Physicality, aggressiveness helping Notre Dame's defense make up for its deficiencies

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

To make the play, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could not hesitate.

Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers first missed the blitzing Notre Dame rover. Then right guard Will Putnam whiffed on blocking him. Owusu-Koramoah launched off the edge from the slot with such ferocity that he dodged two blockers and collided with Tiger running back Travis Etienne as he received the football.

Etienne mishandled a pitch from quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and bobbled the football into Owusu-Koramoah’s grasp before the Irish junior ran 23 yards for a touchdown. That play in the second quarter on Saturday helped Notre Dame defeat then-No. 1 Clemson 47-40 in a double-overtime bonanza.

And it may have created a 14-point swing.

As Etienne received the pitch, wide receiver Joseph Ngata streaked open downfield. Whether Etienne had the option to throw the ball remains unclear, but if he did, he could have connected with Ngata for a 69-yard touchdown. Etienne completed a pass to wide receiver Justyn Ross when Clemson ran an iteration of that play against Florida State last season.

“Well, at first, I was just going for the big hit,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “And then I saw the ball pop out. It was a play that I had seen many times on film. (Irish safety) Shaun Crawford also alerted me as well. We were talking to each other. We knew the play was coming so I just wanted to go ahead and go and make a big hit, but the ball popped out so I grabbed it.”

Facing Clemson’s dynamic offense revealed plenty about the Notre Dame defense. The Irish impressed with several big plays like Owusu-Koramoah’s touchdown. They forced and recovered three fumbles. They recorded two sacks in the second overtime. They held Etienne to just 28 rushing yards on 18 carries.

But they also missed tackles and allowed Uiagalelei to throw for 439 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-44 passing.

Aggression, stopping the run and being successful on third down are among strengths of coordinator Clark Lea’s group. They also have shown up in critical moments. These qualities are among reasons why Notre Dame’s defense is making up for its weaknesses.

“Physically stronger, faster, just across the board defensively,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly on how this defense compares to his vaunted 2012 group. “We had individual players in ‘12 that were certainly as good as any player on this team, but overall on all three levels it’s a more physical faster football team across the board.”

Through seven games this season, this defense ranks No. 10 in total yards allowed per game (296.6) and No. 12 in scoring (14.6 points yielded per game). They come in at No. 4 against the run (85.1 rushing yards per game) and No. 7 in yards per carry (2.81).

No opponent has rushed for fewer yards (34 on 33 carries) or yards per carry (1.0) against Notre Dame this season than Clemson. Florida State (156) is the lone team to account for more than 106 rushing yards against the Irish. Only Louisville has eclipsed 3.8 yards per carry when facing Notre Dame, tallying 96 yards on 23 attempts (4.2 per rush).

Being stout against the run on early downs can set up the Irish to be successful on third down.

“When you can get a team to third-and-long,” said Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji, “it changes their whole game plan. Obviously it becomes a passing down. You can go out there and attack. It makes the offense predictable. When you get third-and-short, they can do a lot of different things. But when it’s third-and-long, they are predictable and we have an opportunity to get to the quarterback.”

Coming into last week, the Tiger offense ranked No. 18 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (50.5). They converted a season-low 26.7 percent of third downs on Saturday. The Irish also held Florida State to a season-low in third-down percentage (14.3).

Against Notre Dame, South Florida tied its season-low (13.3 percent), Duke produced its second-lowest (26.7 percent), and Louisville (33.3 percent) and Pittsburgh (23.1 percent) generated their third-lowest conversion rate on the season. The Irish boast the fifth-best third-down defense nationally, allowing a conversion only 24.7 percent of the time.

On third-and-long, they feature a situational dime package that often includes the following players: three defensive ends on a four-man front (Ogundeji, Daelin Hayes and Isaiah Foskey) with defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, linebacker Bo Bauer, Owusu-Koramoah, three safeties in Kyle Hamilton, Shaun Crawford and DJ Brown, and two cornerbacks in Nick McCloud and either TaRiq Bracy or Clarence Lewis.

“If I could tell you how much time that we spend on third down, you’d be amazed,” Kelly said. “First and second down, those meetings go pretty fast. Third down goes for a couple of days. There’s a lot of intense study. There’s a lot of intense situational substitution. You’re looking at matchups. You’re looking at how you can put yourself and leverage yourself defensively for the best situations.”

Buck linebacker and field cornerback are the two positions with the least clarity and the most to sort through at the moment. Junior Shayne Simon and sophomores Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser have received time at buck linebacker. Though Simon played the best game of his career against Clemson, Kelly said there is still an ongoing competition at the position.

True freshman Clarence Lewis (70 snaps) permanently replaced junior TaRiq Bracy (eight snaps) at field corner against Clemson. Bracy did not see the field after surrendering a 53-yard touchdown reception in a one-on-one matchup during the first quarter. Tiger receiver Cornell Powell faked Bracy with a hesitation move before slipping past him and catching a deep ball on a post route.

Uiagalelei often tested the wide side of the field. He completed 11 passes of at least 14 yards and six of at least 22 yards. Powell (six catches for 161 yards and a score) and Amari Rodgers (eight receptions for 134 yards) both eclipsed 100 yards receiving.

“That battle is constant, that (field) cornerback position,” Kelly said. “Clark (Lea) and (cornerbacks coach) Mike (Mickens) felt like Clarence was the best call for us. We’re going to do what we think is best for Notre Dame’s defense, so we went with Clarence. But that is a competitive situation. TaRiq could be the starter this weekend. We’ll see how it plays out during the week.”

Defending the big play figures to be a key for No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0, 6-0 ACC) when coming to Boston College (5-3, 4-3) at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass., on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC).

The Eagles feature former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who brings a strong arm and likes to test defenses deep.

“He’s a gunslinger,” Simon said. “Phil loves the deep ball, he tries to make plays and he’s a big-bodied quarterback. So he’s going to try to escape, get out of the pocket, be creative. Phil had an athletic ability. He played basketball, so he’s obviously athletic. He’s going to make plays. So that’s what we see the most out of him. He’s a baller.”

Weaknesses were exposed in Notre Dame’s defense against Clemson. Still, the Irish did enough against the run and on third down to pull out the win. Generating big plays like Owusu-Koramoah’s touchdown helps, too.

“The big plays come, in my opinion, from being fearless,” Notre Dame linebacker Drew White said. “It’s not being scared to miss. (Offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees gave us an analogy awhile back. It’s: big-time players shoot. When the game is on the line, they are putting the ball up.

“So on defense, we want everybody to be playmakers. It’s having no fear. Fearless guys flying around, not overthinking anything and playing to their ability.”

Grad senior Kurt Hinish (41) leads a deep and talented interior defensive line contingent in 2021.
Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer (52) and safety Shaun Crawford (20) pressure Pittsburgh quarterback Joey Yellen (16) on Oct. 24.

Who: No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. Boston College (5-3)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST

Where: Alumni Stadium; Chestnut Hill, Mass.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 13