Safety becoming more than most improved unit for Irish

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK — Two recent opponents — Northwestern and Florida State — served as an appetizer for what Notre Dame would seemingly face in Syracuse.

Both teams can spread the field and throw often. The up-tempo Orange are a higher-octane version of the two, entering the weekend No. 6 in scoring offense, No. 27 in rushing offense and No. 14 in total offense.

Neither the Wildcats nor Seminoles, though, were mentioned by Irish head coach Brian Kelly when talking about how ND strategized against Syracuse — which it handled 36-3 Saturday at Yankee Stadium, thanks in part to three interceptions from its safeties.

He instead thought back to a much different opponent — triple-option Navy.

“We had a similar situation at Navy, where we felt like our plan was outstanding,” Kelly said. “And then, we got too smart. We made adjustments at halftime, and we kind of mucked it up a bit.

“We said, ‘We are not going to make any changes. We are going to stick with what we are doing, believe in what we are doing, and let’s just get better at what we have put together.’ ”

The No. 3 Irish (11-0) initiated that plan in the Shamrock Series matchup by leaning on a position that had been lacking before this year. ND’s safeties, which went interception-less last season, picked off three passes against the 12th-ranked Orange (8-3). All of them came in the first half. Junior Alohi Gilman’s two interceptions garnered him the game ball.

Reading the quarterback’s eyes helped Gilman haul in his first interception. He saw Syracuse’s boundary receiver run a seam route, and as relief quarterback Tommy DeVito turned and gunned it down the field, Gilman flew over the top and caught the ball at its highest point.

“It is night and day compared to Michigan and now,” Gilman said of the Irish defense. “From a communication standpoint, from the chemistry from the corners, with the linebackers — we are all on the same page. We are all clicking in the right directions.”

Later in the second quarter, as Syracuse’s Taj Harris was snagging a pass on a crossing pattern, Gilman hammered the receiver. The ball went airborne, which Gilman caught and returned 54 yards. One play later, a 9-yard Jafar Armstrong touchdown run increased the Irish lead to 20-0.

“He was all over the field,” said Kelly of Gilman. “When you look at it, his play was infectious, because he was outstanding on special teams as well.”

The Orange played most of the game without starting quarterback Eric Dungey, who suffered an upper-body injury on Syracuse’s third offensive series. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said mistakes and drops — not the injury — hindered the Orange attack.

DeVito, the backup, finished 14-of-31 for 105 yards with two interceptions. Dungey completed 1-of-4 passes for 10 yards and an interception.

“They were very simple. They were very similar to Clemson,” said Babers of ND’s defense. “They turn the game from chess to checkers. And now, guys have to make plays. There were numerous passing combinations that we called, and you looked out there and everyone was covered.

“And if they are covered, there is nowhere for the quarterback to throw the ball. There were a lot of throws where Tommy just threw the ball away. He’s not being inaccurate. He’s looking, he’s looking, and nobody is open.”

Similar to Gilman’s first pick, safety Jalen Elliott undercut a seam route for his fourth interception on the season. Gilman finished second on the team with eight tackles, while Elliott recorded five.

The Irish defense struggled at times defending the run up the middle. Running back Moe Neal ran for 74 yards on 18 carries. Dontae Strickland’s eight attempts went for 50 yards. A 463-yard day from ND’s offense, along with the dual-threat Dungey’s injury, quickly took Syracuse’s ground game out of the equation.

ND distributed run defense duties to its nickel back, Gilman said. The Irish continued to move junior Julian Love to nickel and elevate freshman TaRiq Bracy on pivotal third downs. True freshman Houston Griffith saw more action at the position than Nick Coleman in the second half.

“We had to mix some things up,” Kelly said. “We had some stunts that we felt like could affect the counter play, which is a big play for them. And then really do a great job when we were in a five-man box.

“We showed a five-man box, which prompted some run, and then added a hat in late. If you can’t stop them from running the football, you have no chance to slow them down. It was a big emphasis all week.”

Love, who came to ND as a nickel, almost yielded a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Despite being burned, he caught up just in time, batting the ball out of the receiver’s hands in the end zone.

“We switched it up a bit,” Love said. “I think TaRiq is definitely coming along. We can incorporate him in the plan. The last couple weeks, their go-to guys were in the slot, so that’s why I have been working in the slot.”

Love making plays down the stretch came as no surprise. But the Irish safeties becoming ball-hawk playmakers has been an important development for this defense. They limited the high-octane Orange to 234 total yards and 6-of-18 third down efficiency.

“We knew their time was coming,” Love said of the safeties, the consistent soft spot in the ND defense in 2017. “It was tough for me personally to see that last year. Not to see that, but everyone talking about them like they’re not talented. They are. They’ve been showing that this whole year.

“Alohi was such a big-play factor for us. Jalen has been there all season. It’s amazing. It really helps us out on the outside, me and Troy, that they’re fitting gaps, they’re making plays down the field. That’s something you haven’t seen from a Notre Dame defense in a couple years.”

Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates an interception with teammate Jalen Elliott (21) against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in New York. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN