Notre Dame defense needs help from Irish offense to avoid overextending

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ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

On play No. 17 of an early, ball-hogging 19-play drive, Ball State wide receiver Justin Hall took an inside handoff, hit a wall of defenders at the Notre Dame 2-yard line and then morphed into a human wishbone of sorts.

Irish junior safety Alohi Gilman actually looked like he was trying to detach Hall’s right leg on the play, a second-and-goal run that led to a Ball State field goal, two plays later, in ND’s 24-16 outlasting of the plucky Cardinals last Saturday.

“He can’t run with no legs,” Gilman explained of his tactic.

Eighty official Ball State offensive plays later, with Gilman and several of his teammates on the field for all but a handful of them, it’s a wonder that Gilman had any legs left himself.

“I think I was more sore against Michigan, honestly,” Gilman said of ND’s season opener the previous week. “Just because the style of play was a little different. Ball State was more on the perimeter, got balls out quick, and I wasn’t as in the box as I was Michigan week.”

Michigan, though, ran a modest 69 offensive plays. Ball State’s total was 97, the most ever an Irish defense has had to face in school history. Twenty-three of those 97 were third-down plays. The national average for offensive plays is 71.4.

“It’s a long season,” ND coach Brian Kelly said when pressed about possible long-term effects. “This is a game in particular, the Ball State game, gave us some things to consider, work towards being better at.”

The eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) host Vanderbilt (2-0) Saturday in the first 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time start at Notre Dame Stadium in eight seasons. Unless the Commodores decide to play copycats, their normal pace of play on offense is at the other end of the tempo spectrum.

Vanderbilt is averaging 64 offensive plays through its first two games, against Middle Tennessee State and Nevada, good for 112th among the 130 FBS teams. That’s pretty much in line with what the Commodores did in 2017, 62.6 offensive plays per game, for 119th.

But on Sept. 22, the Irish visit Wake Forest (2-1), the nation’s early leader in offensive plays per game at 93. Syracuse (9th, 84.0) and Northwestern (11th, 83.5) are lurking in November during a stretch in which Notre Dame plays four of its final five regular-season games away from home.

Wake ran 105 plays in its 41-34 home loss to Boston College on Thursday evening. That’s the most any FBS team has amassed in a single game since the 2016 season.

Look for lightly recruited true freshman quarterback Sam Hartman to hang onto the starter’s job, by the way, when presumptive No. 1 Kendall Hinton returns from a three-game suspension next weekend.

Irish junior cornerback Julian Love, like Gilman, was another player whose snap count was in the 90s last Saturday and who also seemed to be minimally concerned about it.

“When I’m out there, it feels normal, no matter how many plays I play,” Love said. “They (ND’s training staff) realize I played a lot, and they made sure that I rehabbed the right way and was hydrating the right way.”

Kelly offered that ND’s recovery technology, which includes NormaTec, and monitoring systems, such as Omegawave, can help mitigate the occasional oversaturation of playing time.

“We’re really doing a better job of testing things that can test the central nervous system for our guys to make sure we’re not overloading them,” he said Thursday after practice.

But what if the hiccup of high volume becomes a trend?

Vanderbilt graduate Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s first-year defensive coordinator, is working on developing the kind of depth in the Irish linebacker level and secondary that defensive line coach Mike Elston already enjoys with his positions group.

The 36-year-old Lea, incidentally, was in the stands, rooting for Notre Dame and wearing an Irish T-shirt the last time the Commodores visited Notre Dame Stadium 23 years ago. That’s even though, his father, Clark Lea Sr., had attended Vanderbilt.

His uncle had attended Vanderbilt. His sister had attended Vanderbilt, and Clark himself would eventually attend Vanderbilt in his hometown of Nashville. Tenn.

With Bob Davie serving as Irish interim coach for an ailing Lou Holtz, the Irish routed Vandy, 41-0.

“I think it kind of broke my dad’s and uncle’s heart that I was on the dark side,” Lea told the Tribune in June. “At the same time, I think my dad was excited that I was driven toward something that was special.”

He’s driven now to get players such as freshmen Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer and Houston Griffith, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath, and junior Donte Vaughn in position where they can rotate in with regularity.

But ultimately, the number of plays will need to come down. The Irish rank seventh in the most defensive plays per game at 83.0. Ole Miss leads the FBS at 94.

And great teams find a way to gravitate in the other direction. The highest any of the four national champions in the Playoff Era have ranked in defensive plays per game was 2014, with Ohio State at 95th. and none of the eight teams in the past two playoffs have ranked higher than 2016 Washington, at 86th.

What those teams had, that ND currently doesn’t, is help from their own offenses in terms of ball control. Running the ball often and well helps a lot in that regard.

After setting a school record for yards per carry (6.25) in 2017 and ranking seventh nationally in rushing yards per game (269.3), Notre Dame heads into a matchup with the nation’s No. 18 rush defense sporting the FBS’ 105th-ranked rushing attack per game (124.5).

And per carry (2.83), it’s even bleaker two games in. Just 10 FBS teams have a worse per-carry average, with only one of those, Iowa State, being a Power 5 team.

“When we evaluate our running game, we’re really looking for the technical soundness of it,” Kelly said. “We were fundamentally in the positions we needed to be, we just didn’t finish out plays. So that’s what we’ll go to work on.”

Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott (21) celebrates with safety Alohi Gilman (11) after making an interception during ND’s 24-16 win over Ball State last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.