ATLANTA (AP) — With one of the biggest games of the year looming, it's hard not to look ahead.
No. 4 Notre Dame can't afford a slip-up.
The Fighting Irish (5-0, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) must get by Georgia Tech — a 20-point underdog — on Saturday before turning their full attention to a Nov. 7 showdown against top-ranked Clemson.
“We know how good we can be on this team and we need to play that way regardless of who we are playing," safety Isaiah Pryor said. “We shouldn’t play down to the level of our opponents."
Coach Brian Kelly has preached to his players that they must use these sort of games to address their weaknesses before facing a team of Clemson's caliber. They heeded the message last week, routing Pittsburgh 45-3.
“That was implicit in that conversation without having to say, ’Hey, guys, in a couple of weeks, we have to play Clemson — wink, wink, wink,'" Kelly said.
Clemson has won five straight ACC titles in a dominating run that also includes two national championships. Notre Dame would love nothing more than to upend that streak in what is expected to be its lone season as a full-fledged conference member.
Quarterback Ian Book acknowledged that Clemson “has been circled on the list for a while and is an extremely important game. The guys are excited for it. That’s why you come to Notre Dame – to play in huge games like that.”
But first up, it's Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets (2-4, 2-3) are in the midst of a massive rebuilding job under second-year coach Geoff Collins and simply hoping to be competitive as they face a top-five school for the second time in three weeks.
The first such game was total humiliation
Clemson routed the Yellow Jackets 73-7 — the most points allowed by the Atlanta school since 1894.
“There's always things that motivate you one way or another," Georgia Tech offensive lineman Ryan Johnson said. “But we've got to focus on this week. We've got to move on. You want to learn from the past, but focus on the present to prepare for the future."
Collins insisted the future is bright for Georgia Tech, even though he's won just five of his first 18 games since taking over from Paul Johnson.
“A lot of people just look at results," he said. “They don't want to look at the steps in the journey. Every single day, we're building something that's very, very special."
Some other things to watch for when Georgia Tech hosts Notre Dame:
TIME IS ON THEIR SIDE
Notre Dame held the ball for 40:59 in its victory over Pittsburgh, the largest time of possession edge for an ACC team this season.
The Irish ran out the last 7:52 with a 14-play, 32-yard drive, mimicking a 14-play, 57-yard possession that finished off the remaining 7:55 of a 12-7 victory over Louisville the previous week.
Notre Dame is averaging 34:11 in time of possession, which leads the ACC and ranks seventh nationally. It could be more of the same against Georgia Tech, which last week surrendered 264 yards rushing to Boston College — a team that had not gained more than 90 yards in a game until it faced the Yellow Jackets.
HOLD ON TO THE BALL
Georgia Tech must avoid turnovers to have any chance against the Fighting Irish.
The Yellow Jackets already have 18 turnovers — just two less than their total in 2019. They had three in the 48-27 loss to Boston College, all of which led to touchdowns that essentially accounted for the final margin.
Freshman quarterback Jeff Sims fumbled a snap and threw an interception deep in his own territory, while a fumble by running back Jordan Mason was returned for a TD.
Junior linebacker Bo Bauer, who had the first of Notre Dame’s three interceptions against Pittsburgh, likes the direction of the defense under coordinator Clark Lea.
Bauer has been splitting time with senior starter Drew White as Lea and his assistants have built depth by using as many as 30 players on the defensive side.
“We’re adapting with new people in different roles,” Bauer said. “We’ve had a lot of new players this year. It’s been fun to see a lot of new people, young people, step up and do a good job.”
LEARNING ON THE JOB
Sims has shown plenty of promise in his first season as Georgia Tech's quarterback, but he's still got so much to learn.
The Yellow Jackets are prepared to give him the time.
Even though the freshman has already tossed 10 interceptions — and was replaced in the third quarter against Boston College by former starter James Graham — Georgia Tech has no plans to make a change.
“There is no question that Jeff Sims is our starting quarterback," offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “He will be our starting quarterback on Saturday."
At the other end of the experience scale is Book, who's 25-3 as Notre Dame's starting QB. The grad student is coming off the seventh 300-yard passing game of his career, which moved him into a tie for third on the school's career list with current offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Tommy Rees.
Only Brady Quinn (11) and Jimmy Clausen (10) have more 300-yard passing games for the Fighting Irish.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP freelance writer John Fineran in South Bend, Indiana contributed to this report.
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