Noie: Defense cannot rest again for Notre Dame to remain in College Football Playoff picture
Standing in the corner of the Notre Dame Stadium interview room, stepping into an early-November night’s fog and then sitting with family and friends at a local restaurant while knocking down some chicken wings, Irish captain Drue Tranquill couldn’t shake a certain feeling late last week.
His 10 fellow defensive starters likely felt the same way following the 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. It ran Notre Dame’s win streak to seven. It strengthened its No. 3 spot in the College Football Playoff ranking. It also bumped the Irish up two positions – also to No. 3 – in the Associated Press poll.
But there was something about it all that didn’t sit right with Tranquill and his defensive mates. Winning this time of year – now almost three months in from when it all started – is hard. But for 60 minutes on its home field, Notre Dame allowed an average Wake Forest team to make it look awfully easy.
When it was over, and the Irish had moved to 8-1, the Demon Deacons had shredded a seemingly solid defensive unit for 34 first downs and 587 yards. Wake ran for 239, passed for 348 and averaged nearly seven yards per play. It also often toyed with the Irish defense on third down, converting nearly 50 percent of its chances – 6-of-14.
When the Irish needed to get off the field, they didn’t. When a play needed to be made, it wasn’t. Despite the team success, it all left Tranquill and the Irish defense feeling less satisfied and a whole lot salty.
Celebrate another win that night? Not feeling it.
“I know a lot of guys after the game were ready to put the pads back on and go right back out there,” Tranquill said. “We felt we let one go.”
A sluggish defensive effort like the one Notre Dame offered was expected at some point along the way under first-year coordinator Mike Elko. Too much newness. Too many unknowns. Maybe it would surface against Georgia, but the Notre Dame defense was pretty good that night. Then maybe a week later against Boston College, or the following week against Michigan State in its first two road tests. Notre Dame passed those as well.
The deeper they went in the season, the better the Irish defense. It wasn’t a weakness. You could count on it. Held true for the trip to North Carolina in the humid rain and then home challenges against Southern California and North Carolina State. The defense at times was downright dominant.
But in a game that many expected the defense to be more of the same, it was nothing like it. That’s been cause for some hang-wringing by Irish faithful heading into Saturday’s prime-time showdown against No. 7 Miami (8-0) at Hard Rock Stadium.
That Wake Forest game might be just what the Irish defense needed to get back in gear. Not necessarily a wake-up call, but a reminder that there’s a certain standard now, a high one. One that wasn’t anywhere within reach last time out.
“It was humbling in a good way to show that we have been playing such really good football the majority of the season,” said senior captain Greer Martini. “To have a game like that kind of get away from us just humbles us and makes us re-approach it, know that we have to execute at a very high level.”
A tough week
That execution starts during the week in practice when the Irish work through what they often refer to as their process. That’s usually on Wednesday when everything they want to do come Saturday ramps up. The intensity level better be there. The laser focus, as well. No missed assignments. Or tackles. Or blown coverages. Or lapses. If the Irish are going to be their usual sharp selves on game day, Wednesday’s often the first indication all the pieces to the defensive puzzle are falling into place.
Not the Wednesday of Wake Forest. The more coach Brian Kelly watched his defense work, the more he could tell something was missing. An edge that had been so sharp the previous six weeks looked surprisingly dull. There was energy. No juice.
“That Wednesday wasn’t the same Wednesday practice as it was the previous week,” Kelly said. “We didn’t prepare quite the way we had prepared in other weeks. It showed itself in the way we played against Wake Forest.”
Kelly downplayed any notion that it’s reached a point in the season where opposing teams have figured out the method to Elko’s madness.
“They didn’t find the key to unlock the secrets of the Elko defense,” he said.
Yet the Demon Deacons did know a few of the numbers to the combination of their former defensive coordinator, who spent three seasons in Winston-Salem before moving to South Bend. You could hear as much on the field. Notre Dame would break the huddle and go to line up in this formation or that one, and guys on the offensive side of the ball were alerting their teammates to watch out for something specific.
They often were right.
“Before we even lined up, they’re like, ‘Number 4 is coming,’” said middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, who wears No. 5. “We were dealing with that too.”
The Irish also had a lot to deal with during the week. There was the distraction of rocketing for the first time this season into the college football playoff picture. There was a challenging week of work in the classroom. Tranquill tries to get at least eight hours of sleep a night during the season. Thanks to a heavy academic workload, the engineering major was able to squeeze in maybe two or three in the two nights leading into the game.
Then there was a general easing off the accelerator knowing that they weren’t playing as high-level an opponent as the previous weeks.
“I definitely didn’t feel that same kind of spark,” Tranquill said. “It was just that passion and that energy and that fire to get off the field.”
Whatever it was that didn’t happen against Wake Forest, and whatever it was that did, the Irish accepted that they had to be better. They noticed a difference in Tuesday’s practice. The focus was back. The intensity was there. The desire to make a play when a play needed to be made returned. Everything the Irish weren’t the previous Saturday, they were earlier this week.
“As a defense, we were ready (Tuesday) to get out there,” Martini said. “The tempo was really high and the energy was there. The guys just want to get back out there and compete.”
Part of that stems from not being their best against Wake. Part of that also likely comes with knowing that they have to be dialed in against the Hurricanes if they want to return home in the early morning hours of Sunday still driving toward and dreaming of a spot in the playoffs.
Let quarterback Malik Rosier get comfortable in the pocket and he’s going to make plays. Give Travis Horner too many open lanes coming out the backfield, and he’s going to chew off big chunks of rushing yards. Braxton Berrios has big-play potential on the outside for an offense that averages 367 yards per game.
“They present a lot of different challenges,” Tranquill said.
To negate those, the Notre Dame defense will have to bring the heat in South Florida. And a hammer.
While Miami has made national news this season with its “turnover chain” – a thick, gold 10-karat rope necklace that Hurricane defenders sport after they force a turnover – Notre Dame also has its defensive carrot.
It’s a gold hammer, first utilized in the summer by director of football performance Matt Balis. He would hand it to the player who had been the “beast of the week” in the strength and conditioning program. The hammer eventually found its way into the Irish locker room at the start of the regular season. It’s remained behind the scenes and given to guys who make big plays.
Heading into Saturday, cornerback Nick Coleman was in possession of it.
“We’ve been kind of handing it around internally,” Tranquill said. “It doesn’t really symbolize anything. We just think it’s cool to have as a defense.”
Saturday won’t come down to hammers or gold chains or anything else on the periphery. It may not come down to scoring points, but rather, preventing them. The Irish weren’t good defensively the last time out. They know they have to be really good – even great – this weekend.
“In big games like this, defense wins the game,” Tranquill said. “The best defense is going to win. We’ve got to go in there with that mindset to dominate.”