Notebook: Brian Kelly demanding better from Notre Dame's defense against Louisville
A second look at Notre Dame’s defensive effort in Saturday’s 42-26 victory over Florida State didn’t make Brian Kelly feel any better.
The Irish head coach has high standards for defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s group.
“It’s not the kind of defense that Clark has put out there, not the kind of defense that I want to put out there,” Kelly said. “There are some factors that were unique in that there were a lot of those guys that were not practicing during the week — and it showed.”
No. 5 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) should head into Saturday’s home game against Louisville (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) with better pregame circumstances than a 21-day layoff between games. But the Irish will be facing a better offense too.
Despite an underwhelming start to the season in the win-loss column, Louisville (1-3, 0-3 Athletic Coast Conference) has found more consistent success offensively than Florida State. The Cardinals enter the week ranked No. 31 in the FBS in rushing offense with 177.8 yards per game and No. 32 in total offense with 424.3 yards per game.
Florida State ranks worse in both categories — No. 37 in rushing yards (169) and No. 50 in total offense (393.3) — but Notre Dame had trouble slowing down quarterback Jordan Travis on his way to 96 rushing yards, 204 passing yards and one touchdown in each category.
Louisville has a talented quarterback of its own in Malik Cunningham. The Irish are plenty familiar with the weapons around him from last year’s 35-17 win at Louisville, but Cunningham had yet to take over the job behind Jawon Pass.
The Cardinals ground game challenged Notre Dame last season with Javian Hawkins (122 rushing yards), Hassan Hall (69) and Pass (67 and two touchdowns). Hawkins and Hall have returned as the focal points in the running game. Hawkins ranks No. 9 in the country in yards per game with 117 with his 468 rushing yards coming on 85 carries with three touchdowns. Hall has added 144 rushing yards in four games.
Cunningham has three rushing touchdowns of his own, but his net rushing yards (84) are limited by the number of sacks he’s taken (14). He’s actually gained 180 rushing yards without subtracting lost yardage.
Cunningham might not be used in the same ways that Florida State used Travis against Notre Dame, but Kelly wants to be prepared for anything. Better preparation will be required for Notre Dame’s defense to produce better results.
“They’re certainly going to utilize all the tools that they have at their disposal,” Kelly said of Louisville’s offense. “Certainly we’re going to have to be ready for option. We’re going to have to be ready for the quarterback runs.
“They’re an outside zone team. They’re really, really good at it. It’s going to have to start there in defending that.
“Their boot game is obviously very good. Getting the ball in space to their skill receivers. Certainly defending (Cunningham) out of the pocket is going to be a big concern for us as well.
“He’s very good at creating. That is as big of a concern for us as probably anything.”
• The impact wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr. and Ben Skowronek had in returning from injuries Saturday against Florida State was minimal. Neither recorded a catch in very limited opportunities, but the reasons for each were different.
Austin, who returned from a broken bone in his left foot, didn’t reach the 15-20 snap count Kelly predicted in part because of how well Javon McKinley played (five catches for 107 yards) and how important McKinley’s development will be throughout the season.
But Kelly isn’t concerned about Austin’s health moving forward and is willing to move him to the opposite wide receiver position to get both on the field.
“Kevin is now at that mark where we feel like we can just put him now and not have to worry about his numbers or how much he’s playing,” Kelly said. “So you’re going to see him in the game at the same time as McKinley.”
Skowronek, who left the season opener against Duke with a hamstring injury, hasn’t been able to shake the lingering effects.
“It’s been nagging, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t been able to cut it loose. We’re hopeful that he’s at a position this week where he’s able to cut it loose. It’s really held him back from us being able to get him in a rotation and factor him in.”
• Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and linebacker Jack Kiser should be available for Saturday’s game “if everything goes well,” Kelly said.
Both missed Saturday’s game in connection to Notre Dame’s COVID-19 protocol. It has not been disclosed if either tested positive or were held out as a result of contact tracing. That distinction would likely inform how heavy of a workload they’re given against Louisville.
Late Monday night, the program announced that 284 tests administered last Monday through Sunday produced zero positive tests for COVID-19. Only two players remained in isolation Monday from previous positives tests and none were left in quarantine from contact tracing.
• Backup rover Paul Moala, a local product from Penn High School, suffered a torn Achilles tendon against Florida State, Kelly said. The junior will undergo surgery to repair the Achilles and will miss the rest of the season.
In Moala’s absence, Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor will be elevated as the backup to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The 6-foot-2, 199-pound Pryor came to the Irish as a safety, but he started transitioning to rover earlier this season.
Moala, who rotated in with Notre Dame’s starting defense at times, recorded seven tackles in the first three games. Pryor totaled three tackles mostly on special teams.
• Sophomore linebacker JD Bertrand has emerged as a special teams ace early this season. He tallied four tackles in the first three games in kickoff coverage with three coming Saturday against Florida State.
“He was all over the place last Saturday night on special teams,” Kelly said. “He was impactful on kickoff. He made two tackles inside the 20-yard line.”
Bertrand also contributes on the punt and kickoff return units. Though his impact at linebacker likely won’t be made this season, Kelly said Bertrand has a bright future.
“He’s on our scout team right now. He’s as good of a scout team player that I’ve had,” Kelly said. “And I’ve had them all down there. I’ve had (Shayne) Simon down there. I’ve had (Bo) Bauer down there. I’ve had (Drew) White down there.
“I’ve had every starter that has been on scout team that is a starter for us on defense practicing against our offense. He’s as good as we’ve had.”
• Notre Dame’s standalone season as a member of the ACC hasn’t led Kelly to keeping an eye on the conference standings from week to week.
“Not really,” Kelly said when asked if he pays attention to the ACC standings. “I pay attention to the teams that are on our schedule coming up.”
“I know Clemson’s good,” Kelly added with a laugh.
Clemson indeed stands at the top of the conference with a 3-0 ACC record. North Carolina is tied with the Tigers at 3-0 with the Irish just behind at 2-0.
• The ACC announced Monday that Notre Dame’s Oct. 24 game at Pittsburgh (3-2, 2-2 ACC) will be televised on ABC with a 3:30 p.m. EDT kickoff.
NO. 4 NOTRE DAME (3-0) vs. LOUISVILLE (1-3)
Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 17