”
Speaking of Gray, he came up in an answer Johnson gave at his news conference about his habit of recruiting high school quarterbacks, which Gray was at Washington County High. Gray was not like many other high-school quarterbacks, who come to Tech because they want a chance to play quarterback but often will switch out sooner or later. (Demond Smith was one such player, actually.) Gray was recruited strictly as a free safety, though Johnson said he liked to joke with Gray about stealing him from the defense.
“Now, could he be a quarterback?” Johnson asked. “He’d probably be a pretty good one. But I think he’s going to end up being a pretty good free safety, too.”
AD from ND
He isn’t treating it as such, but the game is something of a homecoming for Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski. He played baseball for Notre Dame, graduated magna cum laude with a business administration in 1979 and later got his start in college athletics administration there in the ticket office.
Bobinski said his history has “come up a fair amount” this week, namely, will he feel any ambivalence about the game? As you might expect, he said he’s 100 percent supportive of Tech.
As a pitcher, Bobinski was by his own admission not an ace. He said he had arm trouble that he brought with him from high school and it never went away.
“I was never able to throw between starts because my arm was shot until the next week,” he said. “I don’t think I ever got any better. That was nobody’s fault but me and my arm.”
As a senior, in 1979, he pitched in five games, all starts, and was 2-1 with a 4.44 ERA and one complete game. His WHIP was a rather unhealthy 1.75. Notre Dame’s sports information department was unable to provide his WARP or BABIP.
As might be expected, Bobinski was a football diehard during his college days, and recalled that there was no matter of if you were going to a game. As he put it, it’s just what you did as a student.
“The last couple of weeks, we’ve had tremendous student turnout that sort of reminds me a lot of the Notre Dame situation,” he said.
One last thing. Bobinski was at the “Rudy” game as a freshman in 1975. As for whether he was chanting “Rudy!” at game’s end, Bobinski said that “I’m pretty certain I wasn’t doing that.”
Trio of burners
How much Tech’s A-backs get involved in the game may be determined by what Notre Dame chooses to focus on. Tulane was set on stopping the dive and keeping the ball out of quarterback Justin Thomas’ hands, hence a productive afternoon for Qua Searcy, Clinton Lynch and TaQuon Marshall, among others.
“I think they’re going to continue to grow,” Johnson said. “I think they’re very athletic. That’s why you can see them hitting some big plays. Now, again, hardly any of them have played, so you’d hope they don’t get big-eyed on the big stage, and they just play, but I think they will. I think they’re pretty confident in their abilities and comfortable with what we’re asking them to do, but you never know till you see it.”
Johnson mentioned that the three freshmen – Lynch, Marshall and Searcy – have an ongoing dialogue about which is the fastest. Junior Isiah Willis has heard it and said that they’re all scared to toe the line.
“’Snoop’ probably still holds the crown, though,” Willis said, referring to Broderick Snoddy, the school 60-meter dash record holder.
As it turns out, Tech guard Shamire Devine isn’t a popular topic of conversation only among those of us who cover Tech. The Notre Dame media are onto him as well. In an interview with Irish defensive tackle Sheldon Day, he was asked if he had ever played against someone Devine’s size (listed at 6-foot-7, 366 pounds).
Said Day, “I haven’t, but they say small guys pack a punch, so I’m ready for it.”
Day is listed at a petite 6-2, 285.
Starring role for freshmen
Should Notre Dame defeat Tech with redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer at quarterback in his starting debut, he still won’t top the manner in which Tech beat and tied Notre Dame in 1976 and 1980 with unheralded freshman quarterbacks at the helm.
In 1976, Gary Lanier led the Jackets to a 23-14 win at Grant Field despite not throwing a single pass in the game. Lanier operated Tech’s wishbone offense that scored two second-half touchdowns to overcome a 14-10 deficit. Tech finished that season, coach Pepper Rodgers’ third at Tech, 4-6-1.
In 1980, coach Bill Curry’s first season, Ken Whisenhunt was an emergency backup quarterback as a walk-on freshman who found his way into the game against No. 1 Notre Dame, also at Grant Field. Playing with almost inexplicable poise, Whisenhunt took the Jackets down the field for their only scoring drive of the game, producing a field goal that was enough for a 3-3 tie with the Irish.
That Tech team completed the season 1-9-1. Notre Dame went to the Sugar Bowl, losing to Georgia to clinch the Bulldogs’ national championship.
Lanier now works as a development director for the Alexander-Tharpe Fund. Whisenhunt is the coach of the Tennessee Titans.
By the numbers
A few different ways of comparing Georgia Tech and Notre Dame:
- Record starting with 2010 season (Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s first)
- Number of five-star players on roster (per Rivals)
- Number of four-star players on roster
- Average recruiting ranking, per Rivals. (For Tech 2011-15, for Notre Dame 2012-2015. Notre Dame has no players on roster from 2011 class.)
- Football expenses in 2013-14, according to U.S. Department of Education data
- Football revenues in 2013-14.
- Draft picks since 2011 NFL draft.
- Rank in U.S. News & World Report