#TGW: Weather the Storm

Sept. 15, 2015

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Having weathered no storms yet and seeing just a few clouds, Georgia Tech’s football players are preparing for dramatic atmospheric changes — or at least that’s what Paul Johnson is telling the Yellow Jackets lies ahead.

Saturday’s game at No. 8 Notre Dame figures to be very different from Tech’s first two skirmishes. The No. 14 Jackets turned Bobby Dodd Stadium into an over-sized arcade in blitzing Alcorn State, 69-6, and routing Tulane, 65-10.

Generals Napolean and Custer fared better at Waterloo and Little Bighorn than the Braves and Green Wave.

Tech has scored 19 touchdowns, set a modern-day school record for points in consecutive games (134), scored touchdowns on all 12 red zone possessions, and is one of just four teams in the nation yet to turn in a single three-and-out offensive possession.

Johnson, though, is warning the Jackets: the past is just that – old news.

He’s less worried about the Irish than he is Jacket egos and the fact his players are not yet battle tested.

“You’re never as good or bad as it seems,” Johnson said. “There’s a middle ground in there, and it’s my job to point that out to our guys. Sometimes, when everybody is telling you you’re all this and the cat’s meow, that’s a trap and you better not fall into it.

“Look at the picture; the big eye in the sky don’t lie.”

Maybe you didn’t see it, but Johnson says there is evidence in video of the Jackets’ first two games that Tech is not all that.

Beyond fumbles lost by Marcus Marshall and Broderick Snoddy, two penalties against Tulane (after Tech went un-whistled against Alcorn State), a mere three total punts and a botched snap/missed extra point, there have been cracks less obvious other than to Johnson, his staff and the Jackets.

“Coach Johnson has definitely made it clear this team is good, and we have to have our best week of practice,” Marshall said.

The head coach is on the case, saying, “I don’t think we’re as good as people think we are. We’ll see. I think we’ve got the ability to get there, but we’ve got to improve, we’ve got to get better. I didn’t always like what I saw on Saturday.”

The Irish will probably have the most talented player on the field. Johnson said that junior Jaylon Smith is the best linebacker the Jackets have faced in few years, and he may be the top linebacker in the country. There’s a nice story about No. 9 in USA Today.

Smith plays with all the passion of Tech linebacker P.J. Davis, is huge (6-feet-2, 240 pounds), and fast enough to play wide receiver. He lines up and plays all over the field, rushes the passer like Jeremiah Attaochu, and covers more ground than Roger Federer in a five-set, four-hour tennis match.

The Irish have more who are somewhat like Mr. Smith.

Junior wide receiver Will Fuller, the latter half of an Irish pair of heroes who rescued Notre Dame from defeat last Saturday at Virginia, is not so big as to frighten (6-feet, 184), but he’s scary slippery with hands covered in glue.

He’s already caught 12 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns — in line with his sophomore season: 76 receptions, 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns – which tied a school record. Calvin Johnson has the Tech record with 15 in 2006.

Beyond ramped-up personnel, there is mystique to overcome in South Bend, Ind., where Tech is 2-11-1.

When last the Jackets played at Notre Dame, they trampled the Irish, 33-3, in 2007. Johnson also won the last time he was there, leading Navy to a 46-44 triple overtime win the same season.

That put to bed every Irish ghost.

Notre Dame had beaten Navy 43 straight times before that, a college football record winning streak for one team over another.

“You got a monkey off [Navy’s] back. We won, which was huge, and we celebrated and almost lost to North Texas (74-62) the next week,” said the owner of a 1-5 mark against the Irish. “Any time you have a streak like that it is good to win. But, honestly, it was just a game, a regular-season game.”

Johnson is sort of playing both sides of the fence here.

He is both warning his players to be steel for a more charged environment, yet also seeking to keep them – especially the younger ones– from hyperventilating ahead of a game at the home of the sport’s most notable franchise.

“They’ve got a lot of tradition, a lot of history, and they’ve had some really good teams, but it’s like going to play anybody else . . . you’ve got to be ready to play,” he said. “We never made a big deal about [going to Notre Dame]. It’s like going to Clemson to play, or somewhere else. You’ll be playing against good players.”

The 2007 Notre Dame team went on to finish 3-9.

This group is less than two years removed from the national championship game, and far deeper on both sides of the ball than former head coach Charlie Weis’ third squad. These Irish also have faced far more adversity than the Jackets.

They lost starting tailback Tarean Folston to a season-ending knee injury in a season-opening blowout of Texas, and starting quarterback Malik Zaire and starting tight end Durham Smythe to injuries last week.

Notre Dame has seen more than token competition, too, whipping Texas in the opener and winning at Virginia when redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer passed 39 yards to Fuller with 12 seconds left to win 34-27 in Charlottesville.

Justin Thomas believes he has a pretty good idea what is coming.

He played poorly in his first road start, last season at Tulane, and the Tech quarterback will not be surprised if the Jackets make some notable mistakes. But, he says, that’s OK. It’s all part of the game.

“You’re going to have some adversity, especially being young, and you just have to play through it. The last two games, we didn’t have much,” he said. “I think the games we played were exactly what we needed.

“They gave the guys confidence to get a lot of reps, even the backups, who we will need. They kind of know what to expect, and a real test will come this week.”

That seems certain.

Tech’s season will begin in earnest in South Bend, Ind.

The Jackets’ remaining schedule is currently ranked toughest in the nation by ESPN’s Power Index, and the first stop on their 10-game run to the finish line will be their last non-conference game before eight straight ACC contests.

Beyond the rankings, there will be bonus intrigue as the Irish prepare to face Tech’s unique spread option offense for the first time, at least the way the Johnson runs it.

The Irish see primary forms of this offense every season. Remember, they play Navy annually, and frequent opponents Army and Air Force typically run options attacks.

The Irish beat Navy last year. At 49-39, it was not comfortable, however, and the Midshipmen ran up 454 yards of total offense, rushing for 336.

After the game, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, “I challenge anyone to put these guys on their schedule. Anybody that thinks Navy is an easy to play . . . it’s very difficult.”

Johnson is the offensive patriarch, and as Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said last Saturday, Paul is particularly adept at tweaking blocking schemes and reads on the fly.

“Coach Johnson has the answers to that offense,” the Tulane coach said. “His adjustments . . . we’ll do one thing, and he’ll do something else. He’s magnificent at it. He has a great mind of it. He knows it hand and foot, he has good players to run it, and Thomas is something else [running the offense].

“You can see some of [the adjustment], but he’s so good at it and trying to adjust with these kids [is difficult]. He does a phenomenal job [making adjustments and calling plays].”

Johnson probably won’t let 13 players carry the ball at least once while rushing 56 times for 439 yards and passing for 132 more, as against the Green Wave.

Tech’s head coach seems no more concerned with his pending mental match, though, than he is about getting the Jackets’ minds right.

“Certainly, it’s a huge step up in competition,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’ll have 30 or 40 guys who haven’t traveled before so it will be interesting to see how they react. It’s as much about us as about who we play. We’ve got to be dialed in. It ought to be fun. You ought to embrace it.

“We’ve got to do what we do; we’re not going to change. The first time I saw the place, I thought, ‘Wow, this is Notre Dame.’ The people are friendly, they’ve got a lot of history, a lot of tradition, but you’ve still got to line up and play. You can’t get all caught up in all that. If you do, you won’t play very well.”

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