Irish defense steps up, corrals Georgia Tech’s option attack
Mary Green | Monday, September 21, 2015
They came into Saturday’s game with a hunger and a feeling that no one believed in them but themselves.
Despite almost letting Virginia pull off an upset the week before, Notre Dame’s defense was still confident in itself, even if nobody else was, as it held back Georgia Tech for a 30-22 victory.
“We gain [our confidence] from each other,” junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We’re gonna play for you, we’re gonna play for you.’
“And then obviously, they kind of tried us when they said we’re the underdogs. I think that’s really disrespectful. … The culmination of all that kind of gave us that attitude and that locked-in-ness that we needed.”
The Irish defense was locked in from kickoff, forcing Georgia Tech (2-1) into a three-and-out on its first drive, the first time the Yellow Jackets had done so all season, and then again on Georgia Tech’s next drive. Notre Dame (3-0) also held the Yellow Jackets to just seven points until the final minute of the game, a small number for a team that had put up 69 and 65 points in its first two victories.
Sophomore safety Drue Tranquill helped set the focus on the first drive, knocking back redshirt freshman A-back Qua Searcy four yards with a hard hit on third down to force the first of seven Yellow Jackets punts throughout the day. Georgia Tech was able to convert on just three of its 15 third downs Saturday.
Tranquill earned his first start of the season, as did freshman Jerry Tillery on the defensive line and sophomore Greer Martini at strongside linebacker, as the Irish retooled their schemes to protect against Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense.
“We watched a lot of different stuff, and I think seeing those different teams play different ways, I think that gave us a good look at how other people played them and had success quickly in some cases and in other cases, kind of learning what works and what didn’t,” graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley said.
Tranquill recorded four tackles and an end-zone pass breakup at the end of the second quarter, when he jumped up while celebrating the breakup and came down grabbing his right knee in pain. The sophomore headed to the locker room right after and came back with his knee wrapped and on crutches — an injury which head coach Brian Kelly confirmed Sunday was an ACL tear.
With Tranquill sidelined, Farley moved into his former role at safety and two plays into the third quarter, forced a fumble by redshirt junior quarterback Justin Thomas that was recovered by junior linebacker Jaylon Smith to help set up an Irish field goal.
The Irish held Thomas to 27 rushing yards and 121 passing yards on eight completions of 24 attempts. Farley said defending the versatile quarterback, the key cog in Georgia Tech’s triple option, was a focal point of their preparation.
“You have to keep the ball out of his hands,” Farley said. “He’s a valuable, dynamic football player, and it all comes back to guys just doing their jobs.”
As a whole, the defense held the nation’s best rushing offense to 216 yards on 47 carries, an average of 4.6 yards per rush. In their previous two games, the Yellow Jackets averaged 457.5 yards on the ground.
The defensive line in particular played strong against Georgia Tech’s sizable offensive line to help stop the run, a point Kelly was quick to emphasis.
“We won that. We won that,” he said of the battle between the two lines. “So we were able to get our backers over the top. We were able to do some things to string it out a little bit and buy some time to get through those A-back blocks which are so crucial. Jerry and Isaac, in particular, played very well inside.”
Rochell accounted for one of Notre Dame’s seven quarterback hurries on the day, while his linemate, senior Sheldon Day, added two more and one of six Irish tackles for loss, totaling 26 yards in the red for Georgia Tech.
Though preventing the triple-option offense from moving down the field presented an extra challenge for Notre Dame, Kelly said he and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder welcomed it.
“For us, the plan and developing the plan and then the execution of the plan is really the fun part of it for us,” he said. “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 today.”