Notre Dame defense suddenly seems vulnerable

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Wasn’t the Notre Dame defense supposed to be beyond clunkers like the one it suffered through Saturday?

Remember, this was Virginia, a football team that generated just 16 points and 336 yards last week against UCLA.

Saturday’s 34-27 escape exposed vulnerabilities in the Irish defense that it was supposed to have solved. Ghosts of last season’s second-half collapse rose from the manicured turf of Scott Stadium.

Virginia rolled up 416 yards on the Irish (289 passing, 127 rushing), while quarterback Matt Johns – hardly one of the best signal callers Notre Dame will see this season – was sacked just once while causing havoc in the secondary.

“They hurt us with three plays in the first half: The reverse pass (a 42-yard TD pass from Johns to Keeon Johnson), the ‘seam’ throw (an 18-yarder from Johns to Caanan Severin), we got a bad matchup on the deep throw (a 38-yarder from Johns to Severin that set up a TD),” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.

That “seam” pass from Johns to Severin was particularly troubling. It wasn’t like it was pinpoint accuracy that threaded a defensive needle. Four Notre Dame defenders surrounded Severin. The ball wobbled, but no one but Severin made a play on it. He could have called a fair catch.

“We couldn’t cover the (pass) route into the short field,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things we need to be better (at) in pass coverage.”

Big picture, even with the victory, the defensive effort was a mighty step backward from the potential that was shown against Texas last week.

“I know (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder is frustrated with some things that happened out there in the pass defense that we’ll have to clean up,” Kelly said. “But they’re correctible things. We just didn’t play the ball very well in the air.

“We made some really silly mistakes, trying to play a screen on third-and-15 when we just needed to be the deepest defenders there. Uncharacteristic kinds of mental errors.

We’re off the field, and we get a dumb personal foul penalty (on end Andrew Trumbetti).

“We’ve got to clean up a lot of stuff.”

Linebacker Jaylon Smith, who led the Irish with 11 tackles, is counting on his teammates using that performance as a learning experience.

“They ran a lot of jets; a lot of different motions,” Smith said. “It really challenged our eyesight. Younger players, who aren’t too experienced, they tend to wander their eyes.

“We hounded on it all week. They had some success with the different gadgets. Everything’s a learning experience.”

After four sacks against the Longhorns, Notre Dame came up with just one against Virginia – another team that has had personnel challenges on the offensive line. That only sack, by corner KeiVarae Russell, yielded the game’s only turnover – a fumble recovered by Romeo Okwara.

“(Virginia) didn’t run the ball effectively inside the tackles,” Kelly said. “They got the ball outside us a couple times because of their shifting in their speed packages. They out-flanked us a couple times in the fourth quarter.

“We didn’t trigger the way we needed to at the safety position. Most of their stuff was misdirection; fly sweeps.”

Whatever Virginia did, it seemed to work.

The Irish suddenly became vulnerable.

Something no one anticipated.

Notre Dame's Elijah Shumate (22) tackles Virginia's Taquan Mizzell (4) during the second half of the Fighting Irish's 34-27 win over Virginia Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)