After mistake-filled collapses in the previous two weeks, Georgia Tech gave a better account of itself Saturday. But, against the No. 4 team in the country and its unyielding defense, the Yellow Jackets were no match for Notre Dame.

Unable to generate a consistent offensive attack, Tech lost its third game in a row, a 31-13 defeat to the Fighting Irish on a clear afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Wearing black jerseys and gold pants in honor of Tech’s “Black Watch” defense, the Jackets (2-5, 2-4 ACC) were not undone by penalties and turnovers, as has often been the case in coach Geoff Collins' second season, but this time mostly by the might of Notre Dame’s defense and the playmaking of Irish quarterback Ian Book.

“I do think our guys battled,” Collins said. “There’s still a lot of things that we can continue to get better at, but as far as the competitiveness, the things that we harp on in this program, I think we showed that (Saturday).”

Tech did not score on offense until the fourth quarter and its ninth possession of the game, by which time Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0) had safely put the game away by pounding away at the Tech defense with one of the nation’s premier offensive lines and riddling the Jackets with third-down conversions. The Irish poked at the Jackets' glaring flaw, converting 10 of 15 third downs, helping them manufacture touchdown drives of 81, 75, 65 and 74 yards. The ACC’s leader in time of possession held the ball for 36:54.

In addition to completing 18 of 26 passes for 199 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, Book also scrambled away from pressure to extend plays or pick up yards on the run.

“We were getting them in second and long and we were getting them in third and long, and we’ve got to get off the field in those situations,” Collins said. “The same thing on offense, we’ve got to convert third downs. (Tech was 5-for-12 on third down.) I think that’s the story of the day, is just the third down.”

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Saturday’s loss was different than the train wrecks experienced against No. 1 Clemson and Boston College. Tech turned the ball over only once, after a combined six in the past two games and 18 for the season. Penalties weren’t as crippling. The defense did not sabotage itself by missing tackles or getting caught out of place.

“That was a big, key piece: Not having unforced errors,” Collins said.

In the end, it was a much better team asserting itself, limiting the Jackets to 238 yards of offense, 97 of it gained in the inconsequential fourth quarter.

“That’s a really good football team,” Collins said. “You walk out on the field, and you see the size and the speed and the strength that they’ve developed.”

A pivotal moment arrived early in the third quarter. Down 17-7, Tech opened the half with the ball and quarterback Jeff Sims led the Jackets to the Notre Dame 22-yard line on a 39-yard pass play to wide receiver Jalen Camp on a well-placed throw down the seam. It was Tech’s closest approach to Notre Dame’s goal line in the game to that point. But a false start pushed the Jackets back five yards and then on first-and-15, Sims was stripped in the pocket and the Irish recovered.

Notre Dame took over and went 65 yards for a touchdown in six plays, benefiting from a 14-yard Book scramble on a third-and-3 and then a 31-yard completion from Book to wide receiver Javon McKinley on the next play. The Irish went up 24-7 and had little reason to worry the rest of the afternoon.

Tech’s obstacles were many, starting with the team in white jerseys. Harbored in the ACC in this pandemic season, Notre Dame entered Saturday’s game ranked first in the conference in total defense (273.0 yards per game), scoring defense (9.8 points per game) and third in rushing offense (231.7 yards per game), among other indications of its might. Three opponents had been held to a touchdown or fewer.

The Jackets, meanwhile, ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense (fifth from the bottom nationally among teams that had played more than two games) at an ungainly 41.2 points, having given up 121 points in the most recent two games. Tech’s 18 turnovers were second most in the country.

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Tech's linebacker Quez Jackson (44) is fired up after a big play. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech's linebacker Quez Jackson (44) is fired up after a big play. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Tech's linebacker Quez Jackson (44) is fired up after a big play. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

With reason was Tech a 20 1/2-point underdog at kickoff.

The first half ended 17-7 in favor of the Irish. Notre Dame opened the game with a 15-play, 81-yard drive that took 8:38 off the clock, the longest scoring drive permitted by the Jackets this season both in number of plays and time. After Tech punted at the end of a six-play drive, Notre Dame was poised to go up 14-0 and take decisive control of the game, reaching the Jackets' 13-yard line.

However, safety Juanyeh Thomas stripped running back Kyren Williams and cornerback Zamari Walton scooped up the fumble at the 7-yard line and raced 93 yards down the east sideline for a touchdown, the longest fumble return in school history. Jude Kelley’s point-after try tied the score at 7-7, even though Notre Dame at the time had gained 131 yards to Tech’s six. Notre Dame had completed the previous 31 possessions without a turnover.

Thomas' strip created what Walton called a “country ball,” meaning nobody was around, just him and a Notre Dame offensive lineman.

“And I just kind of took off,” Walton said. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the quarterback kind of had a good angle, so I just had to speed it up a little bit and it was just a lot of daylight for me to score.”

But the Irish were unfazed, answering with a 75-yard touchdown drive to move ahead 14-7, with Book digging out of a second-and-15 by scrambling for 10 yards. They added a field goal with 1:49 left in the half, capping a drive that began at the Tech 49-yard line when the Jackets went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Notre Dame 45, but running back Jahmyr Gibbs was tackled in the backfield on a pitch to the short side of the field.

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