Marcus Freeman's advice to young Benjamin Morrison: 'Better go low on that big dude'
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman shook his head Monday as he recalled freshman cornerback Ben Morrison’s seven-tackle, two-interception performance against Clemson.
An unforgettable night started with Morrison getting plowed over by senior tight end Davis Allen, who goes 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. Morrison, listed at 6-foot and 179 pounds, didn’t back down.
“Great tacklers are confident and aggressive,” Freeman said. “Ben needs to understand there are weight classes to this thing. If you have someone outside your weight class, you’d better go low.”
In fact, that was Freeman’s message to Morrison, relayed through position coach Mike Mickens.
“I told coach Mick to tell Ben he’d better go low on that big dude,” Freeman said. “The next opportunity, he went a little bit lower — probably not as low as I want him to go.”
Morrison, according to Pro Football Focus, was responsible for two missed tackles against Clemson after missing just one through his first eight college games. The Tigers completed seven of 13 passes with Morrison in coverage, also a season high for the precocious talent from Phoenix.
After giving up inside leverage and allowing his first career touchdown pass the week before at Syracuse, Morrison responded with his first two career interceptions. The first came against freshman backup Cade Klubnik and set up a 14-yard scoring drive; the second came against junior DJ Uiagalelei and went for a 96-yard touchdown return.
Morrison’s pick-six was the longest at home by an Irish player in program history. Only Jack Elder, who returned an interception 100 yards against Army in 1929 at Yankee Stadium; and Luther Bradley, who took one back 99 yards at Purdue in 1975, have longer interception returns for Notre Dame.
The win over Clemson was Morrison’s fourth straight game and fifth overall with at least three tackles.
“If you want to stop the perimeter run game, you’d better be able to close space and not wait, wait, wait,” Freeman said. “You see a lot of missed tackles because the defensive guy doesn’t close space to a ball carrier, but that takes confidence. Ben is confident and aggressive, and that’s what makes him a great player.”
Analysis:Notre Dame does what it does, leaves Clemson, Dabo Swinney convinced
Ankle could sideline Brandon Joseph
All-America safety Brandon Joseph is questionable for this week’s game against Navy after suffering an ankle sprain early in the win over Clemson.
Joseph, who played a season-low 28 defensive snaps against the Tigers, finished with zero tackles while playing sparingly in the second half. The Northwestern transfer still returned punts, including a 16-yard return in the third quarter.
Third-year backups Xavier Watts (34 defensive snaps) and Ramon Henderson (31 snaps) did well with their increased playing time. Graduate backup Houston Griffith was in for just 12 snaps on defense, but fellow graduate senior DJ Brown, who had three tackles and a pass breakup, played a season-high 61 snaps.
“DJ played more than probably he thought going in,” Freeman said. “I’ve been around him two years, and he is playing his highest level of football right now. He’s getting better and playing with a lot of confidence.”
Brown, who is from Annapolis, Md., is tied for third among Irish tacklers with 36 as he heads home to face Navy in Baltimore.
Al Golden's 'new way'
Defensive coordinator Al Golden can draw upon his previous stops at Temple and Miami to prepare for Navy’s unique triple-option attack.
Golden’s Owls went 1-3 against Navy from 2006-09, splitting the final two meetings after Ken Niumatalolo took over for Paul Johnson. Temple allowed an average of 32.3 points in those four matchups.
From 2011-14, Golden’s Hurricanes went 3-1 against Johnson’s modified triple-option at Georgia Tech, allowing an average of 25.3 points. The Yellow Jackets, however, rushed for 13 touchdowns and 940 yards (5.1 yards per carry) over the final three meetings.
Analysis: Notre Dame does what it does, leaves Clemson, Dabo Swinney convinced
In brainstorming with Golden on Sunday, Freeman came away encouraged that there might be a “new way to defend the triple option.”
As defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Freeman split two meetings with Navy, including a 42-32 loss in 2017. After giving up 569 rushing yards and five touchdowns, Freeman’s next two tries saw his teams allow a total of six points and 290 rushing yards (2.7 yards per attempt).
That included last year’s 34-6 win at Notre Dame.
Wilkins Jr. enters portal
Fifth-year wideout Joe Wilkins Jr., who made it back from April foot surgery but struggled to earn playing time, will enter the transfer portal.
Wilkins, who will be a graduate transfer, made the announcement on his social media accounts.
The Fort Myers, Fla., product made 11 career catches (21 targets) for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Wilkins missed the BYU game but appeared in the other eight games this year, sharing kickoff return duties with Chris Tyree for more than half the season.
Wilkins, who had zero all-purpose attempts this year and just 27 total snaps on offense, joins defensive tackle Jacob Lacey on the shortlist of pending Notre Dame transfers. Lacey, on track to graduate in December, announced his plans on Oct. 6.
Drew Pyne, despite completing just nine passes for a second straight game, was selected by the coaching staff as offensive player of the game against Clemson.
Pyne had a 5-yard scoring run for his first career touchdown, found tight end Michael Mayer for a 17-yard scoring toss and snapped a personal string of four straight games with at least one turnover.
Pyne’s only other game without a turnover this year, including a relief appearance after Tyler Buchner’s shoulder injury against Marshall, came in Week 4 at North Carolina.
Morrison earned the defensive nod after giving the Irish their first red-zone takeaway of the season in 23 possessions.
On special teams, Jordan Botelho and Prince Kollie shared the honors after combining for a blocked punt and 17-yard touchdown return for the game’s first score.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.
No. 20 Notre Dame (6-3) vs. Navy (3-6)
When: Saturday at noon. EST
Where: M&T Bank Stadium (71,001), Baltimore, Md.
TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
Line: Notre Dame opens as a 17 -point favorite
Series: Notre Dame leads 78-13-1
Last meeting: Notre Dame won 34-6 in South Bend