(UHND.com) – In just over two days Notre Dame will open its most anticipated season in over a decade in Atlanta when they face off with Georgia Tech in prime time. While Ohio State is hosting Northern Illinois and Penn State is hosting Akron, the Irish open their season against on the road against the Yellow Jackets under the spot light of ABC’s College Football Saturday Night.
It’s been almost eight months since we last saw the Irish play a real game. We all remember how that game turned out so let’s keep the mention of the 617 yards the Irish defense surrendered to a minimum because Mark May has said it enough. We get it, the Irish defense last year surrendered way too many big plays and gave up too many yards. But the important thing here is that last year is just that … LAST year.
Notre Dame on Defense
The Irish defense we see on Saturday is going to be much different than the one we saw in January. Why? Speed and Depth. Across the board this is a faster, deeper defense that will turn some heads. At the linebacker position the addition of Travis Thomas adds a whole lot of speed when he and Maurice Crum are on the field together. In the secondary, safety Chinedum N’Dukwe shed 20+ pounds this off-season and figures to be just a bit quicker and faster.
When the Irish line up Saturday night, they will have a defensive line that has at least 8 guys capable of playing. Contrast that to opening night last year when the Irish had five and you can start to see the difference.
The depth the Irish have gained along the defensive line will be pivotal in stopping the Georgia Tech offense because for the Yellow Jackets to beat the Irish , Reggie Ball is going to have to have a ton of time in the pocket to find star wideout Calvin Johnson. Johnson is a massive receiver who is a matchup problem for anyone so it is unrealistic to expect the Irish secondary to shut him down. Rather what they will need to do is get pressure on Ball and make him throw early.
Ball is not an accurate passer. For his career he has completed just 49% of his passes and those numbers aren’t distorted by poor numbers early in his career. Ball has actually gotten less and less accurate every year starting at 51.7% as a freshman to 49.7% as a sophomore and then just 48% last year. This makes getting to him early and often key for the Irish defense. If they let Ball sit back and throw at will he will find open receivers, any quarterback will.
If the Irish defensive front can get pressure on Ball and force him out of the pocket where he has to throw on the run, he becomes less of a threat throwing the ball. Ball’s mobility however will possess a threat running the ball.
Getting pressure on Ball might be a little easier than originally thought. With the injury and experience problems facing the Tech offensive line, what was perceived as a strength could become a weakness. When healthy, Tech has a great starting line, but they have been dinged up this summer and that could play into Notre Dame’s hands.
Look for Georgia Tech to try to get the ball in Johnson’s hands early and often because after Johnson, they have no real established receivers. Sophomore James Johnson will start opposite Calvin Johnson but he has just 14 career catches. Other receivers to watch are Xavier McGuire (2 receptions 6 yards), Chris Dunlap (2 receptions, 22 yards), and red shirt freshman Martin Frierson – not exactly an experienced group.
Running back Tashard Choice is a solid back but isn’t really a game-breaker. If the Irish focus too much on stopping the passing game however, Choice is more than capable of hurting the Irish on the ground. With the Tech line banged up, the running game probably won’t be as big of a factor here, but look for Tech to use the running game to keep the Irish honest on defense.
Notre Dame on Offense
As Tyler point out in his preview, this game will really depend a lot on the lines. Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta loves to blitz and is one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. He’s good at disguising his blitzes and using a lot of different looks.
One thing his scheming won’t be able to make up for however is the lack of experience Tech has in its secondary. Tech has three new starters in a patch work secondary. Kenny Scott, the lone returning starter, is a lock down corner, but he can’t cover both Samardzija and McKnight by himself. Converted wide receiver Pat Clark will most likely be the other starting corner and will draw McKnight on man to man downs – advantage Notre Dame.
Working in Notre Dame’s favor his is Brady Quinn’s experience. Tenuta is a great defensive coach, but there’s not much that he can throw at Quinn that Quinn hasn’t seen the last three years as a starter. If he blitzes Quinn early, look for Quinn to adjust and go to the short passing game. Rhema McKnight can be flat out deadly in the short passing game for the Irish and Quinn has shown the ability to work the short passing game when blitz (see the BYU game in 2005).
If Tech blitzs early expect to see Darius Walker used in the screen game a lot. Walker is an excellent receiver out of the backfield which Chan Gailey noted in his pregame press conference and can be used to slow down the blitz.
For Tech to have a chance here they will have to get to Quinn with their front four. A lot of Tech fans think Tenuta will be able to disguise his blitzes and thoroughly confuse Quinn. I’m sorry, but that may be the case if Quinn were a sophomore starting the season on the road, but not a four year starter who’s played in plenty of big road games. That’s not to take anything away from Tenuta, but it’s going to take more than clever blitzes to rattle Quinn.
If however Tech starts getting pressure with their front four led by Darryl Richard, it will allow the rest of the Tech defense to help the young secondary. And that is what I keep coming back to – the secondary. Ohio State was effective in slowing Brady Quinn down because when they blitzed, they had All American talent in the secondary. When Tech Blitzes, Quinn is going to be throwing against three new starters and I just can’t see him Quinn having anything but success against them.
Irish on Special Teams
We all know the kicking game poses a lot of questions for the Irish. Its still not 100% on who is doing what but as of now Carl Gioa will kick field goals and Bobby Renkes will handle kickoffs which isn’t exactly a great situation for the Irish. Gioa has one career field goal attempt and Renekes didn’t exactly boom the ball when he handled kickoffs in 2004.
Tech has questions of its own at place kicker however after Travis Bell after connecting on just 11 of 21 field goal attempts last year. As a freshman Bell showed he’s got some talent, but he regressed last year leaving the Tech kicking a little shaky.
Notre Dame’s defense is going to be improved and I think we’ll get a glimpse of that Saturday. Calvin Johnson will get some catches and will end up with nice stats, but who else is Ball going to throw to? Offensively, Quinn could have a field day throwing against the young Georgia Tech secondary unless the Yellow Jackets find a way to get to him without leaving themselves vulnerable to the short passing game. Despite what some in the media are predicting, ND wins this one a lot easier than people think.
Notre Dame 34, Georgia Tech 13