Notre Dame NT Jarron Jones makes waves against Stanford

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jarron Jones claimed two victims on one play.

The first was Stanford center Jesse Burkett — a 6-foot-4, 303-pound grown man made to look like a fly splattered on the windshield of a massive hummer. With 7:26 left in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford, Burkett snapped the football and was promptly battered into oblivion, driven into the backfield and the lap of his endangered quarterback.

A 6-foot-6, 315-pound graduate student, Jones eviscerated Burkett en route to Ryan Burns — Stanford’s 6-5, 233-pound senior quarterback. Jones engulfed him, a wave of ruthless aggression — dislodging Burns from the football, then crawling over his crumpled body to recover the loose fumble on the Irish 34-yard line.

Jones strutted from the scene — his arms swinging wildly, teammates climbing on his back but hardly halting his progress.

On Saturday night, Jones couldn’t be stopped.

The same can’t be said about the Irish offense.

“He’s committed,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “All these guys want to get through this really tough part of everyone’s career, mine included. We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together.”

Notre Dame’s much maligned defense allowed just 172 total yards and zero points in the first half on Saturday, stacking up six consecutive quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown. On the whole, the Irish recorded three sacks — a season-high — and forced three turnovers, two fumbles and a Cole Luke interception.

Throughout much of Saturday’s game, Notre Dame’s defense dripped with a previously untapped swagger.

Of course, Notre Dame’s sudden defensive resurgence may not be entirely what it seems. On the road at NC State, the residue of Hurricane Matthew decisively decimated the Wolfpack passing game. NC State’s otherwise reliable quarterback, Ryan Finley, managed just 27 passing yards in a driving rainstorm, and its team scored a measly three offensive points. And Saturday, after it scored just 22 total points in its previous two games (both losses), Stanford went without its best offensive player — 2015 Heisman finalist and 2,000-yard rusher Christian McCaffrey, who missed the game with an unspecified injury. McCaffrey’s backup, sophomore Bryce Love, rushed for 129 yards and 5.6 yards per carry.

Add it all up, and maybe Notre Dame’s defense isn’t as healed as it seems.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s a start.

“I think they were solid,” Kelly said of his defense. “We were playing a lot of freshmen back there, so we don’t want to expose them in every scenario. They’re learning a lot as we go. We want to minimize big plays. We’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down.

“The thing that I wanted to do when I made the change (from fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to Greg Hudson) was keep the points down and limit big plays. Now, you can’t be everything that you want to be defensively with just those two things. But you can keep your football team in what I felt was a good position to win games. We just haven’t been able to do the things that I expected to do to win games.”

Perhaps, submerged in the calamitous swamp of a 2-5 start, Jones is the perfect symbol for Notre Dame’s oft-frustrating, occasionally fearsome defense. The talent is there. The consistency may be coming. Despite a series of injuries, including the torn MCL that kept him out of the 2015 regular season, Jones’ talent is undeniable. He’s physically imposing, with the strength and explosiveness to implode an opposing offensive line.

To this point in the 2016 season, Jones has blocked two extra points, dropped into coverage for an interception, recorded a strip sack and recovered said fumble.

The peaks have been breathtaking.

For Jones and the Irish defense, it’s about eliminating the valleys — and claiming more victims along the way.

"Just look at the guys we play with," said Jones, black war paint still smeared down his cheeks. "There's over 100, and I love each and every one of them. Our coaches are amazing. They've been nothing but great. When you have a support system like that and a group of guys like that that you're around, you don't want to do anything but push for them and work hard for them.

"That's what drives me — my teammates, my coaches, the staff. I love them like a big family. I wouldn't be here if they didn't recruit me, obviously.

"I'm forever indebted for being allowed to play here at Notre Dame, and I'm going to continue to fight for Notre Dame, no matter what the record is."

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones (94) goes over Stanford’s Ryan Burns (17) to recover a fumble during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game Saturday, October 15, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN