Troy Pride Jr. gets back up to speed with Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Every once in a while Notre Dame cornerback complements and roommates Troy Pride Jr. and Julian Love dig into their personal archives and watch film of themselves from their freshman season.

“It’s just really interesting to see how well we’ve grown and how well we’ve adapted to our circumstances,” Pride said with a smile of their 2016 sometimes-rude, sometimes-prodigious welcome to college football.

“It’s really good to learn from it. You see the freshman mistakes you make, and you go, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ ”

And yet a recent film session for Pride, now a junior, was even more uneasy on the eye. It was from ND’s 44-22 win over Navy and its offbeat triple-option offense, Oct. 27 in San Diego, a game in which Pride played tentatively and eventually got called out by Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

He is back in Kelly’s good graces and back to form, by all accounts, for Saturday night’s ninth-ever clash between Notre Dame (9-0), ranked third, and a Florida State team (4-5) that must win at least two of its final three regular-season games to avoid its first losing season since 1976.

Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. EST on Senior Night, Green Jersey Night and Welcome Back Brandon Wimbush Night. NBC has the telecast.

The third of the series games staged in South Bend between the two traditional college football powers in November is the first that won’t be played in unseasonably warm temperatures.

The 1993 Game of the Century — a 31-24 victory for the No. 2 Irish over No. 1 FSU — was played on a day (Nov. 13) when the high hit 66 degrees in South Bend. A 37-0 Seminole waxing of Tyrone Willingham’s 2003 Irish a decade later had a game-time temp of 51 on Nov. 1 of that year. The Irish and FSU also met in an October game in Notre Dame Stadium in 1981.

Saturday night’s November matchup is expected to be played in sub-freezing temperatures.

“I think we’re overplaying the conditions,” Kelly said. “Thirty mile-per-hour winds — we’re not expecting that. It’s going to be cold. Put some leggings on.”

There is no overplaying Pride’s response to Kelly’s criticism of his performance against Navy, when the Irish faced Northwestern last Saturday night. Only Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool garnered a higher game grade from Pro Football Focus than did Pride among all players on both teams in the 31-21 Irish triumph.

An example of how raw stats don’t always align with film grades, Pride had two pass breakups and no tackles against the Wildcats but was relentless in coverage. He had one pass breakup and no tackles — but several missed several tackles and missed assignments in the Navy game.

Navy was his first game coming back from an ankle injury, and he wasn’t 100 percent. Pride said he let the injury get in his head.

“I really feel like I embarrassed myself and the team,” Pride said of his performance against Navy. “And with that, I just wanted to rectify that situation and make sure I was in a good position to play well.”

And watching the film from the Navy game?

“It’s not tough. It’s a learning experience,” he said. “I love to learn from the mistakes I have. I didn’t avoid watching it. I was ready to see it. I was ready to get critiqued. I was ready to get talked about, so the fact of the matter was it was about seeing and learning from it and moving forward.”

Notre Dame’s defense, as a whole, continues to move forward. The Irish started the week 25th in total defense (331 yards a game) — their best showing nationally this deep into a season since 2012. And their 4.56 yards per play allowed is tied for 10th with Alabama.

The pass-efficiency defense is still what ND does best in any team category — offense, defense or special teams. The Irish are ninth, and on a trajectory for the best end-of-the-season national ranking in that stat category in school history.

Who starts at quarterback against that pass defense is still a bit of a mystery. FSU first-year head coach Willie Taggart perpetuated his depth chart hide-and-seek longer than ND counterpart Kelly did this week.

Sophomore James Blackman is coming off a 421-yard passing performance last weekend in a 47-28 FSU loss to NC State. That’s the most yardage put up by a Seminole QB in a game since 2013.

Junior Deondre Francois declared to the media early in the week that he was still No. 1, after sitting the NC State game with an injury but before Taggart could proclaim that he was undecided. Francois started the first eight games of the season.

Who plays offensive line seems to be the bigger issue. Florida State has shuffled nine different starters and a Power 5-high eight different combinations, and it showed. The Seminoles are near the bottom of the national stats in rushing offense and sacks allowed

Kelly, meanwhile, confirmed to the Notre Dame student newspaper, The Observer, on Thursday that senior Brandon Wimbush would start his first game since Sept. 15, and that junior starter Ian Book would be held out Saturday night for precautionary reasons with a rib injury.

“First of all, our players really respect him, and … they’ll rally around him,” Kelly said of Wimbush, 12-3 as a starter. “But he doesn’t have to come in … and go win the football game. We’ve got some other pretty good pieces.

“We’ve got a pretty good defense.”

And the latest film will tell you, Pride is back to being a big part of it.

Notre Dame senior Troy Pride Jr. (5) is setting the tone for the Irish cornerbacks in spring practice.