Notre Dame secondary planning to be perfect

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Perfection is hardly an attainable goal for any football player.

But the Notre Dame secondary is well aware that a quarterback with the proficiency of Jameis Winston drastically reduces the margin for error.

Loosely translated: It’s called pressure.

Accuracy is probably the primary asset that sets Winston apart from the rest. He’s very good on the crisp routes, but rises to special when a play breaks down and freelancing is the last resort.

Heading into Saturday night’s showdown against Notre Dame, the dynamic 6-foot-4, 235-pound reigning Heisman Trophy winner has completed 70 percent of his passes (126 of 180) for 1,605 yards, 11 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

“Anytime you’re playing a quarterback that is so efficient — and that is what stands out here is efficiency — not turning the football over, minimizing any of the mistakes that they make (is critical),” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “You have to look at yourself the same way. Not giving up big plays is important for us. Not forcing us in a situation where we make that big mistake.

“They’re waiting for you to make a mistake, and that’s where they’ve shown themselves to be very, very good. Winston in particular, he’s waiting for you to make a mistake. We have to be on top of our game. If we do that, we think we’ve got enough to make some plays as well. He’s so efficient. You can’t let your guard down against him any play or he’ll beat you.”

“(Winston’s) never down,” said Irish fifth-year corner Cody Riggs, who played against Winston last season while a safety at the University of Florida. “You have to make sure you take him all the way to the ground. I’ve seen him wrapped up and he still makes a play down the field.

“You have to play within yourself and be patient. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but if he does, you have to be ready to capitalize on it.”

Riggs talked about the attitude that it takes to negotiate the cat-and-mouse game that goes into matching a quarterback of Winston’s caliber.

“(Winston) doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Riggs said. “When you play a quarterback who’s that good, you have to understand there are going to be highs and lows. He’s going to make his throws. You have to be patient. Hopefully, he will force something, which he doesn’t do often.

“You have to keep playing hard and constantly play the next play. He’s going to make his throws and find a way to get the ball in there. You just have to be ready for your time to make a play.”

Beyond what Winston can accomplish on the field, nickel back/safety Matthias Farley, a 5-11, 205-pound senior, marvels at the leadership traits that he possesses.

“His teammates really believe in him, and look to him as a leader,” Farley said. “He has the incredible ability to shut everything out and get the guys around him to rally, no matter what the situation is on the field.

“He’s a guy everyone looks to. When you’ve got a guy as talented as he is, who is also an incredible leader, he’s going to be a great player.”

And that’s just one guy. The Seminoles have an arsenal stationed around Winston that will likely give headaches to the Irish defense.

Receivers Rashad Greene (Riggs’ teammate at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; 44 receptions, 683 yards, 3 TDs) and Bobo Wilson (21, 262,4), tight end Nick O’Leary (24, 275, 2), and running backs Karlos Williams (74 carries, 353 yards, 5 TDs), Dalvin Cook (47, 250, 3) and Mario Pender 32, 209, 4) make for some explosive options for, arguably, the best quarterback in the country.

“Outstanding wide receivers, great skill, whether you’re talking about either receiver,” said Kelly, assessing the Florida State talent. “Greene, vertical depth; vertical play is the thing that concerns you about them. They can go and get the football. O’Leary at the tight end position, depth at the running back.”

“They have so many weapons; so many playmakers,” Riggs said. “They have so many players on their offense that you have to keep in mind.

“You’ve got so many different styles of play. You’ve got the fast, fly guys. You’ve got O’Leary, he’ll run you over. You have to contain the game and play within yourself.”

Given his relationship with Greene that has maintained over several years, Riggs still can’t come up with a secret to shutting down the 6-0, 180-pound senior.

“He’s quick,” Riggs said of his buddy. “All his routes look the same. At the top of his route, that’s when it changes. He’s really competitive. He works well for that system.

“I don’t think there’s a secret (to defending him). He’s really good with his routes. There’s no secret. You have to trust your technique with a person like that.”

Farley tried his best not to make too much of the challenge ahead. Florida State is averaging 39 points and 324 passing yards this season. But there are some great offenses that the Irish face on a regular basis.

“In the secondary, you always have to play perfect,” Farley said. “If you get beat, it’s usually a touchdown. This week takes that much more focus.

“That’s how it is in practice. You have to focus in on every play. It’s nothing new to us. We focus on our technique and our responsibility.”

This game is hard to read – especially from the back end of the Notre Dame defense.

Will it be one of those tooth-and-nails games, in which every yard comes with a price? Or, will it be a reminder of the last time the Irish visited Florida? Remember? Alabama?

How the secondary performs will go a long way toward determining how the game unfolds. Beyond veterans like Riggs and Farley, sophomore corners Cole Luke, Devin Butler and safeties Max Redfield (sophomore) and Drue Tranquill (freshman) will have a lot to say about how the Irish fare.

Having lost fifth-year safety Austin Collinsworth for a while with a shoulder injury, the Irish pass defense is ranked 67th in the country, with an average yield of 238 yards.

They can’t let inexperience get in the way of the plan that’s been set.

“You have to mix up some coverages,” said Kelly. “You have to give your corner some help certainly sometimes, but you can’t be double-zoning or they’re going to run the ball all day at will with that offensive line.

“Then there are times that you have to be out there and you have to play tight coverage. It’s a balance. That’s why (Florida State is) difficult. That’s why they’ve won 22 games in a row. But you can’t be one dimensional. You have to be able to do both.”

Likewise, the Irish can’t get swallowed up by the magnitude of the game. Two unbeaten teams. Plenty of playoff implications. A difficult road environment.

The Irish can’t let the venue paralyze them.

“At the end of the day it’s a game,” said Farley, a pretty level-headed guy. “When you go into it prepared and you understand what your job is, it doesn’t really matter how big the perceived stage is. If you’re locked into your assignment and know that the guys believe in you and you believe in them, that’s all that’s important.”

Even when the mandate is to be perfect.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | (574) 235-6318

Cornerback Cole Luke (36) celebrates after picking off North Carolina QB Marquise Williams, one of a few big highlights for the Irish defense Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)