Tough Love: Notre Dame's November playoff push starts with its elite pass defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EVANSTON, Ill. — Julian Love seems to carry a natural effervescence — to his game, to his life, to having to answer a question for the third or fourth time in the same interview session.

Yet there was a discernable uptick in the junior cornerback’s mood when the subject of freshman Notre Dame football teammate Houston Griffith came up.

The 6-foot, 205-pound Griffith is the evolving piece in an Irish pass defense that’s on a trajectory to have its best statistical showing nationally since pass-efficiency defense became the NCAA’s preferred measure of prowess against the passing game in 1991.

“He’s having a good week,” Love offered up of Griffith, ND’s No. 1 option at the nickel position. “His game’s going to elevate so much, not just now, but in years to come.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would settle for noticeable spike Saturday night, when his AP No. 3/CFP No. 4 Irish (8-0) clash with Big Ten West leader Northwestern (5-3) in the series’ 49th meeting, at Ryan Field (7:15 EDT; ESPN).

The Wildcats’ split personality — lost to Akron and Duke at home, got pushed to the edge by Big Ten lightweights Nebraska and Rutgers, took down Michigan State and Wisconsin — plays right into another bogeyman narrative from the past (inexplicable November nosedives) that the Irish must prove they can transcend.

But the X-and-O reality of Saturday night is the most prolific passing attack Love and the Irish have faced this season (25th nationally), and also the second-least effective one, is going right into the teeth of what this Notre Dame team does best. Play the pass.

Led by Love, a midseason AP All-American, Notre Dame ranks eighth nationally in pass-efficiency defense, a statistical category the Irish have never found themselves higher than 10th in at season’s end.

All four of ND’s remaining opponents lean offensively on the pass, rating significantly higher in the pass offense rankings than rush offense. and none of the four rank in the top 50 in pass efficiency. Northwestern, led by fourth-year starting QB Clayton Thorson, is 112th.

“Situational game-planning, situational knowledge,” Love said of the next level for the Irish pass defense.

As it is, Notre Dame stood 111th nationally in pass-efficiency defense on the day former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged and the freshman version of Love was installed as a first-time starter back in late September of 2016.

The Irish, under interim coordinator Mike Elston, finished that season 79th, leaped to 46th last season before climbing 38 more spots this season.

Arguably the best cornerback corps since the 2002 Irish produced two All-American cornerbacks (Shane Walton and Vontez Duff) is the cornerstone of it. But also significant is a dramatically improved safety corps, and the defense’s ability to consistently produce a pass rush from its front four for the first time since 2012.

Perhaps not so obvious to the success of creating a no-fly zone is the play of buck linebacker Drue Tranquill, ND’s second-leading tackler and a question mark for the Northwestern game due to health.

Though the grad senior captain and former safety did practice Thursday to some extent, five days after suffering a high ankle sprain in San Diego against Navy, Kelly would not endorse Tranquill’s presence in the Saturday night lineup as a certainty.

Which creates a potential soft spot in the Irish pass defense with the short passing game. Kelly declined Thursday night to name the rotation of players who may comprise Tranquill’s replacements if he remains on the sidelines.

“Drue is the heart and soul of our defense,” Love said. “He has the mental capacity to know what everybody’s doing at any given point. He rallies us together to keep working, to keep pushing.”

After not playing a single snap against-triple option Navy last Saturday night, Griffith returns to the mix, looking to make sure he’s no longer a vulnerability.

“He’s gaining more confidence,” Kelly said of the Chicago native who played his final two high school seasons at national power IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

“It’s much more about technique than it is about athleticism with him. Learning leverage at that position is so important in terms of what he’s getting, and I think he continues to progress at the position.”

The 5-foot-11, 193-pound Love is ND’s best option at nickel still, and he has moved inside in certain key stretches in some games this season. Griffith’s call to man the position evolved after he had been moved to safety last spring. Shaun Crawford’s season-ending knee injury in late August changed all of that.

“That whole group is very close in terms of helping each other,” Kelly said of the corners, which also lost veteran Nick Watkins to a grad transfer to the University of Houston after spring practice concluded.

Love sets the tone for the group, with 29 tackles, 13 passes defended — placing in the top 10 nationally — and three fumble recoveries, tied for first in the FBS.

And he’s got a little sentimentality on the line this week.

Northwestern was his original recruiting lean before Notre Dame got involved. Love’s family lives in Westchester, Ill., about 20 miles southwest of Ryan Field, and he helped Nazareth Academy — about 10 miles farther, in LaGrange Park — to back-to-back state titles in football before arriving at ND.

He was on the same-7-on-7 summer team with both Northwestern’s leading receiver, Flynn Nagel, and ND’s leading receiver, Miles Boykin.

“I’m just happy to be playing in, like, a normal defense,” Love said of the switch away from the one-time scheme used against Navy. “I’m just happy to be doing my job, kind of like I was doing before. With that bye week in there and then Navy, it feels like we haven’t been playing real defense in a long time.”

Playing real defense — playing real good defense — is where Notre Dame’s November playoff push starts.

“You can’t just think about the end point,” Love said. “You’ve got to think (every) rep is meaningful. Coach Kelly talks about the process. That’s his word. I’m going to get this (offensive) look thrown at me in the game. I need to perfect it now. That’s the process.”

Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love (27) defends on a pass to Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19), Sept. 29 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) and Khalid Kareem (53) celebrate walk off the field following last week’s win over Navy at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif.