Cole Luke rises to Irish secondary challenge

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Lost in the hubbub of the amazing finish to the Notre Dame football team’s win over Stanford was an impressive effort by Cole Luke.

He has made the loss of KeiVarae Russell much easier to handle.

From a bit part as a rookie last season, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore cornerback has evolved into a lead role on a defense that has made some unlikely strides five victories into this season.

Who would have dreamed this Irish defense would have gone through five games without having yielded more than 17 points in a game?

Notre Dame’s front seven, loaded with question marks before the Aug. 30 opener against Rice, now is filled with success stories from young and/or unproven players.

When Russell was suspended in the academic fraud investigation, it was supposed to create a gaping hole in the secondary. In actuality, all it created was an opportunity for Luke to step in and measure up.

The process worked like the coaches say it does when they make their recruiting pitches to their targets.

Next man in.

Luke has embraced the opportunity. As a starter opposite fifth-year Cody Riggs, the youngster has 17 tackles and has broken up three passes. In the win over Stanford, Luke made his biggest contributions with four tackles, two interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass break-up.

All that while playing a significant role in containing Stanford’s Ty Montgomery, one of the best receivers in the country, to just four receptions for 12 yards.

“One thing that was stressed to me before the game was to have no fear,” Luke said. “It doesn’t matter what wide receiver you’re going against or what offense. We knew (Montgomery) was a great player and we had to game plan around him.

“But when the lights come on and you’re on the field, it doesn’t really matter. You just go out there and make plays; play ball.

“Once you make the first play, (the confidence comes).”

After what Irish coach Brian Kelly said about Luke’s struggles against Syracuse, confidence couldn’t have been easy to come by.

“What I was most pleased with was that (the Stanford game) was a bounce-back game, in a sense,” said Kelly. “He gave up a couple big plays against Syracuse. I thought he tightened down his coverage in the fourth quarter against Syracuse, when they went right back at him.

“He continued that tighter coverage against Stanford. He got the game ball from us. He could have had a couple other (interceptions) if balls were thrown with more accuracy. He’s really picked up his game.”

With Montgomery under wraps, the Notre Dame defense was efficient. Stanford’s power-oriented offense was limited to three-and-out eight times. The Cardinal generated just 205 yards of total offense, 47 of which came on the ground.

“We're doing it with guys that are just stepping up and being aggressive on the outside,” said Kelly. “We talked about the need to clamp down on the perimeter. If you're going to play great defense, you have to clamp down. That's where we've really made significant improvement over the course of the year. We're really starting to clamp down on the outside.”

“(Clamping down the perimeter) is something that we’ve worked on the past few weeks; tackling on the perimeter,” said Luke. “The game revolves around us. It’s something we’ve focused on. We try to funnel things back to the inside. A lot of plays are made on the outside.”

As for Luke, he was responsible for both Stanford turnovers.

His first pick may have been impacted by the constant drizzle. It was a high floater that may have slipped off the hands of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan. It came one play after he had forced a fumble when he sacked Hogan. The Cardinal retained possession, at least for a play.

“(On the first interception) I think someone disrupted (Hogan),” Luke said. “I have to give all the credit to the (defensive) linemen and whoever was coming on the blitz.”

Maybe Mother Nature should get a tip of the helmet, too.

Luke’s second interception, on the first play of the fourth quarter, gave Notre Dame the ball on the Stanford 29. He was stride-for-stride with Montgomery as he snatched the ball. However, the Irish opportunity came up empty after one of two botched holds on field goal attempts.

“As soon as (the second interception) happened, no (I wasn’t sure I had it),” Luke said. “But when it hit my knee on the way down, I was sure I had it.”

What the Irish saw against Stanford was exactly what they had prepared to encounter.

“It’s something that I knew was coming during practice when I watched film,” Luke said. “(We) had the scout team guys rep it. It was all about execution. Somebody had to make a play.”

Without Russell, or the current NFL players (linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, linebacker Dan Fox, corner Bennett Jackson) that anchored the Irish defense last year, they have still found a way to succeed.

“People had to step up, first of all,” Luke said. “It’s all about how you step up. People have to make plays. It’s not a matter of how great the players were that we lost. We can’t get them back; can’t play with one player down.”

Beyond execution, it stretches to the attitude instilled by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The final play of the win over Stanford, a 16-yard loss and an intentional grounding call on Hogan after being hit by safety Elijah Shumate, put a face on that attitude.

“That’s what we love,” said Luke. “At the end (of the game), we call a pressure. It should have been a victory formation. But that’s what we love about Coach VanGorder. He’s never going to take his foot off the pedal. We’re an aggressive team. We’re tough. That’s what I like about it.”

Even a dramatic finish isn’t going to cause that to be overlooked.