- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- If you like football as chess match, if you like seeing two of the smartest coaches in the game feint, thrust and jab at each other like a couple of Olympic fencers, you will love watching No. 2 Notre Dame play at Georgia Tech on Saturday (ABC, 8 ET).
Calling the plays on one side of the line of scrimmage will be Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis, admired as an offensive mind for years with the New England Patriots. Weis proved during last year's revival of the long-dormant Irish that he can control the rhythm of a college game with the same cleverness and élan he used in the NFL.
Calling the plays on the other side of the line will be Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who has scaled over the wall of anonymity that conceals most assistant coaches. Five times in the last two seasons, an unranked Georgia Tech team has upset a ranked team, allowing an average of 15 points per game in the victories. Eleven times in the last two seasons, the Yellow Jackets have held an opponent to fewer than 275 total yards.
They have accomplished this by ratcheting up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, forcing them to respond more quickly than they are prepared to do. "In my whole career, I've always believed in being aggressive and attacking," Tenuta said. "It has always worked."
Saturday's game has penetrated the sporting psyche of a city that rarely made Georgia Tech a priority in the last four decades. The ESPN College GameDay set is up. Home run king Hank Aaron, who still lives in Atlanta, called the athletic department midweek, looking for tickets (he will be a guest in the box of athletic director Dan Radakovich).
The Hammer and the rest of a sellout crowd of 55,000 at Bobby Dodd Stadium will watch as the Yellow Jackets attempt to slow down an offense expected to be among the best in the nation. Seven starters, led by preseason All-Americans Brady Quinn at quarterback and Jeff Samardzija at wide receiver, return from a team that averaged 36.7 points and 477.3 yards per game.
"He picks and chooses what he thinks his advantages are, and he does a really good job of creating advantages for his people," Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey said of Weis. "That's what made them good last year."
Tenuta has the same philosophy as Weis, if only from the other side of the mirror.
"Make them try to beat you with the hard stuff, not the easy stuff," Tenuta said. "You have got to make them adjust to what you want to do, and then take that away from them. You've got to be able to disguise, make it appear you're doing this when really you're doing something else. Make him guess wrong."
If Tenuta's voice were any deeper, he would be speaking from a coal mine. His is a voice that conveys authority, a coach's voice, a Bear Bryant without the unfiltered Chesterfields. It is this voice that has commanded the defense that has disrupted one talented offense after another. Behind the rise of Tenuta's profile is a 25-year coaching career in which he learned many a hard lesson.
For instance, in one three-season span as defensive coordinator at Kansas State (1988) and SMU (1989-90), Tenuta's teams won a total of three games. The Mustangs played in 1989 after not fielding a team for two seasons because the NCAA imposed the death penalty for repeated rules violations. The experience, Tenuta said, taught him a lot about how to coach.
"My wife [Dori] likes to forget those days," Tenuta said. "We started 18 true freshmen at SMU. That's where my philosophies developed. You think, 'What can this young man do?' He had to come out of high school and start against the University of Texas. You try to put him in position to be successful. That's not easy. You try to take chances, but not leave gaps. You teach the young men how to fight and hang in there."
Take chances, attack and be aggressive. Yet don't leave gaps. Those sound like warring philosophies. To a degree, said senior linebacker KaMichael Hall, they are.
"When you are bringing somebody [in a blitz], regardless of where they are coming from, there's a hole in the defense," Hall said. "It's the fact of you covering it up and disguising where it is. Make the offense try and figure out where that hole is. Sometimes it bites you in the butt, but sometimes it pays off big. You can't be perfect, so that happens, but the point of it is to try and prevent that from happening as frequently as possible."
Tenuta confirmed that Hall, a two-year starter who led the team last season in tackles for loss with 14, has been paying attention in meetings.
"If you can confuse the front five, first and foremost, and never let the quarterback set his feet, you can hurt the offense's rhythm," Tenuta said. "You have got to penetrate. You can't let people go north and south. You make them go east and west. That's A-B-C football. In the passing game, you never want them to go vertical over your head. You want them to throw to the outside. It's a harder throw."
The problem Georgia Tech will encounter on Saturday night is this: Quinn looks as if he never encounters a difficult throw. Tenuta grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, just as Quinn did. Tenuta is friendly with Mark Crabtree, Quinn's coach at Coffman High. He knows Quinn's background. After watching all 12 of Quinn's games on video last season, seeing every last one of the 292 completions, 32 of them touchdowns, Tenuta understands the difficult task his defense will face in trying to make Quinn guess wrong.
"He is certainly different from what I understand he was his first two years," Tenuta said. "I didn't watch that video. Obviously, Charlie has done a tremendous job with his [Quinn's] decision-making. I can't talk about the 2004 season, but from what you hear, Quinn is 150 percent better."
Under Tenuta, Georgia Tech has been good at making quarterbacks 150 percent worse. The chess match begins Saturday night.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
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