Noie: Notre Dame defense too good to be average

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

This wasn’t part of the plan, but that’s par for the college football course this season for No. 4 Notre Dame.

Just when you think everything’s going to flow with the status quo, the script gets scrapped.

The latest example centers around the storyline that regardless of how the Irish offense might struggle early to find its collective footing at running back, at wide receiver, heck, some would even say (mistakenly) at quarterback, Notre Dame could count on the defense to deliver. To be the bedrock from the opening game through to a certain early November evening showdown with a certain Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweight. (Seems anything written good, bad or indifferent about Notre Dame these days must include a Clemson reference, so there it is).

It took three plays for that to go sideways in the game against Florida State, which never seemed in jeopardy because the Irish offense that was just too good. Like, score-almost-every-time-they-touched the ball good. Fourth-ranked team in the country good.

Meanwhile, the defense was gashed for season highs in points (26) and yards (405) allowed. It was the most points allowed to an ACC team since September, 2018 when quarterback Ian Book made his first start at Wake Forest. It was the most yards since last year’s game at Michigan.

Florida State scored more points in Saturday’s first half (16) than the Irish allowed overall (13) in the first two games combined.

Asked earlier this week about standout sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, who returned from injury to tie for the team high with eight tackles against Florida State, coach Brian Kelly offered a little levity. See his face, Kelly responded when Tribune colleague Tyler James inquired about Hamilton, that’s how he felt about No. 14 back in defensive backfield.

Kelly was smiling.

Asked earlier in the Zoom presser about his defense, Kelly wasn’t smiling. Or joking. Or all that happy. Coordinator Clark Lea likely wasn’t either after last week. Kelly didn’t like the defense. He was sure Lea didn’t like it either.

“We’re trying to get the perfect call in there,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be simpler. We’re going to be a physical football team. We’re going to attack the line of scrimmage, get back to basics and fundamentals.”

Really, getting back into a rhythm and a routine would do. Kelly said that Thursday was the first day that no Irish player was caught up in coronavirus protocols since Sept. 8. There was no scrambling to fill spots on defense. No trying to compensate from missing contributors who were isolated or quarantined or just out.

September’s spike in virus numbers hit the Irish defense like a Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah open-field tackle. Thwack! It was going to leave a mark. It left a mark.

The defense evolved into a central storyline heading into Saturday’s home game against Louisville (1-3; 0-3 ACC). Of the five players made available to the media this week, four play defense. There’s that much concern, but should there be with this group? This early?

Maybe, because Lea has raised the bar to a standard that’s really high. He’s built a template that’s expected to automatically excel every Saturday. When this group doesn’t, something seems off.

But is it? Notre Dame (3-0; 2-0) ranks in the Top 10 of 10 defensive statistical categories in the ACC (the Irish are full league members this football season). That includes nine areas where they’re first or second or third in the league. The Irish are best in scoring defense (13.0 ppg), opponents’ third-down conversions (18.2 percent) and opponents first downs (15.7). That’s a good defense, regardless of what holes Florida State found.

Notre Dame is among the nation’s Top 25 in five statistical categories, including total defense (323.3 yards per game, eighth) and pass defense efficiency (106.9, ninth). That might not get you a pass into the College Football Playoff today, but it keeps you on track for success tomorrow. In a season such as this, that’s good enough.

“There’s been some bumps and there’s been some highs,” Owusu-Koramoah said when asked this week to assess the defense after three games. “One game, we may be good, another game we may have some things to correct.”

The latter holds true heading into Saturday’s fourth straight home game. There’s plenty to clean up, but the Irish should have most of the personnel available to do the job. Continuity has been tough for the Irish to corner. Through the first three games, 16 different players have made at least one start. The defense has fielded three different starting lineups the first three games. Saturday might be a fourth.

When it comes to establishing a rhythm, it’s been more freelance than flow.

“You get away from football for a few days, weeks, you’re not going to play the same at first,” said cornerback TaRiq Bracy. “We don’t want to make excuses for that.”

No excuses, just execution, something the Irish kept in mind this week. Practice periods were better than the previous week, when Hamilton disclosed that too many were too “empty.”

“Just be tight with everything,” Bracy said.

If it’s true that timing is everything, Notre Dame picked the wrong time to join the ACC. It doesn’t quite resemble the Big 12 East where defense often is optional, but scoring is on a near-record pace this season in the ACC. The average combined score is 58.3 points, one point shy of the all-time record of 59.3 set in 2012. Of the six league games last week, the average score of the losing team was 27.1 points.

No spring practice and a fall that’s been so different have been factors.

“The offenses certainly have an advantage,” Kelly said.

Which means that Lea wasn’t the only league DC tossing and turning and wondering what he can do better this week.

It might be one of those seasons where teams win not by shutdowns but by shootouts. Either way, Florida State’s behind the Irish.

“Each time, the glory about it is you get another game,” said Owusu-Koramoah. “We’re grateful for that. We get another opportunity to go back to the drawing board and adjust to certain things.”

This group’s too good to be pretty good.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said the best thing about the Notre Dame defense not playing to its standard last week against Florida State is they have another chance to be better Saturday against Louisville.