Three sacks show much more of Notre Dame’s defense

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Brandon Wimbush had just made the first real mistake of his time as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. A very-avoidable interception gave Temple possession a mere 14 yards from the end zone. With the Irish lead only 28-10 and more than 20 minutes remaining, a quick score would have returned the season opener to competitive. When Owls senior tight end Chris Myarick was left uncovered approaching the goal line on the ensuing third down, a touchdown seemed quite likely.

Instead, Temple was forced to attempt a 36-yard field goal, missed wide left.

What changed?

Well, a lot, and it traces back much further than that third-and-five. The dramatic example simply underscores the differences between the Notre Dame defense a year ago and the version put on display in Saturday’s 49-16 victory over the Owls.

At the snap, senior rover Drue Tranquill crashed toward the line of scrimmage while junior safety Nick Coleman played the space Tranquill left. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan kept his eyes on the quarterback. Who was supposed to cover Myarick is a question only answerable in the Irish film room. That answer was rendered moot, though, by a charging Te’von Coney.

The junior linebacker locked onto junior quarterback Logan Marchi as he rolled left, taking Marchi down for a 10-yard sack, the third of the day for Notre Dame. By all appearances, Coney prevented a simple pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.

“If he doesn’t do his job, they’re going to find that tight end,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He covers up for a mistake on a play.”

Kelly added Coney would not have made that play a year ago. Instead, he would have been distracted by senior running back David Hood moving from right to left across the line, heading for the flat. Coney would have likely followed Hood, rather than leave the offense’s safety valve to be picked up by sophomore safety Devin Studstill, as happened Saturday.

“We were covering up for [Coney’s] mistakes last year,” Kelly said. “It’s not just the physical talent. He really had that in a large degree. Where he’s taken the huge jump is in his traits. His attention to detail, his focus, he is a locked-in football player. That’s where he’s making the jump.”

Coney’s jump coincides with a defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, one that perhaps plays to his strengths. For that matter, it may play to every linebacker’s strengths, and it just so happens the Irish have a number of talented linebackers these days.

“It’s the philosophical approach to how we teach the defensive front and the way that it is taught from the very first day that the defense is put in,” Kelly said. “We’re not a read-and-react defense. We’re going to create a new line of scrimmage.

“… The defensive line is going to play in a manner that they’re going to get off the football. Our linebackers are downhill players. You can see that with 11 tackles for loss from 10 different players.”

Especially on that third-and-five, Coney was moving downhill, ignoring the previous line of scrimmage.

Similarly, both Tranquill and senior defensive end Jay Hayes exhibited that purpose on the second play from scrimmage of the second half. Temple set up for a screen pass, but Tranquill was in the backfield so quickly, Marchi no longer had that intended option. Instead, he had Hayes bearing down on him after shedding his blocker with a quick spin move.

Hayes was not officially credited with anything more than a quarterback hurry from that play. That is, not that Hayes. He forced Marchi toward sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation), who sacked the Owl out of bounds. But it was Tranquill’s coverage and the first rusher that made the play.

Again, that play would not have been made last year. Jay Hayes simply was not capable of it. An offseason spent working with the new strength and conditioning staff as well as the trainers positioned Hayes to start and contribute from week one.

“He needed to match that strength and size with his footwork and change of direction,” Kelly said. “He committed to that in the offseason. Our strength staff did a great job. Rob Hunt and the trainers did a great job on correctives with [Hayes’] footwork and his feet in particular to get him where his change of direction now matches and meets his physicality.

“That’s always lagged behind with Jay. Now it matches who he is and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”

These praises of a renewed pass rush and simple aggression in Elko’s defense come without even mentioning Notre Dame’s first sack. Sophomore end Julian Okwara gets the credit for that one, but perhaps more notable: All four defensive linemen on the play were reserves with Okwara joined by freshman tackle Kurt Hinish, junior tackle Brandon Tiassum and senior end Andrew Trumbetti.

An unfinished product
By no means was the Irish defense perfect against Temple. First of all, 16 points proves that. Second of all, it was week one, perfection was unlikely. Third, Kelly has repeatedly asked for excellence, specifically not perfection.

Yet certain mistakes are correctable.

“I’d probably say tackling,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “But as a defensive unit, you can always say you can tackle better.”

Kelly agreed.

“We have to tackle better,” he said. “There’s no question defensively. That will start within all phases of our tackling.

“I told our football team situational awareness has to get better. We had some situations where we’ve got to react quicker. … We backed up in the end zone on a throw. We have to know where we are on the field.”

Presumably, Kelly was referring to the 11-yard touchdown pass from Marchi to senior receiver Brodrick Yancy in the fourth quarter, a screen pass that conceivably should not have advanced much past the line of scrimmage.

Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love hesitated, allowing the blocking receiver to engage without a challenge. At that point, neither Studstill nor junior rover Asmar Bilal were able to take the proper angles to prevent Yancy from scoring.

Frankly, Notre Dame was lucky to have that opportunity to stop the Owls. On the play immediately prior, Temple sophomore tight end Kenny Yeboah beat Irish sophomore safety Jalen Elliott in the end zone but could not handle Marchi’s pass.

It was week one. Those mistakes will happen.

It was also a long offseason, one that apparently instilled a better understanding of assignments, better conditioning and a straightforward defensive approach. These were all preached for eight months, but now there is finally tangible evidence of them.