Against its first three opponents, Notre Dame’s defense did its job. If that escaped notice, it was because the Irish offense failed to make the most of the opportunities granted by its counterpart.
Before this past weekend’s 56-27 victory at Wake Forest, No.8 Notre Dame’s defense had handed its offense the ball after four opposing plays or fewer a total of 13 competitive times. The Irish offense had turned those 13 opportunities at momentum into just one touchdown, to go along with two field goals, a missed field goal and an interception.
When defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit was at its finest, the offense mitigated the effect on the game to essentially a break-even. The likelihood was the opposition would get the ball back with a chance to redeem its offensive ineptitude having lost only some time, not ground on the scoreboard.
“We hadn’t been feeding off of each other,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “Our defense had been doing some great things but our our offense wouldn’t compliment it.”
Against the Deacons, three such moments arose. The first turned into nothing more than another turnover on downs. The next two? Touchdowns each, the earlier version buoyed by senior Chris Finke’s 52-yard punt return to the 4-yard line.
The latter was, to hear Kelly say it, the first time this season all three Notre Dame units played well at the same time. Coming out of halftime with a 28-13 lead, Kelly knew the Irish could put away Wake Forest right away if things went right. That would need to start with not letting Deacons junior Greg Dortch break off a field position-shifting return. Notre Dame freshman TaRiq Bracy tackled Dortch at the 22-yard line.
Then, obviously, the defense had to fulfill its fundamental task: Prevent the opposition from scoring. By doing so quickly, it could set up the Irish offense with field position, even it that had usually been squandered to date. After Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman completed a 12-yard pass to begin the drive, the next three Deacons plays could not move past the line of scrimmage. Finke fair caught the subsequent punt at the 26-yard line.
Three minutes and 18 seconds later, Irish junior quarterback Ian Book found junior receiver Chase Claypool for a 7-yard touchdown and an insurmountable lead.
“This was really the first time where I really wanted to make a statement at halftime,” Kelly said. “… It needed to be all three units coming together and we hadn’t really done that all year.
“Each unit feeding off each other for the first time was a big moment.”
Those three-and-outs, or pseudo-versions like this example, can serve as turnovers without the bonus of excellent field position. They emphasize the opposition’s offensive struggles and put its defense back on the field quickly. If they do not turn into points, those effects are diminished.
Notre Dame’s offensive sluggishness through three weeks minimized those effects 12 out of 13 times. If that had happened again Saturday, perhaps the Irish remain at the 28-point mark well into the third quarter. Suddenly, it would look a lot like the first three weeks of the year.
With Book at the helm, those moments became touchdowns, and that 28 became 56.
Of course, those three chances do not arise if Notre Dame’s defense does not hold Wake Forest’s fast-paced offense in check. That effort began with a focus on Dortch, who Kelly apparently took to referring to by only his jersey number, 3.
“We made some tactical decisions to take some things away,” Kelly said Saturday. “3 is a game-wrecker, and we doubled him the whole game, inside, outside. You’re going to have some issues, the quarterback run caused us some problems, but we were willing to give some things up to take some things away.”
Dortch ended up with six catches for 56 yards, well below his averages entering the weekend of more than nine catches and 112 receiving yards per game. In turn, the Irish were okay with giving up 277 rushing yards.
“It was aggressive play that was executed very well, and we frustrated 3,” Kelly said Sunday. “If you were to kind of put that in a story, that’s really what happened defensively. That aggressive play that we had really limited what they were able to do. It was well executed by our defense and then frustrating 3 was really important for us in the game plan.”
Limiting Dortch’s impact extended to special teams, as he returns both punts and kicks, as well. Irish fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome sent two boots out of bounds and Dortch fair caught the only other. When the offense scores eight touchdowns, it greatly reduces the exposure on punt coverage. Sophomore kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer then did his part by sending five of nine kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. On three kick returns, Dortch averaged 15.67 yards with a long of 19, below his 23.4-yard average.
ON NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSIVE LINE
Measuring a defensive line’s impact with stats is a dubious pursuit. The front absorbs blockers to spring linebackers to make plays as much as it makes the plays itself. Of 24 quarterback hurries this year — itself a dubious statistic — a mere 11 have come from Irish linemen. Only half the eight sacks are from the line.
Its influence on the game, though, should be undeniable.
“We were relentless up front,” Kelly said Saturday. “We were physical. Every time they threw the ball there was pressure on the quarterback.”
The Notre Dame defense as a whole finished with 10 tackles for loss Saturday, including three sacks. Junior end Julian Okwara led the way with 3.5 tackles for loss, including one sack, plus one more official quarterback hurry.
That defensive line may lose a bit more of its depth moving forward. Making his collegiate debut, freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin was injured about halfway through the fourth quarter. Kelly said an MRI will be needed to determine if Franklin needs surgery to repair a quad tendon injury.
Despite the loss of sophomore tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa for most of the season to a broken foot, Franklin was likely headed toward a year of preserving eligibility, anyway, only playing as a benefit of the NCAA’s rule change this year. That shift allows players to see action in up to four games without losing a year to play later in their careers.
To date, five Irish freshmen have played in all four games, meaning one more appearance and they will be committed for the season, presumably the plan with all five: defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, linebacker Bo Bauer, cornerback Bracy, receiver Kevin Austin and defensive back Houston Griffith, who technically earned his first career start at Wake Forest because the defense opened in a nickel package.
Of the eight other freshmen to play to date, only one has appeared in multiple games: linebacker Shayne Simon with three.
In addition to praising Austin for his blocking and Bracy for his special teams aptitude, Kelly lauded Ademilola and his twin brother, defensive end Justin Ademilola, both of whom made four tackles Saturday.
“Really pleased with their suddenness,” Kelly said. “How hard they played. They really kind of jump out at you on film.”
… and that line has already moved to Notre Dame by 4.5.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— Notre Dame, Ian Book turn to passing game in blow out of Wake Forest
— Things We Learned: Turning to Book gets Notre Dame’s offense and defense on same page
— The thought process behind Notre Dame’s QB change
— Notre Dame steamrolls Wake Forest, which struggles on defense for second straight game
— A look at Drue Tranquill’s Saturday stats
— Virginia Tech dismisses DE Trevon Hill, team leader in sacks this season
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