Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense remains elite, a luxury the offense needs

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Reason to worry about the viability of No. 4 Notre Dame’s 2020 goals, in particular the ever-looming spectre just three weeks away, did not come in Saturday’s 12-7 scrape with Louisville. If anything, slipping by the Cardinals in ignominious fashion put the worry to bed. The reason to worry about the foundation of any Irish hopes of contending for an ACC title, how they could conceivably compete with No. 1 Clemson when it arrives on Nov. 7, came a week ago as Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) eased by Florida State, 42-26.

The Seminoles poked holes in the defense that sets the tone for the Irish. Those gaps were plugged against the Cardinals, an offense comparable to Florida State’s, if not arguably superior.

“Last week we didn’t really feel great about what we put on film, so this week we just wanted to get back to the basics, stick to our fundamentals and play our type of ball,” fifth-year defensive end and captain Daelin Hayes said Saturday evening. “We were confident in that. [Defensive coordinator Clark Lea] allowed us to go out and make plays, kept the game plan simple.”

If Notre Dame cannot rely on its defense, it cannot rely on anything. That has been the case throughout the revival begun in 2017, and it remains the case now. That is inherently a criticism of other facets of the Irish, most notably the passing game, but it also speaks to the importance of Lea’s defense. It is the perpetual safety net, and it knows as much.

“We tell the offense, all they need to do is give us three points and we’ll go do the rest,” Hayes said. “That’s the mindset our defense embodies and coach Lea has instilled in us.”

Though two turnovers put the defense in difficult positions last week, Notre Dame still gave up 16 points — would have been 17 if not for a misguided two-point attempt — on three pertinent drives. Its turnover-fueled explosion against No. 5 North Carolina (3-1, 3-1) this weekend aside, Florida State has featured one of the most disappointing offenses in the country this season, averaging 22.5 points through four games and only 5.14 yards per play.

An elite defense should not have granted the Seminoles three long scoring drives.

There were reasons for those lapses as the Irish came off a coronavirus outbreak that weakened the linebackers and defensive line and held out much of the secondary, but confirming those reasons as the causes and not the excuses could not happen until Notre Dame played Louisville.

At which point, an elite defense did not grant the Cardinals scoring drives.

Even the one Louisville did muster, a 13-play, 83-yard march to start the second half, generously gifted Lea a chance to adjust, something he had hardly needed to do at halftime.

“They were running a bunch of squeeze in the first half, and we got used to defending what they were throwing at us,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “Really spaced us out a little bit in the second half, making sure we stayed on our toes.”

Owusu-Koramoah on his toes is not a sight any opposing offense wants to incur, not when his big hits inspire Hayes’, furthering the future first-round draft pick’s influence. Not everything should be viewed through an orange-and-white lens, but Owusu-Koramoah on his toes is how the Irish may have a chance against the Tigers in three weeks. The Irish defense following his lead may not be able to match a generational quarterback paired with a generational running back directed by a generational coach, but without Lea’s usual standard, Notre Dame would not have a semblance of a chance.

That standard was missing a week ago. It returned Saturday, partly by keeping it simple.

“Just cutting down the amount of calls that we have, just making it easy for everybody to understand, to be able to go out and play really fast,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “That was what we keyed in on this week, playing fast and playing physical. When you take out some of the calls, and you take out a lot of the checks and things like that, you start to get more comfortable in the defense.”

Keeping it simple is a luxury afforded teams with elite talent, and Owusu-Koramoah and sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton provide it, along with an underrated interior defensive line and veteran defensive ends more focused on making the right play than on making the big play.

Simply shutting down Louisville may not impress some; the Cardinals are, after all, 1-4. But they still averaged 29.0 points per game and 5.87 yards per play entering Saturday, decent if not stellar marks, and they boast some of the fastest skill players this side of Alabama. Reducing that offense to one damaging drive, only two chunk plays, 219 total yards and 4.87 yards per play marks the return of Lea’s standard, one that may be taken for granted.

That defense allows the Irish offense to stub its toe again and again without any harm done aside from a bit of anxious and broken-record commentary. Notre Dame knows its passing game needs work, to say the least. (Other sentences considered: “Notre Dame knows it lacks a passing game;” “Notre Dame knows its aerial attack is abysmal;” “Notre Dame knows it confirms the ancient worries about only three things happening when throwing the ball and two of them being bad.”)

“We’ve got to make some plays to be more efficient scoring touchdowns in the red zone,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s playmakers making plays.”

Kelly’s emphasis of red-zone failures highlights Saturday’s offensive struggles. With only seven possessions, Notre Dame reached the red zone five times. One resulted in fifth-year quarterback Ian Book’s 13-yard scrambling touchdown, one drained the final minute of the game, and three called for the field goal unit.

Five-of-seven is an effective offense, but two-of-five is not efficient scoring.

“Those guys got to make some more plays on the perimeter for us,” Kelly said. “We’re running the ball effectively enough. We’re getting some good play from the tight ends. [The receivers] got to continue to grow, and they are. … Ian has to get them the football. That will be something that we continue to focus on.”

Red-zone efficiency is a new problem for the Irish. Converting 21 possessions into 12 touchdowns this season falls miserably short of the last three years: 76.4 percent in 2019, 61.5 percent in 2018 and 76.1 percent in 2017.

As Kelly said, rectifying that shortcoming will come down to playmakers making plays, junior receiver Braden Lenzy finding sustained health (soft tissue injury), classmate Kevin Austin adjusting to his first action in 22 months, fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley finding the sure hands he showcases once a month more often than that.

Until then, Notre Dame can lean on Lea’s defense, now having confirmed the evening of Florida State failures was a rule-proving exception.