5 things to know before Georgia Tech-Notre Dame

October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) pushes Notre Dame's cornerback Nick McCloud (4)as he runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) pushes Notre Dame's cornerback Nick McCloud (4)as he runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech’s attempt to improve its win total from each of coach Geoff Collins’ first two seasons has taken a drastic uptick in difficulty. After failing to win in each of their past four games, the Yellow Jackets will go for their fourth win of the season at No. 8 Notre Dame.

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The Fighting Irish, in pursuit of a spot in the College Football Playoff, were favored by between 16.5 to 18 points as of Thursday afternoon. Tech is given an 11.1% chance of winning by ESPN’s metrics.

Five things to know about Saturday’s game:

1. A formidable opponent

Notre Dame’s defense may be the best that Tech has faced this season (Clemson might argue), at least until the Jackets play Georgia a week from Saturday. The Irish rank 16th nationally in defensive points per drive (according to the website bcftoys.com) and have held their past two opponents (Navy and Virginia) without a touchdown.

Where some teams have difficult schemes to attack with good players, and others have great players but a more vulnerable scheme, Notre Dame has both great players and great scheme, Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said.

“They’re really good up front; their linebackers are stout,” he said. “They fill gaps; they play a lot of man coverage; they’re athletic; they’re fast on the back end. They’re a good team.”

Notre Dame’s offense isn’t exceptional, but has a running back with NFL potential in Kyren Williams. Tight end Michael Mayer, while only a sophomore, has been touted as a future first-round pick, including by Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker.

Not only does Mayer excel as a receiver, with a team-leading 52 catches for 577 yards, but he’s also “as physical a blocker as anyone in the country,” Thacker said.

Defending the tight end has been a trouble spot. In eight ACC games, opposing tight ends have caught 32 passes for 431 yards and three touchdowns against the Jackets. By comparison, Tech tight ends have caught 12 passes for 61 yards.

2. The series continues

Saturday’s game is part of the ACC’s agreement with Notre Dame, struck in 2012 and begun in 2014, for the Irish to play an average of five games annually against ACC teams.

Competitively, it has been an extremely profitable arrangement for the Irish. Notre Dame is 35-7 (.833) in regular-season games against ACC teams, including wins over Tech in 2015 and 2020. In that same time, the Irish are 39-18 (.684) in their remaining games. Starting with the 2017 season, Notre Dame is 27-1, including wins in the past 23 ACC games. Of those 23 wins, 17 have been by 10 points or more, including a 31-13 win over Tech in 2020 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

After Saturday’s matchup, Tech will have five more games as part of the agreement, which runs through 2037. The Jackets have home games against Notre Dame in 2024, 2032 and 2036 and will return to South Bend in 2027 and 2029. The 2024 game will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as part of Tech’s series at the downtown stadium.

3. Notre Dame history

The notion of Notre Dame’s football reputation being on par with the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys in American sports culture may be a little dated, if at least a couple of Tech players’ perceptions of the Fighting Irish are an accurate barometer.

Asked if he knew much about Notre Dame’s football history, defensive end Kyle Kennard responded, “No, not that much. I know they’ve won, but not as much as you’re probably about to tell me.”

Said running back Jahmyr Gibbs, “I didn’t know it was that historic until we got prepared this week, but it’s going to be fun.”

They can be excused. The Fighting Irish claim 11 national championships, but the last was in 1988, long before Tech players were born. The team has seven Heisman Trophies to its credit, tied for the most with Ohio State and Oklahoma, but the last was 1987. Gibbs and Kennard are both from Georgia, where they’ve likely heard far more about Alabama than Notre Dame. One Tech player, at least, was more aware of the significance of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Stadium.

“Man, I’ve been looking forward to this game,” center Mikey Minihan said “It’s a November game in South Bend – Georgia Tech, Notre Dame. It’s a classic matchup in a classic setting. It’s hard not to be romantic about it. It’ll just be a very cool setting, and I’m really excited.”

4. Looking for interceptions

Interceptions aren’t the only measure of an effective defensive back or secondary, but it’s undoubtedly better to have more than less. And in that regard, the Jackets defensive backs have fallen short, one more statement on the defense’s ineffectiveness in being in place to challenge passes.

The Tech secondary has one interception this season, safety Juanyeh Thomas’s game-sealing takeaway in the final minute against Duke. It places the backfield last among all power-conference teams. Tech has three total – tied for 122nd in FBS and tied for last among power-conference teams – with linebacker Charlie Thomas obtaining the other two against Kennesaw State.

The secondary’s challenge in staying with receivers and avoiding coverage breakdowns has been all the more confounding given the collective experience of the secondary (more than 150 career starts) and Collins’ expertise as a secondary coach.

Collins acknowledged the frustration of the players and said that coaches are looking at “every single thing we’re doing in our program” – he mentioned communication, scheme, execution and where players are positioned on the field – to solve the problem. A shortage of pass-rush pressure – Tech is tied for 105th in sacks per game with 1.6, and the Jackets recorded half of their 16 sacks in one game – has been a part of the problem.

“We’ll continue to do that and keep trying to find ways to play really, really well on the back end,” Collins said.

5. Banged-up Jackets

Health may not be on Tech’s side. Left guard Paula Vaipulu was unable to finish Saturday’s game against Boston College, and his status is uncertain. Quarterback Jeff Sims is also a question mark, having missed Saturday’s game with his right foot in a protective walking boot.

“It’s football,” Minihan said. “People get hurt, people get banged up and at the end of the season, if you’re at 100%, you’re probably not playing right. Everyone’s dealing with their own things and we’re all just trying to get into a place where we can execute as a unit and play a good game.”

That, among many factors, makes Saturday’s game a tall order for the Jackets. A loss would be Tech’s fifth consecutive going into Tech’s regular-season finale against No. 1 Georgia. Tech has not lost five consecutive since 2015. If the Jackets end the season with six consecutive losses, it will be the longest since the ill-fated 1994 season.

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