Analysis: Notre Dame defense building, not rebuilding, under Clark Lea

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The continuing media obsession over getting to the bottom of the differences between Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea and predecessor and former mentor Mike Elko ignores the beauty in Lea’s January promotion.

Their similarities.

What Lea was able to orchestrate Saturday night in 12th-ranked Notre Dame’s 24-17 stifling of No. 14 Michigan, was due in large part to continuity, due in large part to a consistent message — even if the deliveries vary widely from Elko’s in decibels and adrenaline levels.

“You don’t know if a bomb has gone off in the coach’s box, because he has such a calm demeanor at all times,” ND head coach Brian Kelly assessed of the 36-year-old Lea. “It makes it very easy to work with Clark in communication.”

Building on Elko’s foundation, Lea was able to be more aggressive in his play calls for several reasons:

• The Irish players’ familiarity with the system allows Lea to take it to a 2.0 version.

• The improved defensive line depth helps take the pass rush to another level, and that in turn creates more pressure on opposing offenses.

• ND’s improved play from the safety position, even with having to move resurgent Nick Coleman into the nickel role because of Shaun Crawford’s injury, allows Lea to unleash his cornerbacks to press more, limit their cushions on receivers and jump routes more often.

At the center of that safety improvement is Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. The junior can play either free safety or strong safety, which gives Lea more options when it comes to creating a rotation for that position group.

In his first start in a Notre Dame uniform, Gilman recorded seven tackles, including one for loss, and two pass breakups. He sat out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements after losing an appeal for immediate eligibility.

“It’s an experience I’m extremely humbled by,” the Laie, Hawaii, product said of his Notre Dame debut. “I’m just so grateful to be part of this program.”

And he’s grateful that Lea is leading the defense, with Elko now at Texas A&M.

“That’s Mr. Cool right there,” Gilman said of Lea. “He did a great job (in his first game as coordinator). Just seeing him the way he responds, his emotional reaction to everything, the guys really respond to him and we rally behind him.”

The defense will have to continue to rally, after losing two players long term in the past week — Crawford Tuesday and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to a broken foot Saturday night against Michigan.

And despite the Irish holding Michigan to 307 total yards and a stingy 58 rushing yards on 33 attempts, there were lapses during a late 80-yard scoring drive that resulted in the Wolverines’ only offensive touchdown of the night.

“Our physical and mental (aspects) were better,” Kelly said of the overall defensive performance. “I think the technical and tactical pieces need to get better.”

As the 2014 Michigan game reminds us, teams will continue to try to find new ways to poke holes in a defensive scheme and team psyche.

In the second game of the Brian VanGorder Era, Notre Dame held Michigan to 289 total yards in a 31-0 Irish rout, forced four turnovers and pitched the first shutout against Michigan since Iowa accomplished the feat 376 games before.

That was in 1984, when iconic coach Bo Schembechler was still stalking the sidelines for the Wolverines. Current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was the Wolverines’ starting quarterback to begin the 1984 season but missed the Iowa game with a broken arm. The 376 games between shutouts remains an NCAA record.

Four games after ND’s historic conquest of Michigan, North Carolina came into Notre Dame Stadium, cranked up the tempo and ran 84 plays and amassed 510 total yards in a 50-43 near upset of the Irish. Opposing teams copied the template and VanGorder never found a solution.

His run ended after 30 games, four games into the 2016 season.

Ball State (1-0), the Irish opponent this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, figures to push the tempo offensively against Lea’s scheme.

Though the Cardinals ranked 110th in total offense last season, they played the final nine games of 2017 without No. 1 quarterback Riley Neal. In his first game back, a 42-6 demolition of Central Connecticut State on Thursday night, Ball State ran 84 plays and piled up a school-record 652 total yards, including 316 rushing the ball.

Speaking of VanGorder

The deposed Irish assistant made his relaunch as a coordinator Saturday with Louisville, against defending national champion Alabama.

It did not go well.

The Crimson Tide rolled up 519 total yards in a 51-14 beatdown. The 222 yards Alabama collected in rushing yardage marks the 14th time in the last 31 games an opponent has done that to a VanGorder defense.

Wrote Yahoo’s Pete Thamel of the big picture of Louisville and Petrino:

“Brian VanGorder picked up where we last remembered seeing him as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator — at the intersection of overmatched and inept.

“While it’s no sin to lose to Alabama, the manner in which Louisville did it will raise concerns for (head coach Bobby) Petrino’s future. He has three of his family members among the 10 on-field coaches on his staff — a son and two in-laws — making $650,000. Two of those are defensive coaches.

“When you make a questionable defensive coordinator hire, stick him with two of your relatives and then give up 51 points, it brings the head coach’s negligence of that side of the ball into florescent view.”

Notre Dame, for the record, opens its 2019 season at Louisville.

Unpacking the QB plan

If nothing else, junior Ian Book proved Saturday night to be, at the very least, a good luck charm.

Kelly would like ND’s No. 2 option to be more than that, ideally.

On Saturday night, Book played in two of Notre Dame’s 69 offensive plays, both handoffs to running back Jafar Armstrong. Both touchdowns.

One of his appearances was brought on by starter Brandon Wimbush getting poked in the eye.

“There’s a package set up for him in short yardage, where we think he can handle some direct snap offense — pro style, if you will — that really fits him. But if we have to put him in the game, i.e., the example of Brandon when he got his eye poked, he could run the entire offense at a high level.

“We want to keep him involved in the game. Brandon is going to run the ball a lot this year. He’s going to need a blow here and there.

“That’s why it’s important we have those packages in there, so he’s always feeling the football in some fashion, getting him in the game, keeping him ready. Again, that’s going to be the nature of the offense.”

Wimbush ran the ball 19 times against Michigan for 59 yards, second only in the number of carries to the career-high 21 he had last season against Boston College. Wimbush averaged 11.75 carries per game in 2017.


With a 48-yard field goal and three extra points against Michigan, Irish kicker Justin Yoon sits one point behind ND running backs coach Autry Denson for the No. 4 spot on the school’s all-time scoring list (282-281).

Former running back Allen Pinkett tops the list with 320 career points.

• Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem’s nine tackles, including 2.5 for losses with two sacks, against Michigan earned the junior Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors in his first college start.

The Michigan native’s first sack of the season was for a loss of 16 yards and pushed the Wolverines out of field goal range.

• The renewal of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry did wonders for NBC’s television ratings.

The 4.51 overnight rating made it the most-watched college football game on any network Saturday and tied the highest rating for an Irish football telecast on NBC in 12 years.

Breaking it down to the local market, the highest rate of viewership, interestingly, came from the Columbus, Ohio, market (16.5 rating).

Saturday night’s overnight rating represent a 51 percent increase over 2014 ND-Michigan matchup on NBC (2.99), which is the last time the two teams played anywhere, and up 60 percent over the Irish-Georgia game last Sept. 9 (2.81).

ND-Temple drew a 1.0 rating in the 2017 season opener.

• Senior wide receiver Chris Finke’s first touchdown since 2016 came on a 43-yard pass from Wimbush Saturday night in which Finke wrestled the ball away from Michigan safety Brad Hawkins in the end zone.

Hawkins entered the game four plays earlier, after starter Josh Metellus was ejected for a targeting foul on Irish tight end Alizé Mack.

Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes, left, and Jerry Tillery, right, work together to bring down Michigan QB Dylan McCaffrey during the 2018 season opener.

No. 12 NOTRE DAME (1-0) vs. BALL STATE (1-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Notre Dame by 33½