FOOTBALL

Notebook: Notre Dame secondary feasting on third-and-long

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Third down and long has become the situation of doom for opposing offenses facing Notre Dame’s defense.

The Irish feature a dime package comprised of six defensive backs, four defensive linemen and one linebacker during these obvious passing scenarios. Both Louisville and New Mexico committed their biggest blunders against this specialized look.

No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) recorded three interceptions — including a 34-yard pick-six from freshman safety Kyle Hamilton — in dime in its 66-14 victory over New Mexico. Safety Jalen Elliott and field cornerback Shaun Crawford also had interceptions in Saturday’s home opener at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Lobos (1-1) entered the contest without starting quarterback Brandt Hughes (shoulder). They relied on their running game with a season-high 46 attempts, but to no avail for the most part. UNM’s biggest rushing plays of 47 and 37 yards — both of which went for touchdowns — came during garbage time against ND’s third-team defense.

When the time came to air it out, UNM quarterback Sheriron Jones was no match for ND’s dime look. He finished 4-of-15 for 19 yards passing.

“Ultimately, we just have to win on first and second down,” Crawford said. “I feel like if we get them to third and long, the odds are in our favor. Every time we come out there, our main focus is to stop the run. If we can stop the run or eliminate yards after the catch on first and second down, then we are looking at manageable third downs.

“As long as we continue to do our jobs on first and second down, third down will be no problem.”

In their 25 snaps using the dime package this season, the Irish have four pass breakups, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The combination of quarterbacks between Louisville and UNM are 4-of-15 for 29 yards against that defensive look.

Safeties Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Kyle Hamilton and cornerbacks TaRiq Bracy, Troy Pride Jr. and Crawford are usually the dime defensive backs. Bracy (field) and Pride (boundary) cover the outside receivers while Crawford operates on the inside. Hamilton and Elliott tend to line up deep while Gilman aligns like a linebacker in the box or on the line of scrimmage.

Linebacker Jack Lamb joins defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara on the line of scrimmage, with either Kareem or Okwara operating on the interior.

“We are never stagnant,” Elliott said. “The quarterback may see a couple different things, and he will throw it right to us because we shift back into where we were. Just the ability to give us looks and the ability to have a lot of cover guys on the field.”

Elliott experienced this firsthand when Jones directed a pass to him without a receiver nearby. The second quarter interception sparked the Irish offense after stalling on three of its first four drives.

Interception No. 1 came on ND’s first snap in dime. Hamilton undercut a route and secured the pick after Hayes batted the ball backward. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hamilton has two pass breakups and a pick-six in the four passes thrown his direction this season. The other play resulted in an incompletion.

“It starts with really good vision,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Hamilton. “He recognizes things for the first time really well. His route recognition is outstanding. Some have a good (route) pattern recognition; some don’t … He’s got that natural ability, and then length obviously helps quite a bit.”

Crawford's pick occurred further down the field from a pass down the middle on third-and-12. The graduate senior ran to the hip of the receiver and secured the interception on the ground.

“He was in and around the football quite a bit today, as he usually is,” Kelly said of Crawford. “He finds the football as well. Just to think back on the lows that he’s had to go through, and to see him today come up with a big play, yeah, that’s kind of nice.”

Linebacker audition continues

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea experimented with his linebacker unit even more than he did against the Cardinals.

The Irish used just three different linebacker combinations in 14 drives against Louisville. Nine linebackers and six different combinations saw the field this time in ND's opening seven possessions. Mike Bo Bauer and rover Paul Moala did not play a defensive snap against UL but rotated against UNM.

Drew White, Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer saw time at mike. Asmar Bilal, Jordan Genmark Heath and Simon rotated at buck. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Paul Moala earned snaps at rover. Jack Lamb operated as the sole dime linebacker.

Bilal bounced back after an uneventful game one performance. He tallied a game-high eight tackles with two tackles for a loss against the Lobos.

“Stopping the run by and large, look, they were committed to running the football today,” Kelly said. “I think they had almost 50 carries. You can’t beat us running 50 times with just two big plays.”

ND’s first team defense played the first 10 drives. Here’s the distribution of 51 snaps among the linebackers in those 10 drives (excluding a fake punt): White (33), Owusu-Koramoah (29), Bilal (28), Lamb (12), Moala (10), Simon (9), Bauer (4), Genmark Heath (4).

Squibs

• ND’s 66 points are its most in a home opener since defeating Haskell, now Haskell Indian Nations University, 73-0 in 1932.

• Hamilton’s pick-six was the first by an Irish freshman since Robert Blanton against Purdue in 2008.

• Quarterback Ian Book recorded a career-high in passing touchdowns with five. An Irish quarterback has thrown for five or more touchdowns in a game just eight other times.

• After punting on three of their first four drives, the Irish scored on their next eight possessions. The first five of those eight possessions produced 31 points in 117 seconds with 299 yards gained in 11 plays.

• Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, Gilman and Book were the three Irish captains for the coin toss. ND designated wide receiver Chris Finke, Okwara, Kareem and Elliott for that distinction against the Cardinals.

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) intercepts a pass during the Notre Dame-New Mexico NCAA Football game Satrurday, September 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.