Hansen: Putting Notre Dame's defense, injuries, O-line and 'execution' into perspective

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman directs players during Notre Dame's 41-38 overtime win over Florida State Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman had his first bad 24-hour cycle on Twitter.

From “Marcus VanGorder” references, late Sunday night into Monday morning, to the sudden annulment of the rush to anoint the first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator as the head-coaching in waiting.

The statistical carnage defensively from No. 9 Notre Dame’s near come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., wasn’t any more forgiving.

After getting home at 4:30 a.m. Monday from ND’s eventual 41-38 overtime survival, Freeman woke up hours later with his defense’s No. 53 national ranking in pass-efficiency defense as its high-water mark.

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The ugliest number heading into Saturday’s home opener with Toledo (1-0)? The No. 114 ranking in rushing defense.

Sometimes even small sample sizes are telling. This doesn’t figure to be one of those instances.

Freeman has a legit and sustained track record of success at Cincinnati, and has the athletes at Notre Dame who can eventually grow into what is fundamentally a very divergent scheme from predecessor Clark Lea’s, and not just from an X’s-and-O’s standpoint.

“We're transitioning from a different mindset in the way we need to play defense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during his weekly Monday press conference. “And you cannot let your guard down for a moment or you're going to give up a big play.”

Kelly admitted, though, Freeman and he let their guard down, too. From a tactical standpoint, the Irish played conservatively on defense after taking a 38-20 lead late in the third quarter.

Florida State took advantage, scoring almost as many points in the fourth quarter (18) as Notre Dame averaged giving up on defense in entire games last season (19.7).

The miscalculation — passivity — showed up in odd alignments, as missed tackles all over the field and getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage in what should have been ND’s biggest edge (its defensive line vs. Florida State’s offense line).

“We got back into this, ‘OK, we're going to layer this off. I'm going to try not to make a mistake. We're going to keep it in front of us,’” Kelly said. “And that's not the way we want to play.

“We want to play with havoc on our defense. We did that early on, and we kind of fell back to our old way of thinking. And Marcus is going to get that turned. Hard to turn it in week one, but he’s going to get it turned, and it'll be fun to watch." 

Notre Dame tight end Kevin Bauman (84) is carted through the Doak Campbell Stadium concourse following an injury during the Notre Dame-Florida State football game on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Irish injury aftermath

Reigning High School Butkus Award winner Prince Kollie’s athleticism was more than sufficient to get an early look at cracking Notre Dame’s linebacker rotation in August training camp. His halting adaptation to Freeman’s scheme, and the number of experienced linebackers ahead of him, are what kept him as an afterthought.

And now the numbers are dwindling, and Kollie is on the fast track.

The latest subtraction, from a group that stood at nine healthy players two weeks ago and is now at six, is senior rover Paul Moala.

Moala suffered an Achilles tendon tear Sunday night against Florida State roughly 11 months after he suffered an Achilles tear on the opposite leg against Florida State. He’s out for the year.

“Devastating,” Kelly said. “It was an emotional locker room last night. I kind of didn't tip that off to you guys, because it was still pretty raw. But yeah, we're all very disappointed for Paul. 

“He worked so hard to get back to getting on the field. But we love Paul and he's gonna be missed.”

Less than two weeks ago, junior Marist Liufau suffered a season-ending broken/dislocated ankle. And Monday afternoon, senior Shayne Simon was undergoing an MRI for a shoulder injury he sustained Sunday night.

That leaves Drew White, Bo Bauer, Isaiah Pryor, Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand and Kollie.

“It doesn't matter how good you are — we’ve got to be able to trust you,” Kelly said. “That trust is going to have to be accelerated with Prince. So yes, he's moving inside and he's gonna get work. And we may have to call upon him a little bit sooner than we had expected." 

• Freshmen Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong likewise will have to accelerate their learning curves after sophomore backup tight end Kevin Bauman suffered a leg fracture Sunday night.

Kelly said Bauman will likely miss the next six weeks.

The Irish have All-American candidate Michael Mayer and senior George Takacs at the top of the depth chart, but offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ fondness for multiple-tight end sets means at least one of the freshmen will be counted upon.

• Sophomore Michael Carmody took over for freshman prodigy Blake Fisher at left tackle Sunday night after the latter suffered a leg injury. Fisher’s MRI was scheduled for Monday afternoon, though Kelly has been told the injury isn’t expected to be season-ending.

Should Carmody or grad senior right tackle Josh Lugg go down, Kelly said sophomore Tosh Baker and freshman Joe Alt would be the next two options.

“And we have confidence in both those guys, that they can come in and play at a high level for us," Kelly said

Next step for O-line 

Four sacks given up and the 15th-fewest rushing yard total of the Brian Kelly Era (65 yards on 35 carries) left the Irish head coach, nevertheless, encouraged that growth is ahead rather than more of the same for an offensive line laden with four new starters.

“These are just matters of fundamentals more so than we lack personnel or we lack the ability to make that play,” Kelly said. “I've been in that position before too, and I don't have great answers for those.

“These are, ‘Let's get back out there. Let's rep these. Let's get into these situations again and let's execute at a higher level. And certainly, we believe we can do that.”

The Irish have two preseason All-Americans among their starting five — senior center Jarrett Patterson and sixth-year offensive guard Cain Madden — to go along with former four- and five-star prospects at the other three positions, even if Fisher doesn’t return right away.

"I thought we protected pretty darn well,” Kelly said. “We were pleased with the protection. We had a couple procedure penalties. We had an assignment error on a sack, where we just flat out went the wrong way on it on a slide protection. But overall, pretty pleased with what we did from a protection standpoint. 

“Look, I'm not here to make any excuses for anything relative to the run game. We're going to run the ball a little bit better. There's no doubt. But when you're in silent cadence and you're utilizing tight ends on the perimeter, it makes for a difficult cadence to get everybody moving at the same time. And we struggled a little bit with that in unison getting off the ball. 

“Those things are going to get better. And I think from a running game standpoint, we did not see any red flags that are going to say, 'Hey, this is going to be difficult this year.' We'll get better running the football." 

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly questions a call during Notre Dame's 41-38 overtime win over Florida State on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Execution epitaph

What’s the downside of drawing 7.1 million viewers for a Labor Day Sunday night game, peaking at 8.8. million in overtime?

There are more people to take sides on the clunky delivery of an old John McKay joke Kelly exhumed in the postgame interview with ABC.

“I'm in favor of execution. Maybe our entire team should be executed tonight,” Kelly said.

Which made some people mad, and others mad at the people who got mad. And still others who got mad at the people who didn’t get mad. Look, if you really want to get mad for good reason, turn on the news for a few minutes, and you’ll have an entire stockpile.

Most people who were deeply offended, I figure, either didn’t like Kelly in the first place and added this to their litany of reasons, or were too young to understand the context. Just like decades ago in generational context gone wrong when then-coworker Steve Wiltfong asked me what I thought of a young and upcoming rapper named “Nelly.”

My response? “Who’s she?”

One contextual point about Kelly from someone who’s covered him since we were both in our 40s is the national perception of him and what you see on a day-to-day basis can be very different.

Humor is a part of who he is. When wife Paqui was twice diagnosed with breast cancer, humor was the coping mechanism that got them through the darkest times.

I imagine his motivation for veering from stilted coachspeak in the interview and trying to land a punch line was to tamp down the angst about a narrow escape over a Florida State team the Irish beat by 16 last season.

His shortfall was his material (and he gets it), not that humor itself was inappropriate. Given the world we live in at the moment, we should welcome it every chance we get.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 

Who: No. 8 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. Toledo (1-0) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend 

TV: Peacock (Streaming)

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

Line: Notre Dame by 16 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI