Hansen: It's clear the defense will define Notre Dame's tough November stretch

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

For once, there wasn’t a stream of questions coming at Brian Kelly in postgame, goading the Notre Dame head football coach into baking quarterback Ian Book’s latest performance into some big-picture context.

It’s not that Book was irrelevant in No. 4 Notre Dame’s dress rehearsal Saturday for its state-of-the-program referendum next weekend at home against top-ranked Clemson.

It’s just that if the Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) have a potential silver bullet to take down the program that bullied them off college football’s big stage at the end of the 2018 season, it’s going to come from the side of the ball that kept Notre Dame out of trouble Saturday in Atlanta.

Its defense.

Even so, it showed enough scattered pockets of inconsistency in a 31-13 dismal of Georgia Tech on the road at Bobby Dodd Stadium that Kelly can ride the defense a little harder in practice this week. But the nation’s No. 9 unit in total defense entering this weekend also may have uncovered a new reason to make Kelly smile.

It’s about whether grad senior defensive end Daelin Hayes can stack another breakthrough performance on top of the one he had Saturday against Georgia Tech (2-5, 2-4 ACC).

The former five-star prospect, who amassed a modest six tackles over ND’s first five games, had five Saturday against the Yellow Jackets. He accounted for two of five Irish sacks against the ACC’s best team at avoiding them, a quarterback hurry and two forced fumbles — with a third wiped out by replay reframing it as an incomplete pass.

As a unit, the Irish held an opponent to less than 240 yards for the third straight week and fourth time this season, and got Georgia Tech to turn the ball over on downs five plays after recovering an onside kick.

“Elevating the play of Daelin Hayes might be singularly as important as anything that happened today,” Kelly said. “He was at a different level of play.

“If he can continue to play at that level, with (safety) Kyle Hamilton and the other pieces to this defense, then we’re going to get to where we want to be.

“And so we just need to … continue to surround other playmakers with a known playmaker in Kyle Hamilton. That’s when this defense starts to really become something special.”

Hayes’ recruiting pedigree implied he would be special someday, if not immediately upon arriving at Notre Dame in the spring semester of 2016 as an early enrollee. But intermittent injuries, putting too much pressure on himself and classmates Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem — now NFL rookies — leapfrogging him kept Hayes swimming in the background as a steady contributor.

Perhaps the five-star status wasn’t fair. Because of injuries in high school and moving from Michigan to California and back during a custody battle, he played fewer than 10 varsity games total in three seasons.

Originally committed to USC, Hayes flipped to the Irish in December of 2015 on the premise that he could be the next Jaylon Smith — an All-America linebacker. ND defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was the one who put that out there, then was fired four games into Hayes’ freshman season.

Hayes did grow from the 6-foot-3, 239-pound frame he finished his senior year with at Ann Arbor (Mich.) Skyline High into his current 6-4, 270-pound self. Perhaps he’s ready to grow into the potential Kelly never gave up on Hayes fulfilling.

“He’s been single-minded in his focus for the last month or so in terms of, really, his craft,” Kelly said. “I’ve just seen a different player when it comes to wanting to be a dominant player in football.

“Daelin’s always been a good player. But he’s been good at a lot of things, both and off the field. He has made a choice — a conscious decision — that he wants to be a great player. It has just been fun to watch this coming together on the practice field and now it’s starting to show itself on the game field.

“It’s his dedication to how he’s been practicing, and we’re seeing it come to fruition.”

Notre Dame’s established All-America candidates played like it again Saturday. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah collected five tackles and was strong in pass coverage. Hamilton led the Irish with six tackles, including two for losses. He also broke up a pass and smothered a Georgia Tech two-point conversion attempt.

“You don’t get many players of that caliber,” Kelly said of Hamilton, who played his high school ball at The Marist School, about a 15-minute drive from Bobby Dodd Stadium. “He's all over the field.”

A former vaunted Notre Dame safety prospect from the Atlanta area, Derrik Allen, played sparingly Saturday for Tech against his former team and did not show up in the stat line.

Meanwhile, Book’s numbers suggest he played like a complimentary piece — 18-of-26 for 199 yards and a TD; 46 rushing yards on 9 carries — especially when you consider what was going on 120 miles away in Clemson, S.C.

There, his former backup, Phil Jurkovec, helped stake Boston College to an 18-point lead the Eagles couldn’t hold in an eventual 34-28 loss to the No. 1 Tigers (7-0, 6-0 ACC). Meanwhile, five-star freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, filling in for junior All-America QB Trevor Lawrance, completed 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in his first college start.

He’ll make his second start Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney detailed after his game that Lawrence will still be in the process of ramping back up from isolation due to COVID-19.

Lawrence, who shredded the Irish for 327 passing yards in a 30-3 College Football playoff semifinal game two seasons ago, tested Wednesday and reported as being positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

“When I heard he got the virus, the first thing you think of is, ‘I hope he’s OK. Hope he doesn’t have any lingering effects that affect him.’ ” Kelly said. “He's the best player in college football.”

And when you stack Book against Lawrence and the other QBs in the AP top four at the moment — Alabama’s Mac Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — there’s a tendency to paint the third-year Irish starter as a family sedan that wandered into a NASCAR race.

In fairness to Book, he moved ahead of Jurkovec last week in the national pass-efficiency rankings for the first time this season and will still hold that advantage Sunday morning.

The standouts in the still tenuous Irish passing game continue to rotate and evolve. Saturday it was Javon McKinley (5 catches for 93 yards) and Avery Davis (4 catches for 29) leading the way.

Sophomore Kyren Williams was ND’s top rusher Saturday with 76 yards on 15 carries and two TDs, but he did cough up the ball in the red zone. Georgia Tech cornerback Zamari Walton went 93 yards for a touchdown, the longest fumble return in school history, to tie the game at 7-7.

“We want to win in a dominant fashion,” Book said. “We just want to keep getting better every week.”

They’ll have to — even beyond the Clemson game. Boston College on the road the week after is going to be a tough out. And while North Carolina’s defense leaves the Tar Heels susceptible to upsets — including a 44-41 loss at Virginia on Saturday night — its offense enables it to spring them.

The Irish visit the Tar Heels the Friday after Thanksgiving.

For now though all eyes are on Clemson, the only opponent that both survived the COVID-19 purges and additions to the schedule and remained on its original date.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity,” Hayes said. “We don’t have to beat around the bush anymore. It’s Clemson week, baby.

“We’re going to go out. We’re going to work our butts off. We’re going to stick to our process. Just excited for our team to be ascending at this point.”

Notre Dame defensive ends Isaiah Foskey (7) and Justin Ademilola (19) celebrate a sack of Jeff Sims (10) by Foskey during ND’s 31-13 victory over Georgia Tech, Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Notre Dame freshman Rylie Mills (99) tries to put the pressure on Georgia Tech QB Jeff Sims (10) during ND's 31-13 victory, Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.