Things We Learned, Part 1: Notre Dame’s defense far from great, but has the pieces to be

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State
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After Notre Dame’s spring game, head coach Brian Kelly said he had a good team, but it was not yet great. The offseason would need to be spent on that evolution.

“Good teams are not good enough,” Kelly said on May Day. “We want to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship. We need to be a great team. … We can put enough good players out there to have a good football team, but nobody around here is interested in good. We want to be great. So getting that to go from good to great is the process that we’re in.”

Unless Florida State proves to have gone from three years of struggles to a top-1o team in just one offseason, then Sunday night made it clear, the No. 9 Irish (1-0) are still in that process of getting from good to great.

There are greater problems to have. One of them would be having lost 41-38 in overtime because the head coach simultaneously didn’t trust his kicker’s physical gifts enough and trusted his mental fortitude too much. Instead, Notre Dame won that way on Labor Day Eve, a moment that entertained the nation and provided Kelly a chance to remind his team of his favorite axiom, an accurate one at that.

“I told the guys, winning is hard,” Kelly said after his 103rd win leading the Irish, two short of tying Knute Rockne’s record. “You’ve won a lot, you’ve worked really hard.”

And then Kelly had the chance to tell his team every coach’s favorite axiom.

“We really need to look at this critically, and to take the next step forward, we have to clean up a lot of things.”

Film study is always more fun after a win, obviously, which is a good thing for Notre Dame, because the trip to Tallahassee provided plenty of defensive film to critique.

The Irish defense gave up a lot to the Seminoles, but it was not all that much different than a year ago. In Notre Dame’s 42-26 win last season, Florida State gained 405 yards on 71 snaps, an average of 5.7 yards per play, and converted three of four trips into the red zone for points. The Irish never led by more than 16, but that lead held for the final 23:40.

Last night, the Seminoles gained 442 yards on 74 snaps, an average of 6.0 yards per play, and converted three of four trips into the red zone for touchdowns.

To some degree, Florida State head coach Mike Norvell’s explosive offense works against Notre Dame, and with a gradually improving team — the concept Norvell preaches is “the climb” — being more competitive in the final third of the game made sense.

Nonetheless, new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s three-man fronts let the Seminoles run nearly at will. In the last two weeks, Freeman has lost starting linebacker and expected playmaker Marist Liufau (dislocated ankle), defensive end and expected havoc-wreaker Jordan Botelho (unavailable for a week or two, presumably due to pandemic protocols) and linebacker Paul Moala (a second torn Achilles tendon in less than a year). All three players were viewed as coverage/edge rusher-hybrids, the key to Freeman’s defense, and thus their absences undoubtedly hampered his approach, but regardless, giving up 5.5 yards per carry will still doom Notre Dame more weeks than not. Lessons will need to be gleaned from those gaps.

“You get to know your personnel better, you know what you can and can’t do,” Kelly said of what comes next for Freeman. “You know there are some things that, okay, I have to be really careful making some of these calls in these situations.

“He’s getting to know his personnel for the first time. It’s one thing to have them in spring ball, quick whistle and tag-off, then when you have a guy who is shaking you down and you’re missing tackles and not fitting up — we needed one more step most of the time on the quarterback. We left our feet one step early. Those are things that he learned a lot about his defense and what we can do.”

Overreacting to a new hire after one week is a needless rush to the vending machine of hot takes. Options rife with superfluous calories will remain if you are not the first one there. Freeman’s defense did not look good Sunday, but he was not hired for Sunday. He was hired to help turn a good team into a great one, something truly judged only in December and January.

One piece of the defense may already be great. The defensive line held its own, even if only three linemen were on the field most of the time. Junior end Isiah Foskey led the way with eight tackles, including two sacks, putting to rest preseason wonderings about his chances of ascending from promise to reality.

“This was a game that he needed to be in,” Kelly said. “Dropping into the flat, covering the back leaking out, they wanted to throw a throwback screen, and he’s in good position. There was so much good teaching in a game like this, and it’s a lot more fun teaching it after a win and being challenged like this.”

The Ademilola twins combined for 10 tackles and a sack, routinely in the backfield flustering Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis. Sophomore tackle Rylie Mills showed why he will play as much as senior starter Jayson Ademilola, even though Mills ended up with only one tackle, a sack.

Fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish was as prevalent as ever, no matter what the stat sheet shows. Fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa needs to learn to close when coming from the edge rather than the interior — that closing angle differs — but he clearly had no trouble creating pressure.

Freeman’s Irish tenure got off to an inauspicious debut, but that was all it was, his debut. Notre Dame has the core building block for a strong defense with its dominant defensive line. What Freeman does with it will determine how impactful its other playmakers can be.

Junior linebacker JD Bertrand went from preseason rumor to starter when Liufau was injured, and he made the most of it Sunday, most notably with his overtime pressure that forced the fumble-overturned-into an incompletion. That one non-tackle overshadowed Bertrand’s 11 actual takedowns. Along with junior safety Kyle Hamilton’s two interceptions, the performances made it clear Freeman has top-notch defenders to toy with.

“First game in a new defense, I think we played well when we were really needed, and we’ve got a long way to go,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to get a lot better, it’s only a start for us.”

To get better, Hamilton and Bertrand will be crucial. That defensive line shows better is attainable for the Irish defense. Finding it after a win should be easier than the alternative; nobody in a gold helmet was claiming a brilliant performance, only an earned win, a win that was possible because the defense sidd show up in overtime when push came to shove, at least partly making up for allowing Florida State to come back in the first place.

“Defense was like, we’re here because of us, so let’s leave because of us,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately it was all JD, Jon Doerer, but we got a stop when needed.”

Hamilton could just as easily have been praising JD Bertrand. That three-and-out sealed by Bertrand’s pressure saved Freeman’s arrival from being an outright disaster. Now what comes next matters more than anything that happened in Tallahassee.

“Obviously, we need to get some things fixed,” Hamilton said. “I’m sure coach Freeman and the whole staff will assess the game, what we did good, what we did wrong, and we’ll come back next week and the rest of the season even better.”

Better will be necessary to turn good to great.

MAY DAY
Why refer to Kelly’s spring quote as on May Day instead of after the Blue-Gold Game? As a nod to Sam “Mayday” Malone, of course. Want to understand more “Cheers” references? Subscribe to Peacock!

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