Notre Dame defense finds footing in bounce-back win over Nevada

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —The upgrade of the Notre Dame defense from disappointment to mystery started early Saturday, when Nevada coach Brian Polian threw a haymaker at the program he called home for five seasons during the Charlie Weis Era.

The run-happy, gimmick-laden Wolf Pack decided to play smash-mouth on its very first offensive possession, leaving its offense on the field on a fourth-and-a-foot from the Irish 17-yard line instead of bringing on one of the most accurate kickers in the country in Brent Zuzo.

“There’s no way in hell,” Irish nose guard Daniel Cage responded verbally and then followed it up with his actions in setting the tone for 18th-ranked Notre Dame’s 39-10 bounce-back victory in Saturday’s home opener at Notre Dame Stadium.

Only a garbage-time, 86-yard scoring drive by backups against backups kept the final numbers from looking totally dominating against Nevada (1-1).

As it was, the Irish (1-1) stifled a Nevada offense with nine starters back from last season to the tune of 300 total yards, a 3.3-yard rushing per carry average and a 3-of-12 third-down conversion rate six days after Texas shredded the Irish defense.

“I thought we defensively tackled better, played the ball better in the air,” ND coach Brian Kelly said. “We just made the kind of improvement that I was looking for from week one to week two.”

Cage epitomized the leap forward with a powerful surge that knocked both Nevada center Nathan Goltry and free safety Asauni Rufus, acting as a wildcat QB, backward on the pivotal fourth-down play. The Irish offense took over a game that stayed scoreless into the second quarter.

Then the Irish concocted their highest-scoring quarter in 11 seasons, 25 points, to complement the defense’s continued prowess and turn Polian’s homecoming into a rout.

“I do not regret going for it on the fourth and a half a yard,” said Polian, whose program dropped to 4-22 all-time against ranked teams and 0-6 under him. “The Notre Dame offense scored 47 points last week at Texas, so field goals weren't going to get it done. We ought to be able to find a way to get six inches. Unfortunately we didn't get it done.”

Beset defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder shied away from his exotic pressures that have produced peak-and-valley results in his first two-plus seasons at ND. Instead The Irish played vanilla, base defense for the most part and played it well.

Sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney and freshman Devin Studstill both earned their first career starts, and Coney was especially noticeable with his physical play and five tackles that tied for the team lead.

Junior safety Drue Tranquill and sophomore cornerback Nick Coleman each got chances for atonement after being demoted mid-game in the 50-47 double-overtime loss to Texas, and both took advantage.

“After that loss last week, we had to come together and we had to focus on what the goals are,” Cage said, “and we had to get on each other and set those goals. So that’s what we were doing in the game and ended up doing pretty well.”

But just as important, especially given VanGorder’s herky-jerky track record, is what can the performance turn into? Twelfth-ranked Michigan State (1-0) comes to town next Saturday night and might offer a few clues.

However it evolves or recedes, it will happen without one of the defense’s rising stars, sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder suffered a torn left Achilles’ tendon midway through the first quarter and is out for the season, a year after suffering a season-ending right ACL tear in August training camp.

The injury came after a long pass play that originally was ruled a catch and fumble that was recovered and returned by Tranquill. But replay reversed it to an incomplete pass.

Senior cornerback standout Cole Luke is suddenly paired with promising but unrefined young talent, including a gaggle of freshmen.

“I told them, ‘We don’t have time to have your freshman year,’ ” Luke said. “We don’t have time for you to have your adjustment year. We’ve got to go now.

“We need this to be your senior year and play like you’re a senior. Age doesn’t matter at this point at all to anybody really.”

The offense overcame the temporary loss of star receiver Torii Hunter Jr., held out Saturday after suffering a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the Texas game.

Josh Adams’ fifth career 100-yard game — 106 yards on 10 carries — led an Irish rushing attack that breached the 200-yard mark for the second week in a row. DeShone Kizer, with the No. 1 status all his own this week, was sharp again.

He completed 15-of-18 passes for 156 yards and two scores with an interception — ND’s first and only turnover so far this season. He added 35 yards rushing and another TD.

With Hunter out, he — and backup Malik Zaire during mop-up time — spread the ball around to seven different receivers. Four of them registered their first career catches — freshman Kevin Stepherson, sophomore Chris Finke, junior Corey Holmes and freshman Chase Claypool.

“We wanted to get them involved early,” Kelly said of the newcomers. “We felt like it was important to get Corey and Stepherson and those kids some touches early, get them some confidence. If they got some confidence, they'd make some plays for us.”

Sophomore C.J. Sanders got the game ball for another strong receiving/return specialist performance.

Polian, who saw Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen both at their peaks while a member of the ND coaching staff, was equally impressed with Kizer. But it was the defense that kind of surprised him.

And they’ll have to continue to surprise in a good way if the Irish are to climb back into big-bowl relevance.

“Nevada’s a great team with great athletes,” Luke said. “This was a game where we had to lock onto our keys and focus and just do the little things right. And everything else will pile on top of each other.

“Obviously Michigan State is a different team than Nevada. We’re going to have to do different things and focus on different things, but we’re going to worry about that in 24 hours.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Nick Coleman (24) brings down Nevada’s Hasaan Henderson (12) during the Notre Dame-Nevada NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN