Notre Dame defense, Julian Okwara ready to pen new chapter

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Writing in his journal has proven to be a coping mechanism for Julian Okwara.

That’s one way Notre Dame’s star defensive end dealt with last week’s 45-14 loss at Michigan. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound senior grabbed a pen and jotted down observations about the game and how he can improve going forward.

This process dates back to when Okwara sent love letters to female classmates after his move from Nigeria to America in the second grade. Too shy to vocalize those emotions with his accent at the time, Okwara felt he could better express himself on paper.

Ever since then, writing has enticed Okwara. He often scours through previous passages of his for guidance and self-reflection.

“It’s therapeutic to put stuff away,” Okwara said. “Just writing it down, be able to look at it, analyze it and what you need to do to get better. That’s kind of what I do. Just to be able to have that, I’m able to learn from what I need to do to get better every day.

“It’s my way of talking to myself I guess.”

Though Okwara declined to divulge specifics, he said this week's journal entry highlighted the emotions he was feeling. 

One of the most puzzling results of the Brian Kelly Era produced a myriad of questions. The answers aren't simple, however Notre Dame's lack of physicality at the line of scrimmage is a start.

Michigan handled one of Notre Dame's strongest, deepest and veteran-led units in its defensive line, amassing 303 yards and three touchdowns on 57 carries. The Wolverine offensive line also reached the second level of linebackers with frequency. They registered five rushes of at least 20 yards.

The Irish linebackers and safeties over pursued on some run fits and whiffed on some gap assignments, paving the way for those longer runs. Not many silver linings across the board for Notre Dame's defense.

“Michigan was all over the field,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “We got what we deserved, and Michigan outplayed us. They out-hustled us. They were more physical. They out-coached us. And, you know, those things unfortunately are the realities of it.

“I don’t know that because we were off that (bye week) that caused us not to be physical. I think that we got away from our identity. Our identity is to be gritty. Our identity is to play smart. Our identity is to be locked in.

“We were not. We got to get back to our identity.”

The first chance for No. 16 Notre Dame to do so comes Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) against Virginia Tech (5-2). The Irish will need to rebound defensively before facing the No. 1 and No. 10 rushing offenses nationally in Navy (Nov. 16) and Boston College (Nov. 23), respectively.

Limiting big plays, generating turnovers and creating havoc were pillars of this Irish defense. They fell below their averages against the Wolverines but still rank among the best in turnover margin (No. 7), tackles for loss (No. 12) and sacks (No. 30).

Improvement begins with Okwara being more productive than his two-tackle stat line against the Wolverines.

“It started (Monday),” said Okwara following practice. “Everyone was very physical and running to the ball. I think everyone was wanting to get better and move on from Michigan. We knew that wasn’t us.”

After losing at Georgia 23-17 on Sept. 21, Notre Dame’s seven captains held a players-only meeting. The Irish then rattled off three consecutive victories. Okwara and fellow defensive end captain Khalid Kareem recorded zero sacks through those first three games. They combined for 7.5 over the next three.

How the Irish respond this time with a College Football Playoff berth no longer a possibility may define this season.

“You don’t win or lose a game on Saturday,” said safety captain Alohi Gilman. “You lose it throughout the week. The biggest thing that we’re focused on is throughout the week, what are we doing day to day? We did some things throughout (last) week that we have got to do better.

“That’s focusing on the process, focusing on our traits and who we are. That’s what we are doing. I just think we didn’t focus on the things we’ve been focusing on since January.”

Handling Virginia Tech’s offense may come with a few challenges. The Hokies have won three straight since dual-threat quarterback Hendon Hooker replaced Ryan Willis as the starter following a 45-10 loss to Duke on Sept. 27.

Virginia Tech averaged nearly 40 points and 210 rushing yards during that span.

“Just being able to contain those guys, know their game plan and out-physical their O-line, make our fits and run to the ball,” said Okwara on the keys for the Irish defense. “We are working in practice on being physical, tackling and striking our blocks.”

Hooker practiced this week after missing the second half of the Oct. 19 North Carolina game with a left leg injury. Backup quarterback Quincy Patterson Jr. carried Virginia Tech’s running game in Hooker’s absence, turning 21 carries into 122 yards and a touchdown.

In hopes to bounce back and slow down the surging Hokies, the Irish don’t feel any wholesale changes on defense are necessary.

“We’re not coming out with a new defense,” Kelly said. “We’ll come out with a defense that is much more focused on their job and attention to their detail. As we have talked about, ad nauseam, much more physicality.

“Our guys know what they need to do, and that is they have got to reclaim their identity and we lost it. We’re going to get it back, and we have already addressed that.”

Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara (42) forces a fumble after tackling Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins (3) on Sept. 28.

WHO: No. 16 Notre Dame (5-2) vs. Virginia Tech (5-2)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 17 1/2