“Black Watch” uniforms fail to stop Notre Dame

Notre Dame totaled 227 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in Saturday’s game, with running back Kyren Williams accounting for two of them. // Photo courtesy of ACC Media

Tech welcomed undefeated Notre Dame to Bobby Dodd Stadium this past weekend. Coming into the game, the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish were pegged as 20 point road favorites. Saturday’s game was a throwback of sorts for Tech, as the team brought the iconic “Black Watch” uniforms from the 1980s. This moniker was specifically applied to the defense that was one of the best in the country in 1984-85. The black and gold uniforms were a tribute to these teams, who wore similar uniforms in their heyday

The game kicked off at 3:30 p.m. with perfect weather in Atlanta. Tech won the toss and chose to defer until the second half, giving Brian Kelly’s squad the first possession of the game. Notre Dame’s first drive was emblematic of their attack strategy for the entire game; they methodically moved the ball downfield with a combination of runs and short passes, finishing off a drive of over eight minutes with an eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ian Book to wide receiver Joe Wilkins. Tech punted after a six-play drive, and the Irish immediately began to move down the field again, advancing all the way to the Jackets’ seven yard line early in the second quarter.

However, just when it seemed the game could get out of hand, junior safety Juanyeh Thomas came up with a huge play, forcing a fumble by Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams. The ball bounced right into the hands of sophomore Zamari Walton, who found nothing but green grass between himself and the end zone. This 93-yard touchdown was the longest fumble return in the history of Tech football, and it evened the score at seven.

This play electrified the Tech sideline, as well as the limited capacity crowd of 11,000 that attended the game. However, it also gave the ball right back to the Irish who responded quickly, retaking the lead in under four minutes on a two-yard touchdown run by Williams.

After the two teams traded punts, a failed fourth-down conversion attempt by the Jackets gave the Irish excellent field position on Tech’s side of the field, and they would capitalize with a field goal near the end of the half to give them a 17-7 lead heading into the locker room.

Tech had the ball to start the second half and picked up 15 yards on an unnecessary roughness penalty, and then the offense had their first highlight play of the afternoon, as quarterback Jeff Sims fired a 39-yard dart down the middle of the field to wideout Jalen Camp, putting the Jackets squarely in Notre Dame territory.

However, the momentum was killed on the very next play, as Sims was sacked and stripped, giving the ball right back to the Fighting Irish. This led to another rushing touchdown for Williams, this time from four yards out, and Notre Dame took a commanding 24-7 lead.

A couple drives later, Sims and company managed to move the ball all the way to Notre Dame’s 14-yard line late in the third quarter, but a pair of sacks forced the team to settle for a field goal, and freshman Jude Kelley’s 44-yard attempt was no good. Notre Dame would add another rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a three-yard run by C’Bo Flemister.

Although the game was essentially out of reach at this point, the Jackets continued to battle. Sims found running back Jahymr Gibbs out of the backfield for a 34-yard gain. The freshman quarterback scrambled for 13 yards, and junior Jordan Mason took a handoff 14 yards to the Notre Dame three yard line. Two plays later, Mason found the end zone from one yard out. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt was no good, but the threat of a shutout was ended.

Tech managed to successfully pull off an onside kick on the next series, but the ensuing drive stalled at Notre Dame’s 46-yard line. The Irish were on the verge of scoring again as the clock wound down, but the Jackets fought to the very end, stuffing Notre Dame at the goal line on the last play of the game. The final result was a 31-13 victory for the visitors.

This season continues to be a learning process for head coach Geoff Collins in his second year at the helm. Sims had three fumbles in the second half (though he only lost one) and limiting mistakes continues to be the main issue for him, but he has shown flashes of his potential as a dual threat quarterback, and the experience he is gaining now will prove invaluable in the future. He has also continued to build chemistry in the passing game with Gibbs, whose five catches led the team on Saturday.

Defensively, Notre Dame dominated time of possession and benefitted from a short field multiple times, but the Jackets showed heart in competing much more effectively than they did against Clemson two weeks ago, or even against Boston College last week. Though clearly overmatched against a powerhouse like Notre Dame, the competitiveness of the team is encouraging to see and will hopefully serve them well in more winnable matchups in the future.