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September 2, 2006

Notre Dame survives test at Georgia Tech


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ATLANTA -Notre Dame found itself in a defensive struggle, which didn't happen very often last season.

The Fighting Irish knew how to handle it.

Brady Quinn and hometown favorite Darius Walker each ran for a touchdown Saturday night as No. 2 Notre Dame, with its highest preseason ranking since 1994, rallied for a 14-10 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Fighting Irish fell behind 10-0 in the season opener and were on the verge of going scoreless in the opening half for the first time in nearly two years. But Quinn ran it in from the 5 on a gutsy call by coach Charlie Weis with just 11 seconds remaining.

Then, taking advantage of a personal foul against the Yellow Jackets, Walker raced to the corner for a 13-yard touchdown with 6 1/2 minutes to go in the third period. There was a smattering of cheers in the crowd for the former high school star from suburban Atlanta, who finished with 99 yards rushing and caught four passes.

The offense did a good job of holding onto the ball and the defense did the rest, limiting Georgia Tech to 259 yards and removing some of the sting from its last performance. The Fighting Irish gave up a school-record 617 yards in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

"I give the game to the defense," Walker said. "They did a great job for us."

Quinn, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting while breaking nearly every Notre Dame passing record last season, completed 23-of-38 for 246 yards and converted a fourth-and-1 sneak near midfield with 1:07 remaining that sealed the victory.

"We knew it would be a defensive fight in a hostile environment," Quinn said. "I think this game would have been a lot more wide open if I had done a better job."

Georgia Tech's star receiver, Calvin Johnson, came up with seven catches for 111 yards and his team's lone TD. But he did most of his damage in the first half, coming up with two catches for 16 yards over the final two quarters against a team that ranked 103rd nationally against the pass in 2005.

Notre Dame switched up its defensive schemes at halftime, putting two and three defenders on Johnson the rest of the way. It worked. No one else had more than 10 yards receiving.

"It's important for the other guys to step up," Johnson said.

Notre Dame scored the winning touchdown after a personal foul on Philip Wheeler kept the drive going.

On third-and-10 at the Georgia Tech 18, Quinn couldn't find anyone open, so he took off running. He was heading out of bounds well short of the first down when Wheeler came up and delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit while the quarterback was still in bounds.

Quinn went flying and so did the penalty flag that gave Notre Dame first-and-goal. Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey screamed at referee Dan Capron, who was nearly hit by a water bottle that came flying from the stands as he signaled the penalty.

"It was a clean hit," Georgia Tech cornerback Kenny Scott said. "But that comes with the territory. These were Big 10 officials and we're playing Notre Dame."

After a holding call backed Notre Dame up, Walker got the handoff on a draw, cut to the outside and outraced Scott to the corner. Just to make sure he got in, Walker stuck the ball over the line with his right arm as he dove at the pylon.

"It was great to play in front of my home crowd and meet some of my old friends," he said.

Georgia Tech had a chance after new Notre Dame kicker Carl Gioia missed his second field-goal attempt of the night. Quarterback Reggie Ball broke off a couple of runs that gave the Yellow Jackets first down at the Notre Dame 45.

But a low snap led to a 5-yard sack of Ball, and he was dumped again for a 14-yard loss by Maurice Crum Jr. Georgia Tech had to punt it away, and the Fighting Irish ran out the final 5 1/2 minutes.

Georgia Tech went ahead late in the first quarter, taking advantage of its most dominating weapon. Johnson lingered at the line to haul in a short pass from Ball, then burst through two defenders and rumbled all the way to the Notre Dame 4 for a 29-yard gain.

On the very next play, Ball took a couple of steps back and simply lofted the ball toward the 6-foot-5 Johnson in the corner of the end zone. He easily outleaped helpless 5-11 cornerback Mike Richardson for the touchdown.

Johnson went deep in the second quarter, running past Darrin Walls to haul in a 45-yard pass to the Notre Dame 12. The Yellow Jackets stalled there and settled for Travis Bell's 30-yard field goal.

At that point, Notre Dame's five possessions had produced four punts and Gioia's first miss from 42 yards. Hardly the sort of production that was expected from one of the country's most dynamic offenses.

But Quinn and the Fighting Irish finally got going, converting a couple of key third-down plays before they reached the Georgia Tech 5 and called their final timeout with 16 seconds remaining in the half.

Notre Dame lined up with two receivers to one side, three to the other and no one behind Quinn. It was all a ruse, designed to spread out the Georgia Tech defense.

Quinn took one step back, then burst up the middle and dove into the end zone. If he had come up short, it's doubtful the Fighting Irish would have been able to line up for another play.

"We really had to score on that play," Quinn said, "one way or another."

For more coverage of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, check out IrishIllustrated.com and for more coverage of the Geogia Tech Yellow Jackets, check out JacketsOnline.com.



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