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It's Hard Labor for Notre Dame

Georgia Tech makes the No. 2 Irish work for an unexpectedly tough 14-10 win in opener.

September 03, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — If this was the start of a national championship season for Notre Dame, it was a stumbling one.

The Irish offense didn't snap, crackle or particularly pop and there even appeared to be -- at least in the first half -- a better early-season Heisman Trophy tout on the opposing offense.

Getting key plays when it counted, though, second-ranked Notre Dame outlasted riled-up Georgia Tech, 14-10, before a sellout crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

One game down, 11 more to go for the 1-0 Irish, with the likelihood some will be as workmanlike as this Labor Day weekend effort.

The problem with Notre Dame's vying for national championships is that every week feels like a title game, with opposing teams waiting years sometimes for the opportunity to stare down America's most loved and hated college football team.

"We understand being at Notre Dame, that's just the way it's going to be," said Fighting Irish tailback Darius Walker, who finished with 99 yards rushing and a touchdown.

Saturday night's pregame hype had a Jan. 2, not a Sept. 2, feel, what with confetti and balloons and even a fighter-jet flyover after the national anthem.

Home run champion Hank Aaron called the ticket office this week looking for two tickets (he got them).

You don't get that kind of buildup for Valdosta State at Georgia Tech.

Notre Dame, although it took its sweet-tea time, was able to overcome the background noise.

The Irish scored the go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter when Walker, who grew up near Atlanta, zipped around left end and beat corner Kenny Scott to the edge on a 12-yard scoring run.

It was a scuffle the rest of the way, with Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis finally reaching a point in the game where he could get a stranglehold on the clock.

Nursing a four-point lead, the Irish took possession with 5:29 left and never gave the ball up.

In the end it was Weis, in his usual take-charge way, who went for it on fourth-and-one at the Georgia Tech 47 with 1:10 left, knowing a first down would win the game because the Yellow Jackets had no more timeouts.

Brady Quinn plowed forward for the first down on a quarterback sneak and Notre Dame players began their run for the bus.

This wasn't the kind of game you bragged about afterward -- although the much-maligned Irish defense did pitch a second-half shutout and held star Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson to two second-half catches after a 95-yard, five catch first half.

Notre Dame's defense ranked 75th overall last year and ended the year by giving up 617 yards in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

"That's all I've heard this whole off-season," Weis said. "Six hundred and seventeen yards. If I hear that again, I'm going to vomit."

The Irish held Georgia Tech to 233 total yards, 71 in the second half.

"A lot of people were talking about our defense, that we had no chance to win with that," senior safety Tom Zbikowski said. "We heard the 'over-rated' chants and we wanted to shut that out as soon as possible."

Georgia Tech made the statement early, jumping out to a 10-0 first-half lead on a leaping four-yard touchdown grab by Johnson and a 30-yard Travis Bell field goal.

Notre Dame scored in important touchdown, with 11 seconds left in the half, on a five-yard Quinn run.

The Irish offense struggled early with timing and Georgia Tech's Johnson, not Quinn, looked like the Heisman Trophy favorite.

Quinn ended up with pretty good numbers, completing 23 of 38 passes for 246 yards, but he missed several open receivers and did not have a touchdown pass.

"I was just a little bit off tonight, obviously with the deep throws," Quinn said. "We're happy with a win, but in no way are we pleased with our performance, especially myself."

Quinn was good when he had to be -- especially on that touchdown run late in the second quarter and on the final drive when his sneak ended any upset thoughts.

Georgia Tech almost pulled it off.

"We're hurt, we're disappointed," Coach Chan Gailey said. "But I expect our guys to get ready to play next week."

Notre Dame?

This game was by no means a masterpiece.

You could call it only a beginning.

*

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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