Thriving on third down good for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND – Stop the run, then let ‘er rip.

Hardly a complex or sophisticated approach to defense by the Notre Dame football team.

But, hey, it worked. Who’s going to argue with success?

Notre Dame’s defense, which had only a couple obvious impact players heading into this season, proved itself dominant on third down against Michigan en route to a stunning shutout of the Wolverines.

“Our ability to hold (Michigan’s) running game in check allowed us … to (have) success,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Once we were able to get ahold of the run game and get it to third down, we felt like we were going to be in pretty good shape.

“We were able to do a lot of things to confuse what they were seeing. They weren’t getting the same looks. That had a lot to do with our success.”

Michigan, which generated 350 rushing yards in its season-opening win over Appalachin State, had 100 net yards against the Irish. The Wolverines ran 16 times on first down for 52 yards (three of those runs, for 10 net yards, were scrambles by Devin Gardner when he tried to pass). Michigan was 9 of 13 for 79 yards and an interception passing on first down.

On second down, Michigan ran 11 times for 36 yards and threw 11 times, completing six, for 61 yards. The Irish came up with a fumble and an interception on second down.

Michigan’s longest pass play – 33 yards, Gardner to Devin Funchess – and longest run – 15 yards by De’Veon Smith – happened on second down.

Get to third down, though, and it’s Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s opportunity to roll the dice. After this introduction to ND Nation, VanGorder’s probably so popular he could run for Grand Poobah.

At least until Saturday against Purdue.

“Attention to detail,” was linebacker Jaylon Smith’s reason for success. “Physical play is very crucial in the game of football.

“Third down was key, where we could spread them out; play on our terms. That’s essentially what our objective is.”

Notre Dame’s ability to boil the game down to “its terms” proved to be successful statistically. While Michigan managed 18 first downs, it was only 4-of-13 in third-down conversions and 1-of-2 on fourth down.

Having the Wolverines’ backs up against the wall allowed VanGorder to reach into his bag of tricks and inflict his own special brand of confusion.

“Coach VanGorder was speaking all week about domination,” said Irish defensive tackle Sheldon Day. “We played as one. Your brother next to you is going to do his job. You do your job.”

Day was a problem for the Michigan front all night. He racked up five tackles, a half-tackle for loss and four quarterback hurries.

“It started with the d-line, that mentality,” Day said. “They had a couple big runs (early in the game). We pulled each other together on the sidelines and said, ‘That was it for today.’”

Third down was an opportunity for the Irish defense to lick its chops.

“Get after Gardner,” was Day’s focus on third down. “We tried to keep him contained, but (on third down) we were definitely letting it loose.

“(VanGorder) had a phrase (all week in practice), it was ‘Don’t let (Michigan) down.’ They knew they were going to see pressure.”

The Irish did their best to live up to Michigan’s expectations.

“We’re trying to grow confidence every week,” Day said. “You see those young guys (everywhere on the defense) having fun and playing with confidence. (The young guys) know their job. (The veterans) know our job. We count on each other. We play as one.”

It works because the structure is so simple, though the stakes are so high.

Especially on third down.

Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day hopes his experience can propel the Irish to a title in 2015.