ATLANTA - Notre Dame spent the past couple of weeks prepping for the biggest game of the year.
Now, it's here.
Bring on Clemson!
Kyren Williams ran for two touchdowns, Ian Book passed for another and No. 4 Notre Dame turned in a dominant defensive performance, stifling Georgia Tech 31-13 on Saturday.
Next up for the Fighting Irish: a showdown against top-ranked Clemson in South Bend.
"This is an awesome opportunity," defensive end Daelin Hayes said. "We don't have to beat around the bush anymore. It's Clemson week, baby.!"
Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) won't have to face Trevor Lawrence, the star quarterback who will have to sit out the game after testing positive for COVID-19.
"I feel for him. I know this is probably killing him inside," Book said. "But he doesn't play defense. We've got to do what we do.."
Book completed 18 of 26 passes for 199 yards in another efficient performance. Williams shook off a fumble that Georgia Tech returned for a long touchdown, scoring on runs of 2 and 4 yards. He finished with 76 yards on 15 carries.
Notre Dame had nine tackles behind the line, five sacks and two forced fumbles.
Hayes was the standout, forcing both fumbles and coming up with his first two sacks of the season. Safety Kyle Hamilton contributed five tackles, two of them behind the line, and broke up a pass.
"If Daelin continues to play at that level with a Kyle Hamilton and the other pieces to this defense, then we're gonna get to where we want to be," coach Brian Kelly said. "That's when this defense really starts to become special."
There's nothing special about Georgia Tech (2-5, 2-4), which has lost three in a row by a combined score of 152-47.
"Yeah, their defense is pretty good," freshman quarterback Jeff Sims said. "But I feel like if we had executed the offense a little better, it would've been a different outcome."
Leading the ACC in time of possession and ranked in the top 10 nationally, Notre Dame lived up to its ball-hogging reputation on the very first possession. Book guided a 15-play, 81-yard drive that included four straight third-down conversions before an 8-yard touchdown pass to Joe Wilkins.
Georgia Tech's bright spot was provided by the defense. With Notre Dame seemingly driving for a two-touchdown lead to start the second quarter, Williams had the ball stripped away by Juanyeh Thomas just before the runner's knee hit the ground.
Zamari Walton scooped it up and scooted 93 yards down the sideline for the longest fumble return in school history.
But that was merely a brief stumble for the Fighting Irish, who responded quickly with a 75-yard drive capped by Williams' 2-yard score, led 17-7 at halftime and finished off the home team when C'Bo Flemister's scored on a 3-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter.
Kelly had no hesitation about sticking with Williams after his fumble.
"We trust him," the coach said. "It's hard sometimes to overcome a 93-yard return for a touchdown. But we were able to."
Kelly hasn't shied away from the Clemson game, bringing it up a couple of weeks ago to challenge his team after a lackluster win over Louisville.
"I wanted to play Clemson when we had upped our performance level," he said. "I'm not saying this was our best performance level today. But we did some good things in preparing to play the best team in the country."
Kelly has noticed a change in Hayes' attitude, which led to his big game against Georgia Tech.
"He's been really single-minded in his focus for the last month or so," the coach said. "He's always been a good player. He's done a lot of good things on and off the field. But he made a choice, a conscious decision, that he wants to be a great player."
Hayes was relieved to finally get his first sack of the season. And then another for good measure.
"Sometimes, it doesn't play out. Those plays don't come to you," he said. "Today, those plays came to me."
Notre Dame: After struggling to beat Louisville 12-7 at home, the Fighting Irish have looked much more like a Top 10 team the last couple of weeks in dominant wins over ACC weaklings Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. But even without Lawrence, Clemson will clearly provide a much stiffer challenge. Notre Dame needs a big game from Book and another stout defensive performance to have any chance of knocking off the five-time reigning ACC champions.
Georgia Tech: It was a dismal offensive performance for the Yellow Jackets, who didn't manage any offensive points until Jordan Mason scored a meaningless TD midway through the fourth quarter. The only other scoring opportunity ended with Sims getting sacked on third down and Jude Kelley missing badly on a 44-yard field goal attempt. The Jackets managed just 88 yards rushing on 33 carries, a 2.7-yard average.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have lost three straight to Clemson, including a 30-3 blowout in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game two seasons ago. Notre Dame's lone victory over the Tigers was a 21-17 triumph the first time the teams met in 1977.
Georgia Tech: Off next week before returning to the field Nov. 14 to host Pittsburgh. The Yellow Jackets must win their remaining four games to avoid a second straight losing season.