Notre Dame defense looks to reverse trend, solve slow starts

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Sometimes, words are just words.

Before his team burst through the north tunnel and onto the Notre Dame Stadium turf for the annual rivalry game against USC on Oct. 17, Brian Kelly said a lot of them.

“This is Notre Dame. You don’t wait for USC,” bellowed Kelly, as captured in a Notre Dame video. “I want an attack mentality. We are not waiting around. I told you, mental toughness. That is the will. That is the attack in this Notre Dame football team tonight.

“That’s how we’re playing this game. We’re not waiting for something. We’re going to go get it. Is everybody clear on that?”

Given the immediate result, their clarity — at least, on the defensive side — can be called into question. For the third consecutive game, Notre Dame’s defense surrendered a touchdown on its opening drive. This time around, a team that had managed just 12 total points in a deflating, coach-swallowing home loss to unranked Washington the week before effortlessly maneuvered 71 yards in eight plays, gouging the 14th-ranked Irish both on the ground and through the air. The primary blow was a 37-yard strike down the right sideline to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who corralled the football despite the dogged coverage of senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell. USC quarterback Cody Kessler delivered the throw just before being contacted by blitzing linebacker Jaylon Smith, exploiting the fact that while Russell was draped on his man like a shadow, his head never turned to locate the football.

But while that was a damning mistake, it wasn’t the only one.

A meticulous critic might also point out that, on the third play of the drive, cornerback Cole Luke whiffed on a drive-by shoulder tackle, allowing running back Tre Madden to gain seven extra yards. Or that, two plays later, both safety Elijah Shumate and linebacker Joe Schmidt missed an exceedingly-sackable Kessler, allowing the quarterback to avert danger.

Or that, on Kessler’s three-yard touchdown run, defensive end Isaac Rochell lost contain on the edge, and both linebacker James Onwualu and safety Matthias Farley locked onto tight end Tyler Petite. As a result, the first contact the quarterback received was a congratulatory hug from a teammate.

Consider that, in their first four games, the Irish allowed a total of 19 yards in their opponents’ opening drives — all 3-and-outs.

In the last three, the trend reversed. Clemson, Navy and USC combined for 205 yards in 18 plays, scoring three touchdowns in the process. They completed 4 of 6 passes for 69 yards and ran 12 times for a whopping 136 yards, averaging 11.3 yards per rush.

Just as impressively, they did it all in a total of seven minutes and seven seconds.

And now, to the real question.


A few theories:

“We have to start coming out with our hair on fire,” said senior defensive tackle and two-time captain Sheldon Day. “I wouldn’t say we start out slow but we don’t start paying attention to the little things and things like that. We are definitely going to come out with a little edge from now on.”

“Everyone has to do their job,” added Smith. “We’ve started off slow in that aspect of it. You’re constantly working each and every week to better that.”

“We have to make sure we’re coming out firing on all cylinders,” Schmidt concluded. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything right in preparation to take care of that problem. It’s something we’re aware of and trying to eradicate.”

That’s great to hear, but it’s better to see. Notre Dame’s defense is certainly capable of marked improvement, considering that the Irish rank 13th nationally in third-down defense, only allowing opposing offenses to convert 29 percent of the time.

The trick, Rochell said, is spreading that efficiency to other areas of the defense.

“It definitely gives you confidence any time your defense is doing something well,” Rochell said. “Red zone, third down, opening drives — those are all big things that are crucial.”

Notre Dame should, conceivably, improve in each of those areas against Temple. The Owls, despite being 7-0 and nationally ranked, sit at 92nd nationally in passing offense (197 yards per game), 93rd in rushing offense (148.9 yards), 109th in total offense (345.9 yards) and 123rd in offensive plays of 30 yards or more, with just eight in seven games.

The Irish defense should start fast.

But it’ll take more than words to sink the birds.

“There is no waiver wire,” Kelly said. “We’re not cutting anybody. We’re not trading anybody. We just have to work with the guys that we have and get better and they are committed to doing that. They see the film and we see the film. We have to put them in good position to succeed.

“We have to continue to do that and then we have to be positive with them and get the best out of them every day.”

Clemson’s Jordan Leggett (16) leaps over Notre Dame’s Cole Luke (36) as he dives into the end zone during the Notre Dame-Clemson NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, Memorial Stadium at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN