Noie: Another average defensive effort for No. 8 Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — Carrying cruel intentions while motoring through the middle of the madness from his inside linebacker spot, Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill wasn’t going to be slowed.
By anyone. For anything.
Certainly not by an overmatched Vanderbilt running back who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was eventually dropped flat on his back by Tranquill, who had Kyle Shurmur in his sights during Saturday’s game at Notre Dame Stadium.
“I want to bring it,” Tranquill said. “I want to set the tone.”
Tone set. Tranquill knocked the poor back into next week to disrupt yet another Commodore drive that went nowhere. It was that the type of effort on third-and-seven — fast and furious that left the opposing team flustered — that many expected would be common for an Irish defense that just might be borderline dominant.
Still waiting for Notre Dame to hit that standard on that side of the ball following yet another too-close-for-comfort contest at home. Everything after the previous week against Ball State had to be better, said Irish coach Brian Kelly From the way the Irish tied their shoes to their pre-game meal, to even the weather. It pretty much was from all angles.
Eighth-ranked Notre Dame moved to 3-0 for the first time since 2015 following a 22-17 victory, but it was another long day under a hot September sun for the defense. Great? No way. Good? In spurts. Here and there, not everywhere.
There’s nothing average about this Irish defense. Except it still plays that way.
The defense was back on its heels as it was attacking and aggressive. The defense allowed a middle-of-the-road Southeastern Conference team to gash it for 420 yards and an average of 6.0 per play. The defense managed one sack. It again had to deliver — and did— in the closing minutes. Another upset for the ages was averted when safety Jalen Elliott busted up a Shurmur pass on fourth-and-four from the Irish 31. Complete that one, and this one really gets interesting. Instead, it was another escape. From the 307 yards gained by Michigan to 349 tallied by Ball State to the 400-plus BY Vanderbilt, which did it while running nearly 30 fewer plays than Ball State.
Still, the worry meter remains low by the guys who were actually out there running around trying to figure it out and beat the heat. A week ago, the Irish almost to a man talked of being disappointed in the way they played — the way they won. It felt like a loss. Not so after this one.
“I’m never worried with this group,” Tranquill said. “We’ll have corrections to fix, but we’ll be ready to go next week.”
“We did great; we played well,” said free safety Alohi Gilman. “We were able to handle all the junk thrown at us.”
It looked like the Irish defense finally would have its way. Vanderbilt did nothing for all of the first quarter and into the second. The Irish limited the visitors to 33 yards on 17 plays through their first four drives, none of which ended in points. All the Irish had to do was get going offensively and this one looked like it would turn one-sided sometime around halftime.
“We started fast; we had great attention to detail in the first half,” Tranquill said. “They got a couple drives going in the second half.”
That’s when Vanderbilt got going offensively. Got confident. Hit some big plays and pushed the Irish defense back on its collective heel. Following that 17-play, 33-yard start, Vanderbilt tallied 75, 72, 58, 51 and 47 yards on its next five drives. The defense was a step slow. Sluggish. Not really attacking. Just kind of there. Giving the Commodores a lot of what they wanted to take.
“They played around with our looks,” Gilman said. “We had to adjust accordingly. We executed pretty well.”
That the defense again had to deliver some big plays at big moments — a Gilman strip at the goal line that resulted in a touchback and Irish ball — didn’t bother coach Brian Kelly a bit. He’ll take the win, and he’ll take the defensive effort less than a month in. He said afterward that the Irish just aren’t going to beat teams 52-3. It’s going to be a slog. A grind. But in the end, success. Again.
“It’s the third game of the season,” Kelly said. “If anyone wants to write that greatness column, I would tap the brakes.”
Irish fans knew they’d have to wring their hands and wonder about the offense — the seemingly suspect quarterback situation, the run game that finally got in gear, the overall execution under coordinator Chip Long. Those were expected to be the struggle spots, and have been. But not the defense. Too experienced. Too many potential play-makers. Too much depth and determination. Yet there it was again, just like it was in the opener against Michigan, in the previous week’s slog against Ball State, where a group that’s supposed to be so good simply wasn’t.
There’s work to be done. That’s true. But to hear the players tell it, they’re closer to being a finished product than the proverbial work in progress. It’s coming. Maybe at Wake Forest. Maybe the following week back at home under the lights against Stanford. If not then, most definitely the following week with a little trip to Blacksburg, Va., for what likely will be another night game.
The Irish believe the best is yet to come for their defense. But when?
What has to improve? They just can’t be good for one series in one quarter. Or through two. Or three, which has been the case the first three weeks. The Irish know that for this defense to be special, they have to do it for four full quarters. Soon.
“We haven’t finished well defensively,” Tranquill said. “We seem to start out hot, and then lose steam, I don’t know, lose a spark or an edge a little bit.
“We’ve got to be able to come off the ropes in the second half and knock out our opponents.”
Still, play-makers continue to deliver. Against Michigan, it was defensive lineman Khalid Kareem. Against Ball State, it was middle linebacker Te’von Coney. On Saturday, it again was Gilman forcing the big turnover. It was cornerback Troy Pride making a pick and adding seven tackles. It was Tranquill seemingly playing every snap for the third straight week and hitting everything in his way for a team-high nine tackles.
“We’re a good defense,” Kelly said. “We’re not a great defense.”
There’s time to get there. But the clock’s ticking.