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Breaking down 4-0: The front seven

Sep 29, 2012, 11:42 AM EDT

Michigan v Notre Dame Getty Images

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

OFF-SEASON PERSPECTIVE

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.

PERSONNEL CHANGES

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.

STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN

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)

Sacks:
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.

OVERALL

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.

  1. bernhtp - Sep 29, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I looked closely at the video interview of Tuitt and he reminded me of Ross Browner in many ways. Despite his great start this year, he still has a ways to go to match Browner’s prodigious performance, but he is on that path.

    • 9irish - Sep 30, 2012 at 1:09 PM

      wow, haven’t heard that name for awhile. Even though I was little I remember a bunch of names from that 77 team. The guy was a beast.

      • 9irish - Sep 30, 2012 at 1:18 PM

        Ended up in the NFL with the Bengals, I think

  2. masalaswag - Sep 29, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    Ishaq Williams?

    • bernhtp - Sep 29, 2012 at 3:04 PM

      Shembo’s breakout performance has severely limited Ishaq’s minutes.

      • nudeman - Sep 29, 2012 at 5:50 PM

        I think Ishaq’s underachievement has also limited Ishaq’s minutes

  3. dickasman - Sep 29, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    Who woulda thunk it guys with loss of lynch, Dingleberry and tupac. This is what’s great about college football.

  4. bernhtp - Sep 29, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    Prediction: The Notre Dame front 7 won’t let the Miami QB run around for an eternity while he looks for open receivers behind the secondary 50 yards downfield to pass for 566 yards.

    http://espn.go.com/ncf/boxscore?gameId=322732390

    Golson and the ND offense should have a verygood day. The ND secondary will get a good test, but it won’t look anything like the NC State game.

    • stealthy77 - Oct 2, 2012 at 3:34 PM

      Too bad Miami’s QB did the same thing to Georgia Tech, which had a talented and experienced 3-4 defense using exotic blitz schemes. I question the ND secondary’s ability to tackle guys like Duke Johnson.. specifically the CB’s. The front seven is good, but solely relying on them to eliminate Miami’s passing game, while at the same time stopping the run, protecting against the screens, dropping back in coverage, and stopping the QB from scrambling is asking a lot. You guys think Miami stinks, but their offensive line alone will give that front seven fits.

  5. chisports14 - Sep 29, 2012 at 6:59 PM

    As good as Notre Dame has looked thus far I still think we haven’t seen a good team yet. Our secondary will get their first true test against Miami’s QB and so the front seven will need a big game.

    As I look at the schedule I realize that Notre Dame still has yet to beat a team that has won a game against a BCS team. This week we shall find out how Notre Dame really stacks up.

    • ndfaithful - Sep 30, 2012 at 10:56 AM

      What do you mean by ‘BCS team’? MSU beat Boise. Other than that, our opponents haven’t had any notable wins. MSU looked ok against OSU yesterday, but lost. As with every college season, we will learn a lot more as the season goes on. I still think that MSU, Michigan, and Purdue will end up with pretty good records. I think we have seen a good ND team thus far with a very good defense. I don’t think Miami is the first real test. I think the Purdue game was. Time will tell. I think we will make Miami.s offense look bad.

      • bernhtp - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:11 AM

        Our freshman-laden secondary will perform better than NC State. Our front 7 will put on severe pressure that will lead to errant passes and turnovers. While the Miami offense is very good – maybe the best we’ve seen so far – and will be a good test for our secondary and D, more generally, I still bet we hold them to under 20.

        The Miami defense was really bad. Golson should get excited about redeeming himself in a big way. I bet that Rees doesn’t see the field, except for maybe garbage time.

        ND 30, Miami 17

      • chisports14 - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:24 AM

        UMMM Boise isn’t a BCS team and Boise is definitely not the same team this year as they have been the past few years. Maybe if this were 2013 MSU would have beaten a Big East Boise.

        Also, Purdue was the first test? Explain why you say that. Was it their win over Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, or squeaking by Marshall? They might still put together a nice record this year, but look at the big ten this year… beating Michigan and Wisconsin doesn’t really make them a great team in my mind

        Time will absolutely tell, but up until this point we have yet to beat a team that has proven something this year. Miami is the only team that has any wins over BCS teams (Georgia Tech, NC State, and BC… Teams might not be great, but they definitely have more talent than UMass). The two BEST wins by our opponents so far have been Michigan getting by Air Force and MSU getting by Boise State. Also, both of our ranked wins were against teams now unranked.

        I’m pulling for Notre Dame every minute, but I also think expectations around here are sky high after beating teams that haven’t proven anything yet.

        I would like to see a decisive victory Miami before I start thinking about winning a BCS bowl

      • chisports14 - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:27 AM

        I think this game will be close. If I’m wrong, then I’m happy. If I’m right than I’m holding ndfaithful and bernhtp to their comments that we are going to beat Miami easy and we can revisit this next Sunday.

        Bring on game time

      • ndfaithful - Sep 30, 2012 at 10:27 PM

        hang on… I’m confused chisports14. I wasn’t arguing with you, but asking for clarification. You said “Notre Dame still has yet to beat a team that has won a game against a BCS team.”

        By BCS, do you mean ‘good’? Do you mean ‘ranked’? Do you mean teams that compete for BCS bowl slots? Do you mean teams that could win it all? My comment is that Boise is looking like the strongest team that any of our opponents beat. That’s all.

        Having said that, I don’t think it means that we haven’t beaten good teams. The teams we played haven’t really even played anybody with a strong program other than Boise, Alabama, and OSU. Of those three, Bama crushed Michigan, OSU squeaked by MSU, and MSU beat Boise. I still think that ND beat three good teams in the Big 10. Like I said, time will tell.

        And yes – I think Purdue was the best passing team we’ve played so far and that they were a decent test for our young secondary. They’ve been throwing the ball all over everyone except for ND. Their points and yards per game compare well with Miami’s and neither Purdue nor Miami have done well against anybody good yet. I do think Purdue could have a good season for a change.

        Now – I’m going to argue a bit. Your logic is a bit weird. You say we haven’t beaten anybody that’s beaten anybody good. First of all – that’s just pointless. Then you point out that Miami beat GT, NC State, and BC. Who the hell does that impress?! Not me. Who have those teams beaten – NOBODY. Nor were any of Miami’s opponents even ranked othe than Kansas State – and they KILLED Miami. I don’t follow you, but damn – i tried.

        Then you say “I also think expectations around here are sky high after beating teams that haven’t proven anything yet.” I can’t speak for anyone else. My response is this:

        My hopes (not expectations) are always sky high. Because it’s ND and I’m a fan(atic). And secondly, after five weeks into the season – NOBODY in the F’n country has proven anything. The same logic you use to say ND hasn’t beaten anybody could be used in regards to any team in the top 25 – including Bama. There’s no team that’s got anything other than last year’s record and preseason hype to hang their hat on.

        Here’s all we know so far about ND –
        We love them and they have given us hope again
        They were better than Navy, Purdue, MSU, and Michigan on the days they played them this year.

      • ndfaithful - Sep 30, 2012 at 10:31 PM

        by the way chisports, I didn’t say we’d win easy. I just said I think we’ll make their offense look bad.

      • chisports14 - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:25 PM

        BCS teams = teams who play in BCS AQ conferences. Big East, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, ACC, and SEC (and technically ND because we are AQ).

        And yes beating Miami who has beaten those teams is more impressive to me because I firmly believe GT, NC State, and BC would beat any of the non-BCS teams our current opponents have played. Purdue, MSU, and UM could have good years, but knowing who those guys have beaten this far into the season and watching us struggle against them really doesn’t make me confident just yet.

        Last, when you say it won’t be a test and we will make their offense look bad I think it’s a fair assumption that you think the game won’t be close.

        Alas, this argument has gotten me nowhere. I want them to win as much as anyone… I just am nervous that people will have a meltdown if we lose because perception might be a bit misplaced right now.

      • ndfaithful - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:40 PM

        @chisports14 – thanks for clarifying. With Boise recently playing and competing for at large BCS games, I wasn’t sure how you saw them.

        I wish I saw a blowout coming, but I’m expecting a close game. Mainly because our offense isn’t impressive yet.

  6. mtflsmitty - Sep 29, 2012 at 7:05 PM

    Nude,

    I know coaches had indicated that Ishaq’s work ethic was very suspect in 2011. But I thought they had been pretty positive since spring ball that he had really looked good. He looked very good against Navy. But Prince had a breakout game against Purdue, and it seems Ishaq’s minutes have dropped since.

    Do you have any specific insights on Ishaq’s “underachievement”? Or are you looking for a new whipping boy since you now see Tommy as sufficiently matured?

    • nudeman - Sep 29, 2012 at 8:13 PM

      I do not, unequivocally. So I’m reading between the lines of things I’ve read, seen, and NOT seen for 1.33 seasons now.

      Reasons:
      1. 5 star guy coming out of HS. I know star ratings are imperfect, but still … 5 stars to me says “unqualified stud”. Has anyone seen that from Ishaq?
      2. Last year we heard “he’s gotta’ get his motor going at a high level more consistently”. Translation: He takes plays off. Not a good sign. I get the feeling he doesn’t love the game.
      3. This year it’s been “He’s getting there”. Huh? What do they need to do? Load dynamite into the tip of the boot they give him a kick in that ass with? GET THERE already, dude.
      4. He’s been in on a play or two, here and there. I just have expected more. I think you have expected more. I think the coaches have expected more.
      5. He’s only a sophomore, but so what? Look at K Russell and Sheldon Day and Shumate. Making big contributions as frosh.

      Whatever. Maybe I’m dead wrong and the light will go on for him (another coaching-ism we’ve heard about Ishaq) at some point soon. Maybe next year he kills it.

      But I just get this sense that he’s going to be one of those guys who we’re always waiting to break out, but never does. Hope I’m 100% wrong.

    • nudeman - Sep 29, 2012 at 9:22 PM

      BTW, to your other sarcastic point, pls forgive me but I am not 100% sold on Tommy as the Savior.

      Yes, he’s done a very good job. Yes, he’s a good teammate.
      Yes, he “checks us into good plays”. Supposedly. (I’m always intrigued that so many have bought that, hook/line/sinker. Don’t we have to know what play was called initially to know if that’s true?)

      But he is still severely limited in what he can do, and still the same guy who just a few months ago against Stanford, FSU and in the B&G game was using terrible judgment in taking care of the ball.

      Does anyone honestly believe we will never see that again from him?

      The real answer here is for ND to get to a place where the starting QB doesn’t need help finishing a game.

      • joeschu - Sep 30, 2012 at 10:24 AM

        Agree… he’s chucked a few up in the air after making decent reads and the guys won the battles for the ball. I like that he hasn’t dropped the ball yet, or thrown a “here you go” pick at the worst possible time. I also like that he’s found a way to be a positive force on the team from the bench and in the locker room.

        Great teammate – yes. Asset to the University – yup. Decent back-up when needed – I guess. Starting QB for the University of Notre Dame – no.

        Amazing how a post on the best front 7 in football turns into a QB discussion (again).

      • ndfaithful - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:09 AM

        I am with you there… Nobody WANTS to need a 2nd qb. TR has played really well and I, for one, hope he does not need to do it ever again.

        BK explained in the post game press conference that they had the qb run planned on the play when they sealed the win with the long pass to Eifert. Good call by TR.

        I hope TR has just gotten better and older. But I hope that he has had his moments on the field this year and can make the rest of his contributions from the sidelines and practice field as we win the rest of our games. That way it is a happy ending for everyone.

      • chisports14 - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:36 AM

        I think it’s very possible he has matured as a QB. Is he the future of ND football? No. But, we saw Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen both put up around the same numbers as Rees in their sophomore years and then step it up as juniors.

  7. 9irish - Sep 29, 2012 at 10:13 PM

    I don’t know (I dunno). OSU definitely watched the Notre Dame tape about how to just stuff Le’veon Bell, but MSU did not watch the Notre Dame tape about how to contain Denard Robinson (Braxton Miller). The guy just ran all around them. MSU could’ve won if they had stopped trying to ram Bell into a brick wall all the time.

  8. idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 29, 2012 at 11:31 PM

    Off topic, but i thought you guys might think this is as interesting as me… Louisiana Tech’s center runs their high powered offense…THE WHOLE OFFENSE…he’s got the helmet with the communication system, he yells the audibles, he even does the cadence. They had a bad offensive day today, putting up just 44 points on Virginia, but they’re still averaging 52 pts. per game. Check it out…

    http://sports.yahoo.com/news/ncaaf–unconventional-attack–la–tech-runs-high-flying-offense-through-its-center–not-qb.html

  9. nudeman - Sep 30, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    Lots of talk on other sites about what ND needs to do in the 2 weeks to jump start the offense. My thoughts:

    1. The biggest issue they have is the OL. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s a 2 week thing. They might get incrementally better, but they pretty much will be what they’ve been to date. So that makes anything after this a little more difficult.

    2. Lots of weapons aren’t seeing the ball. Eifert is the obvious one. But I’m mainly referring to guys like Brown, Neal, GAIII – new, FAST guys who can play in space. That is something that CAN be addressed in 2 weeks. Screens, reverses, more edge plays.

    3. EG needs to be a running weapon. He doesn’t have great speed, but he is quick and he is elusive and I’d think a few plays to make the D respect that wouldn’t hurt. QB draw, a read option or two, etc.

    4. Deep ball: I loved the shot they took in the MSU game in the first series. EG missed Brown by about a stride, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be throwing a couple of those each game. Even if incomplete, it makes the D play a step deeper.

    • bernhtp - Sep 30, 2012 at 12:36 PM

      1. I’ve seen incremental improvement of the OL for the two weeks following Purdue. I was hoping for a bit better, but continued improvement should be enought.

      2. Agreed. I don’t know if Neal is ready for much yet, but more misdirection and edge plays would open the offense up a bit. Of course, you can call all of the plays you want, but you need to execute. Brown’s been open a couple of times and missed. The TEs, especially Koyak, have missed blocks that would have sprung the edge for a big gain, etc.

      3. Martin indicates that they won’t saddle EG with a running role yet, though he may be lying for obvious reasons. However, his rationale makes sense – more for him to think about when he is already thinking too much, and having to recover between plays from getting winded and hit when he has difficulty getting his wits about him and staying focused.

      4. Yes, take a few more, but we need to hit some. It’s up to Golson. He’ll have a big opportunity Saturday since Miami let lowly NC State receivers run behind their secondary all day long.

      • nudeman - Sep 30, 2012 at 1:48 PM

        bern
        re your #2 point, what is involved in being “ready” to plays a couple offensive snaps?

        If for example they have a reverse set up for Neal, they’d have had 2 friggin’ weeks to work on that. Instructions are simple. “Davonte, you line up there, take 2 steps to your right after the snap to create misdirection, then reverse course, take a handoff and GO”

        I could do that. You could do that. DickAsman could do that.

        This “he isn’t ready”, “he doesn’t know the playbook”, “he doesn’t know the protection schemes” stuff is just killing me. GET THEM READY. LEARN THE PLAYBOOK. LEARN THE PROTECTION SCHEMES.

        At this rate, they’ll all get everything down just as they’re accepting their diploma on graduation day.

        On Golson on the read/option, I concede that’s a bit more complicated for someone who’s plate is already pretty full. Still, even that should be doable a couple times per game. Even if it gains nothing, gives the D something else to watch for.

      • bernhtp - Sep 30, 2012 at 3:29 PM

        It’s not quite so easy with Neal. First of all, if the opposing D sees #19 in the backfield or in the slot, they pretty much know he isn’t in to block. They will be looking for some misdirection, trick play, or something around the edge; probably nothing up the middle. It’s not that he can’t run a few plays; it’s that his lack of experience limits what he can do to what the defense will expect.

      • nudeman - Sep 30, 2012 at 7:51 PM

        bern
        Valid point but why can’t he be in for several plays and a decoy for a few?
        At what point do they start playing this guy?

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