Notre Dame defense needs to clamp down on big bursts

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Finding a face for the problems the Notre Dame football team’s defense has had the last couple years doesn’t take a lot of research.

It’s Jeff Smith.

Who?

Late in last week’s ugly escape from Boston College, the Irish — who had left plenty of men on base with a bunch of turnovers — still looked respectable with a 19-3 lead over the Eagles.

BC had been using a shuttle system with its quarterbacks. So, early in the fourth quarter when Smith — more proficient as a runner than a thrower, according to the scouting report — entered the game, the Irish defense had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Right?

Except that, when Smith tucked the ball and ran through a hole big enough for a truck, everyone wearing those awful green uniforms seemed surprised. There was nobody near Smith: 80 yards when he finally slowed down to give the Eagles a boost.

From the Notre Dame defense’s perspective, it was downright perplexing.

It was the beginning of a mystifying collapse against the worst offense in America. Boston College, which had generated just 130 yards of total offense in the first three quarters, had 172 in the final 15 minutes.

That’s a head-scratcher. Couple that with five offensive turnovers and it’s not difficult to understand why the Playoff Selection Committee turned such a cold shoulder to the Irish.

Notre Dame’s defense has some concerns it needs to work out. Of course, Stanford Stadium Saturday night, with Christian McCaffrey as the biggest challenge, isn’t the ideal place and time to try to solve those issues.

But, according to the schedule, the Irish don’t have a choice in the matter.

This season, Notre Dame opponents have had individual rushes over 20 yards 22 times. However, eight of those explosive plays have happened in the last three games — Boston College, Wake Forest and Pitt. Not exactly Murderer’s Row.

Stanford will enter the game ranked No. 15 in the country in rushing offense, 228.3 yards a game. McCaffrey, a 6-foot, 201-pound sophomore, is second in the country in rushing with 1,546 yards, 36 behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense is a pedestrian 69th, yielding 168 yards a game.

In other words, the Irish have quite a challenge if they plan on leaving the West Coast with a victory.

When head coach Brian Kelly analyzes the breakdown of his defense, it doesn’t take long for him to pinpoint the weak link.

“I'd like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good.

“Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good. When you're giving up 75-yard runs, it's generally third-level support. You can kind of understand that from a defensive structure, when you give up plays of that magnitude, you have to address it with specific eye control and discipline, which we've lacked at times.”

That’s third level — as in cornerbacks and safeties. That’s where the spotlight will likely be shining Saturday night.

“It’s just a focus on each and every play,” Irish grad student Matthias Farley, who has played behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate at safety this season. “Take care of your responsibility on every play. Communicating.

“Anytime there’s a long drive, you have to get off the field on third down when that opportunity arises. Everybody has to be on their job, on their assignment. If one guy’s off, something’s going to happen.

“It’s frustrating, but you can’t harp on it. Move on to Stanford. It happened.”

Though Kelly has his explanation for the shortcomings, the rest of the defense will shoulder its share of the burden.

“It’s on all of us,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “When they get to the linebacker corps, we have to be prepared, striking with our hands.

“Understanding, each and every play, we stay focused and locked in, and execute our assignment. Those two (fourth quarter) drives (by Boston College) are learning lessons for us. It’s about trying not to let that happen again. It’s been kind of our Achilles heel, so we’re trying to consistently improve on it.

“The game ultimately comes down to six or seven plays. That’s something coach (Kelly) always talks about. The tricky thing about it is that you don’t know when those plays are going to occur.

“Trying our hardest to eliminate those big plays is something we work on each and every week. It’s just about applying (the lessons) to the game Saturday.

“(Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder) is frustrated; we’re all frustrated about that. At the end of the day, we want to win. That’s our focus.”

“I wouldn’t say… I don’t know if frustration is the right word,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said of his reaction to the collapse at BC. “We were really upset with ourselves because we didn’t execute as well as we could. That’s why we practice, to address that and get better.

“Besides that and the last drive, we played a pretty solid game. It gives us something to work on this week.”

“It's personnel-driven,” Kelly said of the situation. “You're still looking at who you're putting on the field. It's still — we've had a number of times where our pressure has certainly done really big things. Ten, I think, out of 12 Boston College's drives were virtually nothing.

“(VanGorder) has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we're looking for in a transition. We're still evolving defensively. We're still working to build our defense. We're not there yet, clearly. But, no, it's been the kind of transition that I expected (over the past two years since VanGorder arrived). And we're going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

It better get better Saturday. McCaffrey is special. Not only does he lead the Cardinal in rushing, but he’s tops in receiving (34 catches, 416 yards, 3 TDs) and kick returns (26, 31.3 yards, 1 TD).

“They have a very good offensive line. They use him pretty traditionally in the sense that they're running similar plays,” Kelly said. “But they're using him as a receiver coming out of the backfield a lot more than they have, say, for example, some of the other backs they have in the past and he's explosive. He gets the ball in his hands, turns a four-, five-yard completion into a big play.”

The Irish know all about big plays, for sure.

“Certainly his explosiveness on kickoff return has been a big plus for them as well,” Kelly said. “Really good vision. Tougher than you may think. He's a tough, physical — he can run inside. He can run outside. Just a really good back.”

A ringing endorsement that several players echoed.

“He’s a very talented football player,” Schmidt said of McCaffrey. “You have to be aware of him when he’s in the game. He can do a lot of things — he can catch the ball, he can run the ball, he can do just about everything about it. There’s a reason everyone is talking about him.

“We have a bunch of respect for him as a football player.”

“(McCaffrey) presents a lot of challenging things. He’s a dynamic player, very elusive, great footwork. It’s a matter of all 11 players doing their job.”

“(McCaffrey) is a great running back; great vision,” said Farley, who will also deal with him extensively on special teams. “He’s explosive. When he sees a hole, he hits it.

“(As a kick returner), anytime you win field position, you put yourself in a good position. He’s been very instrumental in that all year. That’s definitely helped out their offense and their defense.”

Somehow, some way, it has to be improved. Giving up big plays against a well-rounded team is the fire in a powder keg.

Explosive plays can destroy a defense.

No matter what level is under the microscope.

Notre Dame’s Joe Schmidt (38) in on a stop of Boston College’s Myles Willis (23) during the first half of the Notre Dame-Boston College NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN