Things We Learned, Part I: Notre Dame’s aggressive defense finds looks that ‘fit’ in shutting down Purdue

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense hardly needed to be fixed; it was far from broken. In the previous three regular seasons, only Clemson in 2020 and Michigan in 2019 broke 30 points against the Irish.

But when that restrictive defense was outplayed, most notably in two College Football Playoff appearances, it did not create enough chaos to counteract the mistakes. Thus, Notre Dame is transitioning on the fly.

While the immediate results at Florida State and Toledo may have been ugly, although ultimately productive, the No. 12 Irish (3-0) offered a more sustainable look in the 27-13 win against Purdue on Saturday.

Defensively, they gave up only three drives that gained more than 32 yards: a 50-yard possession for a field goal, a 75-yard touchdown drive and 64 yards in garbage time that ended with a Kyle Hamilton interception. Otherwise, Notre Dame kept the Boilermakers and star receiver David Bell to sheer frustration, including a first-half stretch of four consecutive possessions without a first down, gaining 18 yards on 13 plays.

Even a middling Big Ten offense — and Purdue should end up in the top half of most Big Ten offensive rankings — should be expected to fare better than 4.4 yards per play in a game, not to mention 3.25 on 10 possessions that covered the bulk of the game (14 total drives, minus those three mild successes and one more garbage-time possession).

Two tackles for loss doomed the latter pair of those four straight Purdue struggles, a byproduct of new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s preferred disruption, a stark difference when compared to the constrictive approach of Clark Lea, a difference initially lampooned after it gave up four big plays against the Seminoles and the Rockets. The Boilermakers managed just two plays longer than 30 yards, neither reaching the end zone.

“That just comes with the process of changing D coordinators that are so different in the way that they conduct their defense,” Hamilton said Saturday evening. “Obviously coach Freeman’s is really aggressive, we’re going to give up big plays at times because of how aggressive we are.

“It’s a plus-minus defense, and I think we will have a lot more pluses as we get more comfortable with it. … The guys are really dialing in at this point, and this is a big turning point for us.”

With Purdue’s leading rusher out for the next 4-8 weeks, Freeman could focus more on stopping the aerial attack. Playing six defensive backs is not new for Notre Dame this season, but playing six at a time in a dime package is, certainly given the regularity of its usage against Purdue.

“We’re really deep in the secondary,” Hamilton said. “A lot of guys haven’t had a shot yet. … Everybody in the back end was really tight today, didn’t really give up too many big plays, tackled the ball when we needed to. That just goes to show how deep we are as a secondary and as a whole defense.

“There’s a couple guys who get a lot of the praise on defense, but I feel like we’re really strong as a unit.”

Hamilton is obviously one of those guys, and the dime package only works if a couple linebackers clean up in front of it, as junior JD Bertrand (12 tackles) and graduate Isaiah Pryor (eight tackles) very much did, but the real success comes from a defensive front able to create pressure without needing blitzes.

The Irish defensive line delivered, as it has all season.

Four tackles for loss came from the defensive line, including all three Notre Dame sacks. It has produced 14.5 tackles for loss (of the Irish total of 25) and 11.5 sacks (of 13) this season. Notre Dame ranks No. 5 in the country in sacks this season and No. 18 in tackles for loss.

Freeman’s defense is coming together. Even if the big plays are not entirely eliminated, the rewards of chaos are becoming more apparent.

“There were lots of conversations about what do we need to do defensively to add to our portfolio, relative to looks,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We hit on some things we really like that fit our guys, and they can execute at a high level.”

Moving from Lea’s conservative — albeit highly effective and successful — defense to Freeman’s aggressive scheme dependent on multiple looks was always going to include a learning curve, both for players and for fans. Finding those looks that fit Notre Dame may have accelerated that process.