After beating Texas by 35 points in Week 1, Notre Dame was considered a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff and, by extension, the national championship. After losing five offensive starters to injury, including quarterback Malik Zaire, however, much of that chatter has quieted.
But forget about the national championship for a moment. Do the eighth-ranked Irish have what it takes to beat No. 14 Georgia Tech (2-0) this Saturday in South Bend?
“Well, their job got a whole lot harder with Malik Zaire going down,” CBS Sports college football analyst Aaron Taylor said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I was there in preseason camp. That was the one position and the one player I think on that entire team that they couldn’t afford to lose. But because they have – and so many others than you mentioned – it goes back to rule No. 1 in football, which is next man up. A team is only as strong as its weakest link. For the Notre Dame football team, I think DeShone Kizer getting some confidence with that great pass to William Fuller at the end of the Virginia game to get the victory is going to give him a ton of confidence to be able to go into this ball game.”
It also helps, at least a little, that Kizer’s first start will come at home.
“It is going to be in South Bend,” Taylor allowed, “but Georgia Tech is a fantastic team playing some great football. Probably the most talented team that Coach (Paul) Johnson has had, so the Irish are going to have their hands full. Remember: A year ago, they really struggled against a Navy team with a very good defense as well. They got some players hurt in that game and they really struggled down the stretch as a result. So this Georgia Tech offense is essentially that same Paul Johnson offense except with better players – so the Irish better buckle it up and come to play.”
To win, Notre Dame will have to play much better than it did last week, when it allowed 27 points and 416 yards to a Virginia team that isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut.
Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense isn’t exactly easy to defend, either.
“It’s hard for anybody to adjust, regardless of your personnel,” Taylor said. “It’s much more about being disciplined with your eyes than it is about overwhelming blocks. Yes, they’re going to cut. You got to stay off the ground. But more than anything, regardless of the defensive system you play in, there’s two things you have to do as a defensive football player: You have to get lined up right, and you have to have your assignment dialed in. Notre Dame struggled a little bit last week in the defensive backfield with some eyes that weren’t disciplined. We use that term a lot. You’ll hear ‘eye discipline.’ That’s basically getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar and peeking at players in different formations and things that don’t relate to you, and that’s when the breakdowns and problems can occur. It almost cost them in that Virginia game. If Notre Dame’s defensive backfield doesn’t play better eye discipline this weekend against Georgia Tech, it could be a two-touchdown game.
“What this offense forces you to do is be extremely disciplined,” Taylor continued. “You can’t take the guy and tackle the guy if you’re the pitch guy. You have to do your job and do your job only, and the way that they have consistently beaten teams who are arguably more talented than them is that they wait for them to make a mistake. They chip away, chip away, chip away and then they beat you over the top with some play-action passing, or they break a big run because somebody was out of position. So Notre Dame is as talented a defense and has as much speed as I’ve seen there in quite some time. That’s not going to be their problem. It’s going to be whether or not they’re going to be able to play assignment-sound football. If they do that, I think they’ll have a pretty good shot at beating the Yellow Jackets.”