SOUTH BEND – Michael Mayer spoke to the media in a postgame press conference this afternoon for the first time since doing so after Notre Dame's loss to Cincinnati in October.
As he walked down from the podium after his remarks, Mayer quipped:
"I tried to be in a better mood than I was after Cincinnati."
There's plenty of reason for Mayer and the No. 6 Irish to be happier than they were following that loss to the Bearcats. For starters, that defeat seemed to doom Notre Dame's hopes of a third College Football Playoff appearance. As of this afternoon, those hopes are alive and well. Then, too, the Irish are just a completely different team than they were when they lost to the Bearcats, a far better team, one capable of utterly dismantling a Power Five opponent as Notre Dame did in today's 55-0 win over Georgia Tech.
It seemed unlikely Notre Dame would get to this point – 10-1 and a plausible shot at the playoff with a humming offense and a havoc-wreaking defense – but the Irish are here now and they seem likely to make some noise in the final weeks of the season.
"It's an improving team that continues to do the little things the right way," said coach Brian Kelly, who led his team to a 41st consecutive victory in games against unranked opponents. "The quarterback (Jack Coan) is effective and efficient ... we have one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country (Mayer), an effective running game and a defense that hasn't given up a touchdown in three games.
"When you're looking for teams with that kind of résumé, of staying power, of control of the game – that's really what you're looking at, we've been in control of games."
Kelly's use of the words "résumé" and "style points" in his postgame press conference were likely not accidents. He knows the Irish could well end up among a cadre of one-loss teams – of course, they still need to beat Stanford next week – in contention for the Playoff when the dust settles in two weeks. Though he didn't mention the Playoff by name, he is beginning to make his case for his team. Expect some more direct campaigning if the Irish thump Stanford next week, as well.
There was some talk after Notre Dame ran away and hid in a 28-3 win over Virginia a week ago that the Irish should not have taken their foot off the pedal as they did in the third quarter. Saturday's performance was an example of what this late-season version of Notre Dame is capable of when it punches the gas for three full quarters.
The first half was the most dominant 28 minutes of football the Irish have played in Kelly's entire tenure. That's 28 minutes rather than 30 because there was a moment, on Notre Dame's opening possession, when Georgia Tech sacked Coan twice in three plays and it looked as though the Yellow Jackets might cause some problems for the Irish offensive line. Instead, Notre Dame kicked a field goal, got a pick-six from Jack Kiser on Georgia Tech's first offensive possession and then made what Kelly called a few small corrections to get the offensive moving.
And move it did. The next five Notre Dame possessions after the field goal ended in touchdowns, including two each for running backs Kyren Williams and Logan Diggs. The Georgia Tech defense continued to try to put pressure on Coan, but he was able to get the ball out to his checkdowns, move outside the pocket and generally manage the chaos the Yellow Jackets were trying to create. When Georgia Tech busted in coverage and sent three defenders after tight end George Takacs and let Mayer run free up the seam, Coan found the sophomore for a 52-yard touchdown. The Irish quarterback finished the first half 15 for 18 for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He would have had yet another long completion in the second half to Braden Lenzy if the officials had not let a pretty blatant pass interference penalty go on a perfect deep ball down the sideline.
"He just has such an emotional mastery to him," Mayer said of Coan. "He can make a mistake and it doesn't phase the man at all. I think that's probably one of the greatest things about Jack. ... He's getting the ball where the ball needs to be."
It should also be noted that Notre Dame's offensive creativity has improved significantly as the season has gone on. Earlier in the year, when the Irish offensive line was struggling on seemingly every other snap, I was calling for screens, misdirection or really anything that might cause the defense to think twice about sending blitzers up the field. Once Notre Dame saw that Georgia Tech was coming after Coan, that's exactly what the Irish pulled out of their bag. They ran end-arounds to Lenzy and Kevin Austin Jr. for first downs and called a beautifully-designed screen to Diggs that resulted in a 20-yard touchdown to make it 38-0. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees deserves credit for coming up with ways to maximize Coan's skillset.
Maybe the most impressive part of Notre Dame's improvement this season is that hasn't been confined to one side of the ball: the defense has also improved, to the point an Irish team that gave up a plethora of big plays against Toledo in September has now not given up a touchdown in any of the last three games, a feat Notre Dame last accomplished in 2012. There is an asterisk attached to that accomplishment because Notre Dame's opponents in that stretch include two backup quarterbacks and a service academy, but it remains impressive and an example of the destructiveness of a Marcus Freeman defense at full strength.
Notre Dame's strategy on defense against the Yellow Jackets was to make backup quarterback Jordan Yates' life miserable and the Irish did exactly that with six sacks, countless QB hits and a pair of defensive touchdowns that resulted directly from putting pressure on Yates. The defensive line looked like a well-oiled machine, using a wide variety of stunts to confuse the (usually) serviceable Yellow Jacket offensive line.
Kelly also acknowledged what many assumed about the unit at the start of the season: the issues were less structural and more the result of growing pains as the players adjusted to Freeman's scheme.
"They're feeling much more comfortable (with the system)," Kelly said. "And the tackling at the end of the day is so much better."
The Irish are so much better overall than they were earlier in the season. With one game remaining, they've put themselves where they want to be: in contention. And they did it with plenty of style.