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Defensive effort against odds offers promise for ailing Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt was the last Notre Dame player to emerge for interviews Saturday, still putting his polo on as he made the walk to a free seat to recline in. As he put his feet up on the chair in front of him, a cameraman made accidental contact with him.

“I made it the whole game unscathed,” joked Schmidt, who lost his season to an ankle injury the last time Notre Dame played an option team, last November against Navy.

For a guy who is usually the first to meet the media, and who loves to stand front and center before the microphones, it was time to let loose a bit.

Yes, this one was a little different.

With their backs against the wall Saturday, with five starters down for the season and another key contributor now added to that list as well, the Irish made a statement in their 30-22 victory over Georgia Tech that was louder than any “next-man-in” or “us-against-the-world” cries.

The defense had a resounding answer to an underwhelming performance at Virginia, with its coordinator displaying a deft touch in combating a triple-option offense that had long perplexed this unit.

“What I like about it is it's a program win because it says that you can overcome injuries, you can overcome adversity and still be a team that's beaten two (ACC) teams in the last few games, has had a great run here, top-15 team in the country,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “All the experts picked Georgia Tech to win this game. Didn't faze our team at all.”

Kelly used that “program win” line multiple times. He said he and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder live for chess-matches similar to the one they undertook this week against Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. He praised Bob Elliott’s offseason work in researching the option, and he touted his S.W.A.G. unit — Students With Attitude and Game — for its work on the scout team this week, particularly freshman preferred walk-on Robert Regan, whom Kelly made the decision to utilize as an option QB, which is what he was in high school.

“It was after last year and feeling like I wanted to have something year-round that we could keep operational,” Kelly said Sunday. “Working really through the winter, through spring ball, in the summer, and I wanted a unit that could continue, because option is going to be part of our future playing against option teams.”

Defensively, Drue Tranquill again played like an option specialist, building off his first career start last year against Navy by excelling in his first start of this season, tallying two stops behind the line of scrimmage and a pass break-up before his unfortunate celebration-induced ACL tear before halftime.

On the second play without Tranquill, his replacement, Matthias Farley, forced a momentum-turning fumble.

“You try not to think about the injuries this year; it’s obviously hard,” Schmidt said. “We don’t like losing anyone, and we’re so close as a team that you could tell at the end of the half we were hurting for Drue, and to be honest, we’re hurting for Drue right now. But once it’s over, it’s got to be over once the ball is rolling and we’ve got to move on.”

Schmidt talked about how the option presents a different kind of challenge, one that offers as much of a mental test as it does a physical one. With Elliott moved from his inside linebackers coach role to his special assistant post this offseason, the emphasis on stopping the Yellow Jackets — and Navy on Oct. 10 — was clear, with Elliott traveling to San Diego State in the winter to discover how the Aztecs had slowed down Navy. Still, Schmidt said, as late as Tuesday guys were “drinking through an absolute firehose,” and the adjustments, tweaks and suggestions between players and VanGorder were occurring up until kickoff.

If the buildup to this was not clear, the payoff certainly was. As his defense forced its ninth straight third-down stop late in the third quarter -- no small feat against a Tech team that entered with a nation-best 58.1 percent third-down conversation rate since the start of 2014 -- the fiery VanGorder nearly took out a side judge amid his burst of jubilation.

Outside the locker room about an hour later, VanGorder was in another element, all smiles as he posed with a crowd for pictures.

VanGorder and his defense can exhale. They passed their toughest test with flying colors, looking like the biggest reason the Irish just might be able to do something special in a season with so much conspiring against them.