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Irish Insider: Irish ‘D’ sends a clear message

Ken Fowler | Monday, September 4, 2006

ATLANTA – Maybe 73 will be the new 617.

Locked in a low-scoring affair, Notre Dame’s highly criticized defense held Georgia Tech’s explosive offense to zero points and just 73 total yards in the second half, carrying the Irish on a night when their top-10 offense from the year before just never found its rhythm.

“Our much-maligned defense that everybody’s telling me about, that’s all I’ve heard this off-season: 617 yards,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “If I hear that again, I’m going to vomit.”

After entering the field to hostile chants from the hostile crowd, the Notre Dame defense took it upon itself in the second half to earn the victory for the No. 2 team in the nation.

“We just wanted to show that we can win games with our defense,” Irish strong safety and defensive captain Tom Zbikowski said. “We wanted to come out and silence the ‘Overrated’ chants in the stands as soon as possible.”

Zbikowski led Notre Dame with six solo tackes and two assists for eight total.

“I thought the defensive staff and defensive players showed up tonight,” Weis said.

Irish running back Darius Walker who rushed for 99 yards on 22 carries, agreed.

“The defense really deserves the win,” he said.

Walker’s backup at running back, senior Travis Thomas, playing in his first game at linebacker, made four tackles – including two for losses.

“I wasn’t sure how fast the tempo would be on the defensive side of the ball,” Thomas said. “Tonight I think we held our own against two great players in Reggie Ball and Calvin Johnson.”

Thomas wasn’t the only newcomer to the defense. After senior cornerback Ambrose Wooden was shaken up early, true freshman Darrin Walls entered the game to cover All American Calvin Johnson on most plays.

“We know that Darin Walls has cover skills,” Weis said. “We knew that before we got him. The one thing he’s going to learn is, now he’s playing with big boys, not playing with a bunch of high school kids anymore.”

For the most part, Walls kept Johnson from breaking a big play. But midway through the second quarter, Johnson shielded the 5-foot-11 Walls on a lob pass from Ball and made the grab at Notre Dame’s 12-yard line for a 40-yard gain.

“Everyone sees the one play for 40 yards,” Weis said. “But that wasn’t the only play that was lined up against him…. You didn’t see the rest of the plays when [Walls and the other defenders] were there with [Johnson], too”

But when Wooden returned in the second half, the Irish defense only got better against Johnson. The unit held the junior to just two catches and 16 yards in the final 30 minutes.

“He basically was shut down, and on top of it, we gave up no points in the second half,” Weis said.

Without a solid passing game, Yellow Jackets quarterback Reggie Ball, who improvised on several second-down plays to cause problems for the Irish, ran eight times for 58 of Tech’s 73 yards in the half.

“There were a lot of things we did pick out in film study and a lot of things we hadn’t seen before,” Thomas said.

Weis was most happy with the mental strengths of the unit and Tech’s 20 percent conversion rate on third downs – including 0-for-4 in the second half.

“On defense, we had no penalties, okay?” Weis asked rhetorically. “You have two mental errors and no penalties in play with that type of emotion; get off the field on third down, that’s usually going to bode well for your defense.”