Michigan v Notre Dame

Breaking down 4-0: The front seven


Part four in our bye week on Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. For more, check out our introduction, the secondary, the running backs, and the receiving corps


Most outsiders thought the loss of defensive end Aaron Lynch would be a deathblow to a promising pass rush. The sophomore defensive end, who led the Irish in sacks as a freshman, was set to team with Stephon Tuitt on the edge of the defensive line, a group that had the look of a very strong unit. Most thought it was coach speak when Brian Kelly said he wasn’t worried about the defensive front. But after four games, we now know why.

With a linebacking corps that was all but locked in, it was up to the defensive line to improve, even without Lynch. That meant getting more from Stephon Tuitt, who looked the part of an elite defender. And Louis Nix building on a promising first season in the middle. With Prince Shembo stepping in for Darius Fleming to provide a spark in the pass rush and Ben Councell and Danny Spond looking to anchor the drop linebacker, the pieces looked in place even before the premise was proven this September.


The Irish said goodbye to veteran Ethan Johnson and then were surprised that versatile defensive tackle Sean Cwynar decided to walk away from his final year of eligibility. Countering that move with a shift of Kona Schwenke to the inside, the Irish then needed to depend on some youth to step up and fill some important roles.

Meanwhile with the linebackers, the depth chart at the Dog linebacker was thrown out of whack when Danny Spond suffered a scary injury during preseason camp. The Irish toyed with moving safety CJ Prosise down in the box while shifting Romeo Okwara to the wide side of the field.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sr.
Sean Cwynar, Sr. (Decided to forgo a possible fifth year of eligibility.)
Tyler Stockton, Sr.
Kona Schwenke, Jr.
Louis Nix, Jr.
Aaron Lynch, Soph. (Left the team in the spring. Enrolled at South Florida.)
Stephon Tuitt, Soph.
Tony Springmann, Soph.
Sheldon Day, Fr.
Jarron Jones, Fr.

Manti Te’o, Sr.
Dan Fox, Sr.
Carlo Calabrese, Sr.
Prince Shembo, Jr.
Danny Spond, Jr.
Justin Utupo, Jr.
Kendall Moore, Jr.
Jarrett Grace, Soph.
Ben Councell, Soph.
Joe Schmidt, Soph.
Ishaq Williams, Soph.
Anthony Rabasa, Soph.
Romeo Okwara, Fr.


It isn’t hard to see the difference in the statistical performance from 2011 to 2012. Across the board, the Irish have taken a step forward with their defense. After being middle of the road getting after the quarterback, Bob Diaco’s unit has taken a huge leap forward, with the run defense playing equally stingy. And with turnovers, the difference is night and day.

Scoring Defense:
2011: 20.7 (24th)
2012: 9.0 (4th)

Rushing Defense:
2011: 138.9 (47th)
2012: 112.5 (29th)

Yards Per Carry:
2011: 3.78 (45th)
2012: 3.31 (31st)

2011: 25 (56th)
2012: 14 (7th)

Turnovers Forced:
2011: 14 (112th)
2012: 13 (2nd)

Two amazing stats that jump out at you are the sacks and turnovers. The Irish have already notched 14 sacks, over halfway to their total of 25 last season. They’ve produced those sacks mostly from their defensive front, with Stephon Tuitt leading the way with six sacks and rookie Sheldon Day chipping in two as well. With Prince Shembo ratcheting up  the pressure over the past few games, the pass rush only looks to improve as the season goes on.

Even more incredible is the jump the Irish have made in forcing turnovers. From the bottom of the barrel to the cream of the crop, Notre Dame’s defense has already forced 13 turnovers, nearly matching their season long total from last year. With an offense that hasn’t advanced the cause, those turnovers have been huge in getting victories and a large part of why Notre Dame has given up only nine points a game.


With Manti Te’o leading the way for the linebackers and Stephon Tuitt wreaking havoc up front, the front seven is the undeniable strength of this football team. With a defensive front that rolls through young talent, and a linebacking group that seems like it’s hitting its stride, the defense could be poised to power this football team, and faces a nice measuring stick next Saturday against Miami.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”