Notre Dame Football: Defensive Grades vs. Georgia Tech


For the third straight week, Brian VanGorder’s Fighting Irish defense made me look foolish with my pregame predictions. In week 1’s game against Texas, I expected the Notre Dame defense to show some weaknesses, especially against the run. They completely shut down the Longhorns. Fresh off that dominant display, I predicted they would dominate a pretty poor Virginia offense, and instead they struggled mightily. For week 3, I assumed they would have various problems with the number one rushing offense in the country, Georgia Tech. I could not have been more wrong.

Brian VanGorder had his squad prepared and disciplined for the Yellow Jacket offense, stonewalling them for the majority of the game until they finally converted a couple of late touchdowns before the final whistle was blown for ND’s 30-22 victory. Georgia Tech came in averaging 562 yards per game, and the Irish held them to 337. In a complete team effort, the Notre Dame defense totaled 6 tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and 9 different players had at least four tackles.

It was an inspired performance by the Irish defense, and a statement that they can certainly pull their weight in helping Notre Dame in its journey to the College Football Playoff. Let’s dive into each position group and take a look at how well each unit of the defense performed.

Defensive Line: A

Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) and Isaac Rochell (90) against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Against a triple option offense like Georgia Tech’s, the defensive line’s main goal is to hold their gaps, stay at-home, and disrupt the QB so as to force him to make a decision on pitching the ball earlier than he’d like. The Notre Dame defensive linemen did all of those things, and were a huge reason that the linebackers were able to cleanly make tackles and bottle up Yellow Jacket runners.

Junior Isaac Rochell led the group with 5 tackles, while senior captain Sheldon Day added 4 (1 being a tackle-for-loss) and freshman Jerry Tillery (known to his teammates as “Terry Jillery,” as shown in the Showtime series A Season With Notre Dame Football) added 3 tackles of his own.

Linebackers: A-

The Notre Dame linebackers were exceptional for the vast majority of Saturday’s game, filling gaps and containing Yellow Jacket runners effectively. Senior captain Joe Schmidt led both teams with 10 tackles, flying to the ball and tackling well while making two tackles-for-loss, one of them being a sack of Tech QB Justin Thomas. Sophomore Greer Martini played more than usual due to his run-stopping ability, and that move paid off for VanGorder, as Martini finished with 8 tackles and was very physical at the point of attack.

Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Patrick Skov (7) is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) and linebacker Greer Martini (48) in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 30-22. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Junior linebacker James Onwualu played well, picking up 4 tackles (including one for a loss), and junior captain Jaylon Smith was his typical superstar self, recording 5 tackles and both forcing and recovering a Georgia Tech fumble, which he advanced 17 yards before being tripped up by a Georgia Tech player. Smith also flashed excellent athleticism and speed in coverage, breaking up two long passes where he ran stride-for-stride with a Yellow Jacket receiver (a feat impressive for any defender, let alone a linebacker).

Smith’s fellow linebackers, although great against the run all game, did struggle some against Thomas’ rare passing attempts. The final minutes of the game saw both Onwualu and Martini fail to stay with Georgia Tech running back Patrick Skov, who twice ran essentially the same crossing route to the sideline, unimpeded, on his way to a pair of touchdown receptions deep in Notre Dame territory.

Besides those lapses in coverage in what was mostly garbage time, the ND linebackers were fantastic all game and really could not have done more in shutting down the best rushing offense in the country.

Secondary: A

The Irish secondary looked a little different than normal, with sophomore Drue Tranquill starting, senior captain Matthias Farley seeing a great deal of time (especially once Tranquill tore his ACL), and typical-starter junior Max Redfield not seeing any action after struggling to play through an injury last week against Virginia.

Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Drue Tranquill (23) tackles Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Qua Searcy (1) for a loss in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The group played well despite the different lineup composition, with Tranquill (4 tackles) and senior safety Elijah Shumate (5 tackles) looking especially strong in run support. Tranquill was in on seemingly every play, flying to the ball and helping corral Yellow Jacket runners on the sidelines. He went down with an injury after celebrating a play he made in the 2nd half, but Farley filled in well in in his stead, notching 4 tackles of his own. Senior KeiVarae Russell and junior Cole Luke added a few tackles each on the day.

More from Notre Dame Men's Basketball

Overall: A

This was Brian VanGorder’s best effort as defensive coordinator in his Notre Dame tenure. Last year’s shutout of Michigan was impressive, but this Georgia Tech offense is much more talented and difficult to stop than Michigan was last season. The Notre Dame defense largely dominated the Tech triple option, and if it weren’t for a few miscues in garbage time and a recovered onside kick that brought the Yellow Jackets back into contention, we would be talking about how ND held an offense averaging 67 points per game to a measly 7 in the perfect example of how to stop the triple option. Hats off to the defense and VanGorder for acquitting themselves well after past issues with the option and after a poor showing against Virginia.

Next: Has Jamaal Charles Lost a Step?