Hansen: Irish look to carry defensive strides beyond their taming of Navy's triple option

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — It felt more like that middle school algebra class you thought you would never use again in life than a stepping stone for a Notre Dame football team still trying to find a backdoor into the College Football Playoff conversation.

Parsed out on its own and detached from the bigger picture, first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s best week at Notre Dame to date — when not counting the recruiting trail — was a paragon of blending scheme and execution.

Rover/linebacker Jack Kiser, though, saw Notre Dame’s squelching of the triple-option in its 34-6 discharge of Navy Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium as at least partially transferable to the rest of the Irish regular-season schedule, beginning with next Saturday’s night game at pass-happy Virginia (7:30 p.m. EST; ABC-TV). 

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“The discipline is the big thing,” said Kiser, recast Saturday in his old high school defensive position, as a free safety in ND’s modified defensive structure. “You have to be disciplined in everything you do. That was a big concern of ours heading into the week.

“Then having the grit and toughness to come out here and compete every single snap. We did that this week in practice. This week was a very gritty week in practice, very tough — uncomfortable at times. We have to do that heading into next week, and it will only get better.”

How that translated Saturday for the AP No. 8/CFP No. 10 Irish (8-1) was 184 yards in total offense yielded — the fourth-lowest total allowed in the 12-year Brian Kelly Era. For comparison’s sake, fullback Alexander Teich gashed the Irish for more than that on his own (210) yards in 2010 — the first time Kelly butted up against Navy — in a humbling 35-17 loss.

Also Saturday, Notre Dame recorded its first safety in four seasons and allowed the fewest points scored by Navy in the (almost) annual series since a 30-0 Irish shutout in 1998.

And the defense did it for the second week in a row without All-America safety Kyle Hamilton, whose return from an Oct. 23 knee injury hasn’t been given a timetable for public consumption.

“Gets us another step closer to where we want to be,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of the defensive about face.

Notre Dame defensive linemen Jayson Ademilola (57) and Kurt Hinish (41) celebrate during ND's 34-6 win over Navy, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Where the Irish are, even with the smattering of Top 10 upsets, is still on a treadmill pointed toward a Peach Bowl date in the New Year’s Six with the eventual ACC champion.

Should the Irish win out and not make the playoff, the only plausible scenarios to nudge them into the Fiesta Bowl rather than the Peach is if either Cincinnati makes the playoff or Virginia wins the ACC.

Chaos, at least when it’s happening to other Top 10 teams, is Notre Dame’s best friend, moving forward.

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Speaking of chaos, grad senior nose guard Kurt Hinish was so good at it Saturday against the Midshipmen (2-7), he was awarded the game ball by Kelly but not a postgame voice to speak about it with the media.

So others spoke for and about the 6-2, 300-pound Pittsburgh product, who doubled his previous high in career tackles, with 10, despite playing in a heavy and deep rotation of defensive linemen. He also had two tackles for loss with a sack.

“He’s such a gritty guy,” Kiser said. “He’s a leader for us, a captain and that energy. He had a great game today. Every play he was a force to be reckoned with. I can’t speak highly enough about him.

“We have him fortunately. I don’t want to play against him, let me tell you that.”

The Irish almost didn’t have its triple-option ace from ND’s last two games against Navy — lopsided wins in 2018 and 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic coaxed a break in the series that had been played every year since 1927.

Linebacker Drew White, Kelly said, tore his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his knee during the week leading up to the game, in practice, and played with the injury Saturday and recorded a pair of tackles..

“He's a warrior,” Kelly said. “Drew just had the mental toughness to play through it.”

Fellow linebacker JD Bertrand had nine tackles, and leads the team with 80 for the season.

Converted wide receiver Xavier Watts got his first high-leverage snaps on defense and finished with three tackles while lining up on the edge and at safety. Freshman defensive end Kahanu Kia (four tackles) and freshman linebacker Prince Kollie (three tackles) were impressive late as the Irish pulled away.

Sophomore Jordan Botelho, who lined up at end and at linebacker Saturday, got a sack for the second straight week against a team that officially attempted only three passes and completed one for 18 yards.

That’s the third-lowest passing total an ND defense has given up in a game since at least 1996.

Notre Dame’s Jordan Botelho (12) sacks Navy QB Tai Lavatai (1) during ND's 34-6 triumph on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I mean, we needed to make some progress,” Kelly said, referring specifically to a plethora of missed tackles and missed assignments in a 44-34 survival of North Carolina on Oct. 30.

“We weren't happy with some of the things last week, and so we needed to see the incremental progress. And so this week was much better, but it's a snapshot, right? Next week we got a team that's one of the more prolific passing offenses in the country.

"Job well done. Checkmark on the old option. Let's go see how we handle now (quarterback) Brennan Armstrong and the Cavaliers. So this is work in progress for us. We like the step we took today, because the communication was really good and the tackling was much better.

“We’ve got to go cover some people next week.”

And get the offense operating at maximum efficiency.

Against Navy, it sputtered and surged, with the Irish scoring a couple of touchdowns in the final 2:46 of the second quarter for a 17-3 halftime lead and outscoring the Mids 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Jack Coan recorded his highest completion percentage of the season (.793, 23-of-29 for 269 yards, 1 TD) and had his longest pass play in a Notre Dame uniform, a 70-yard strike to Kevin Austin Jr. with 50 seconds left in the first half.

It also tied the career long of the 297 completions he had during the Wisconsin portion of his career. And it capped a 95-yard, five play drive that took all of 60 seconds.

“Coach Kelly was screaming at me, because it was open the play before,” Coan said of the pass to Austin. “He basically told me to throw it there, so that’s what I did.

“I followed the plan and got the ball to a guy like Kevin Austin, who can take it the distance every time. Great by coach Kelly. Great by Kevin.”

Austin tied a career-high with six catches and exceeded his career high with 139 receiving yards.

Running back Kyren Williams amassed 176 all-purpose yards, including 95 rushing yards on 17 carries and two TDs. The junior has seven scores in the past five games and at least one TD in five consecutive games.

He also had a team high in receptions Saturday with seven.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) flips over Navy's Rayuan Lane (18) during an Irish 34-6 victory, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kelly admitted, though, he may need to move a player from another position group after slot receiver Avery Davis appeared to suffer a serious left knee injury. Kelly declined to speculate about the specifics until the grad senior has an MRI.

The Irish are down to five healthy scholarship receivers, three of whom are freshmen and one of whom — Jayden Thomas — hasn't played a down this season.

With the emergence of freshman running back Logan Diggs (8 carries, 59 yards and a TD) as a sidekick to Williams, running back Chris Tyree may be a strong candidate to slip into the slot as he plays his way back into form from a turf toe injury.

In the meantime, Kelly is happy to have his schematic curveball in the rearview mirror, though the two teams this week announced the signing of a 10-year extension that will take them through 2032.

“I'll be able to watch that on TV, in the back end of that rivalry,” Kelly said with a chuckle. “(Athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) will still be here, I'm sure.”

The Irish turn their attention to transitioning out of the X’s and O’s part of Navy to face traditional offense, but hoping to retain the defensive lessons learned in digging in for the Mids.    

“Navy is a difficult opponent to play. Very difficult,” Kelly said. ”Look, we didn't run 7-on-7 this week. Didn't get our two-minute drill in this week. We didn't work on the basic parameters of football that prepare you each week. Things that you do naturally each and every week, we didn't do them.

“Now we've got to go switch ... and play Virginia. So those are real. Those are hard things. But it's all worth it when you get a chance to go hand in hand with the Naval Academy as they sing their alma mater.

“There is nothing like that. Where else in sport does that happen where you play on the field in intense competition, and then our players are arm in arm with their players as their alma mater is being sung.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI