Analysis: Takeaways have (finally) started to come in bunches for Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — According to the Los Angeles Public Library archives, more than six decades have passed since the last time that area could briefly be called the City of (Snow) Angels.
Don’t tell that to Marcus Freeman.
Notre Dame’s first-year coach wouldn’t mind it one bit if this upcoming showdown with No. 7 USC took place in the sort of winter wonderland that marked Saturday’s 44-0 avalanche over Boston College.
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“Next week’s not going to be a snow game, but two of the three (practice) days, we’re going outside,” Freeman said. “It’s a mentality. We’re going to be tough. We’re not going to let the weather affect us.”
Not much of anything bothered the 18th-ranked Irish on Senior Day as they raced out to a 37-0 halftime lead. Unlike last week in Baltimore, there would be no second-half meandering, even with the yard markers rapidly becoming invisible.
Since sleepwalking to a 10-0 halftime deficit in the Oct. 15 home loss to Stanford, Notre Dame has ripped off a combined 137-27 advantage in its past five opening halves. How’s that for urgency?
What’s more, the 8-3 Irish, winners of 19 straight in November, have finally figured out how to generate takeaways.
Al Golden’s defense had just two of those through the first half of the regular season — including a lone interception by TaRiq Bracy on the first play of the Shamrock Series win over BYU — but in this five-game winning streak the floodgates have swung open.
Freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison had three more interceptions on Saturday, giving him a total of five in his past two home games. Not since former coach Brian Kelly’s first season, when junior safety Harrison Smith picked off three Miami passes at the 2010 Sun Bowl, had an Irish defender performed that particular hat trick.
Isaiah Foskey and Marist Liufau added fumble recoveries in BC territory, giving Notre Dame five takeaways on Saturday and 11 during its five-game winning streak. After recovering just 5 of 16 total fumbles (31.3%) on both sides of the ball through 10 games, the unlucky Irish saw their fortunes begin to change.
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What, no blocked punts?
It’s a good thing, too, because Maestro Brian Mason’s punt block crew failed to live up to its name for the first time in six games, dating to the BYU win in Las Vegas. Foskey and Co., couldn’t get to graduate punter Danny Longman, a Miami product, on any of his four wobbly boots.
A few days after Mason was one of two special teams coordinators among 51 nominees for the annual Broyles Award that goes to the nation’s top FBS assistant, he watched in horror as sure-handed senior Matt Salerno muffed a punt at midfield for the only Irish turnover of the day.
Moments later, however, Morrison erased that mistake with a diving grab of an Emmett Morehead pass that bounced off a running back’s hands. Not bad for the freshman from Phoenix, where the former Brophy Prep star had a total of four interceptions in his 24-game varsity career.
“I didn’t play defense growing up,” Morrison said. “In elementary school, I was a running back. This is all new to me.”
So is being on the right side of the turnover battle for the Irish, who finally clawed back to even for the year after coming in tied for 95th nationally in turnover margin (minus-4).
“I’ve been the defensive coordinator plenty of times where you stress turnovers and takeaways and it never happens,” Freeman said. “You keep going. You don’t get flustered. You challenge everything. And I think you’re seeing it happen in bunches now.”
USC, up next at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, owes much of its turnaround under former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to a plus-20 turnover margin. That's the nation’s best, and it includes just one lost fumble and three Caleb Williams interceptions all year.
The Trojans hadn’t given up any points off turnovers until it happened early in Saturday’s 48-45 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl. In a snowy statement delivered halfway across the country, those five Notre Dame takeaways set up 27 points.
“It’s a two-way road,” running back Logan Diggs said after going for 122 yards and a score. “We have the utmost confidence in our defense, and they have the utmost confidence in us. They want to go out there and make plays for us. When they make plays for us, we try to go out there and make plays for them.”
Sounds so simple when he says it that way, doesn’t it?
“We’re taking advantage of our opportunities,” Freeman said. “It’s a great lesson in terms of you can work at something tirelessly and not get the result you want. If you quit, you’re never going to get the result.”
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Not even an 0-2 start and a home loss to Marshall could get Freeman’s first group to cave. Saturday, they ran their regular-season winning streak against ACC teams to 28 games.
“It’s a great lesson for our entire program that just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’re going to get your reward tomorrow,” he said. “Continue to do it, and at some point, it will come. At some point, it will.”
Now if he could just get a little Thanksgiving weekend cold snap at the Coliseum.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.