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A Ramblin’ Wreck

Greg Arbogast | Monday, September 3, 2007

The post-Brady Quinn era at Notre Dame began Saturday with a failed spread option experiment against a stout Georgia Tech defense. Three quarterbacks saw the field in a 33-3 defeat – the worst opening-game loss at home in school history.

“Obviously you have to give credit to Georgia Tech because they are a good football team,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “But the flipside of that is that when the team is not ready to go, OK, which we obviously weren’t, OK. Who else are you going to blame but yourself? I’m the head coach. It’s my responsibility.”

After weeks of suspense, the curtain was finally lifted to reveal Demetrius Jones as the Notre Dame starting quarterback, but Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice stole the show, running for two touchdowns and a career-high 196 yards.

“We knew we could win the game,” Choice said. “But we wanted to come out and make a statement, and I think we did that.”

For most of the first half, Weis played the dual-threat Jones over Evan Sharpley and Jimmy Clausen, who are both more traditional pocket-style passers. Weis also altered his offensive scheme from the pro-style passing attack Notre Dame ran under Brady Quinn the past two seasons.

Weis, known for his complex passing offenses and a tendency to abandon the ground game when struggling, used the run almost exclusively in the first half, choosing to keep the ball on the ground in 19 of Notre Dame’s first 24 plays. The majority of those runs came out of the shotgun spread formation – an offense suited to take advantage of Jones’ running ability.

“I knew they have a very sound defensive scheme, and they have very good players,” Weis said. “Especially with our experience level, we thought that the best way to go against them was to run the football. And we felt that Demetrius as an additional runner could provide us some plays where we would be able to move the ball.”

Despite their persistence in running the ball, the Irish achieved little success in the first half, gaining 53 yards in 26 attempts. Weis, however, was determined to establish a running game, and Jones threw only three passes in the first half.

“What we are trying to do is we felt we could keep the game relatively close and play in a more intermediate type of game,” Weis said. “We figured they were going to be getting after us pretty good and one of the ways we felt we could try and slow down and neutralize them is try to run the football and try not to have negative plays.”

While the Irish struggled greatly to run the football, Georgia Tech had few problems. The Yellow Jackets ran Choice early and often, entering the Notre Dame red zone on their first four possessions, but the Irish defense limited the damage to only nine points.

The game turned late in the first half after a personal foul penalty on Notre Dame defensive lineman Justin Brown. The Irish had stopped the Yellow Jackets on third down, but Brown’s penalty extended the drive. Choice then took a direct snap, found the edge of the Irish defense, and scampered 22 yards down the sideline for the first touchdown of the game that put the Yellow Jackets up 16-0.

Choice would add a seven-yard score early in the fourth quarter.

“Our veteran offensive line did a great job of opening holes for me,” Choice said. “The receivers had a couple of key down-field blocks as well. They made my job easy. By the second half, everything seemed to be wide open.”

Choice’s performance also eased the burden of first year Yellow Jacket starting quarterback Taylor Bennett. Playing in his first true road game, Bennett completed 11 of 23 passes for 121 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, and he drew mixed reviews from Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey.

“He did some really good things, and he missed some throws that I’ve seen him make 50 times in practice,” Gailey said. “The great thing is he didn’t have to play great today.”

While Bennett had his struggles, they were nothing compared to the trouble Notre Dame’s three quarterbacks faced against the blitz-happy Yellow Jacket defense. Defensive coordinator John Tenuda sent constant pressure after the Irish signal callers, resulting in nine Georgia Tech sacks.

“They’re a really aggressive defense,” said Notre Dame center John Sullivan. “When a really aggressive defense that blitzes a lot, moves a lot, executes well, it can be a long day for an offense.”

The majority of the Yellow Jackets’ sacks came after junior Evan Sharpley entered the game with just over two minutes left in the first half. Running Weis’ more traditional offense, Sharpley completed 10-of-13 passes for 90 yards, but Georgia Tech’s seven sacks on Sharpley prevented the Irish from mounting any sort of comeback. Sharpley did lead Notre Dame’s one scoring drive, taking the Irish as far as the Georgia Tech two-yard line before settling for a 22-yard Brandon Whitaker field goal.

Highly-touted freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen did enter the game with just under nine minutes to play, drawing cheers from fans despite the 33-3 scoreboard. Clausen went on to complete 4-of-6 passes for 34 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Weis said he did not know which quarterback would start next week at Penn State.

“I think I’m going to need 48 hours,” Weis said. “We’re going to watch the tape tomorrow and critically evaluate where the problems are and go about fixing them so that when we go to Happy Valley, we are not having this same conversation next Saturday night.”