Notre Dame defense getting a bit cranky at consternation over pass rush

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Good thing “sacks” is an “overrated” statistic in the eyes of the Notre Dame football program.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said so last week.

It must not mean a thing that guys who can punish the quarterback get paid a bunch of money in the NFL.

“Hurries” can be just as important, Kelly said. Close used to only count in horseshoes and hand grenades. Now, add tackling the quarterback to that list.

It’s convenient because that’s where the Irish defense is right now: 11 hurries, and nary a sack.

Sooner or later, the Irish are going to have to put a little bite into their pass rush. Kelly, though, sees it as a Catch 22 situation.

“If you bring pressure, you put pressure (on another part of the defense),” Kelly said. “So it's measured. It's measured by how much pressure do you want to put on your corners and safeties? We're measuring that. We're measuring it by down and distance. We're measuring it by opponent from week to week.”

Even without a lot of exotic pressures, the Notre Dame secondary has had problems against good teams. It was corner Nick Coleman who was picked on whenever he stepped on the field against Texas, then Michigan State put Cole Luke — the corner opposite Coleman — on the hot seat.

Little Cranky

In three games, Duke — Notre Dame’s Saturday opponent — has given up eight sacks. And that was against juggernauts North Carolina Central, Wake Forest and Northwestern.

If Las Vegas took any prop bets on this game, odds are in Notre Dame’s favor that someone — even accidentally — might find their way to the quarterback and finally finish a sack.

They better. The guys along the Irish front are starting to get grouchy. The other day, senior end Isaac Rochell, an articulate, composed fella who’s a great representative as a captain, allowed the sting of what seemed to be a festering wound to leak through into his meeting with the media.

“The biggest frustration is all the people who think they know a lot about football and they want to comment on it,” the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Rochell said.

After interjecting his editorial opinion about the uneducated naysayers who might think there should be some concern that Notre Dame is one of two FBS teams (along with Nevada, remember the Wolf Pack?) without a sack this season, Rochell turned back into the politically-correct captain and politely gave a response.

“We’ll keep grinding,” Rochell said. “Yeah, we’re frustrated. Our job doesn’t change.

“Definitely, the most frustrating part is the chatter.”

Only one way to shut the chatter up: Get a sack. Or two. Or three.

“You’ve gotta finish (to get a sack),” Rochell said. “The biggest thing for us is focusing on the details. Whether it be reaching around… In the MSU game, I could have had a sack, but I didn’t reach around.

“A lot of it, too, is looking at each other on third down, looking around and saying, ‘Hey, (Jonathan) Bonner, get a sack.’ And, ‘Hey Isaac, go get a sack; go get paid.’ It’s a mentality thing.”

“We're in a position where we have to…we have to bring pressure in certain situations — and we’ve got to get home. We're close to getting home,” Kelly said, letting some of the frustration filter into his comments. “We had a couple where we're right there. We've got some hurries, but we don't have the sacks yet, obviously.

“We’ve got to get there. We understand that. We're clearly aware of the situation. But bring pressure, you add pressure.”

Making Urgency

It’s hard to understand why a player on the most popular college football team in the universe doesn’t play every snap like it’s the most precious second of his life.

Does complacency come with the gold helmets?

Why would Kelly have to go out of his way to call out guys — even leaders of the team — who are conducting their business without a sense of urgency?

That was his theme for the week, generated by what he saw against Michigan State.

“We’ve gotta have that sense of urgency,” Rochell said, repeating the company line. “The problem is, sometimes that sense of urgency has to be motivated by being down by three touchdowns.

“It’s a matter of being intentional, and having that sense of urgency on purpose.”

Rochell went on to assess his play so far, which includes 16 tackles and four tackles for loss — by far the best production up front.

“Playing with better pad level and playing with more consistency,” were Rochell’s keys for improvement. “Just like the team, it might take a little ‘juice’ or something negative to get my motor going.

“Losing two of your first three games, you’ve gotta do something with it. You can’t let it just sit there. That causes its own sense of urgency. In a lot of ways, it’s going to help us moving forward.

“You hate to have it happen, but it’s reality.”

Kelly hasn’t given up on the Irish pass rush. He said he’s seen enough that makes him think it will get better.

“(Freshman end) Julian (Okwara) can bend really well off the edge,” Kelly said. “He gets there and really forces the quarterback to step up in the pocket.

“We think with Rochell and Bonner inside, athletic guys, that we feel we can generate the kind of pass rush that we're looking for. Jonathan gets outside his pass rush lane one time and we get a quarterback that runs out. I mean, we've got other things that we need to get better at, but we think that that mix can be effective, and we're still trying to find that rotation. We're getting closer to finding that group.”

“Keep grinding,” is Rochell’s answer to the sack dilemma. “I know a lot of people are asking about that. Ultimately, the mindset doesn’t change.

“When an opportunity presents itself, we’ll capitalize.

“Actually, we’ve done a decent job pass-rushing. If you watch film, guys are getting a good rush.”

Numbers Game

No matter who says what, numbers don’t lie. The Notre Dame defense has given up more than half a thousand yards twice already this season, both of which have ended in losses.

Kelly and his players aren’t thrilled about being grilled over defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s job status each week; if the offense feels overburdened by having to carry a porous defense; if the defense really does work on getting to the quarterback in practice.

The numbers make all those questions legitimate.

Rochell said there have been positives from the first three games. Now’s the time to build on them.

“The biggest thing is the attitude and resiliency,” Rochell said. “It’s something you can’t coach, so it’s good to have it. We’ve had a lot of good things to take (from the first three weeks of the season) and capitalize on.

“I told everybody, ‘Put your head down and grind,' and in December we’ll look up and have another conversation. If you try to look at it too big picture, you lose sight of what’s really important and that’s winning games.

“Ultimately, we’ve gotta take it game by game. Put your head down and grind.”

And pppplllllleeeeaasssseee, get a sack.

Even if it is overrated.

Notre Dame's Isaac Rochell (90), here chasing Texas QB Shane Buechele on Sept. 4, is being counted on to help improve the Irish pass rush. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)