In search of: consistency where it counts
Over the last 10 football games, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed the following touchdown totals: 1, 0, 0, 1, *2, 1, 5, 1, 1, *1. Of the scores, three (*) have occurred long after the contest had been decided.
Over the same span, the offense has produced three separate 500-plus yard outings (all this season) and three more in the 400- to 450-yard range. Its lower offensive outputs 256, 275, 296, and 369 yards, have all occurred during victories, numbers that suggest defensive consistency has been easier for head coach Brian Kelly’s team to attain as he nears his first year and-a-half on the job.
Rather, that’s what the numbers suggest. Kelly’s not sure the sides of scrimmage can be viewed separately.
“I don't think so,” he said of the notion defensive consistency is the team’s calling card of late. “I think *four of our five games we averaged over 500 yards in offense. We just haven't put the ball in the end zone. (Note: *Three, plus a 398-yard outing.)
“I think consistency occurs as a team,” he explained. “It doesn't come on one side of the ball. I think when you're a good football team, you're consistent on both sides of the ball. I just think that certain games are going to play out differently, and you're looking for that consistency at the line of scrimmage more than anything else.
"And I think we've been pretty consistent this year in running the football and stopping the run, and I think that's what I look towards more than anything else.
The Irish rushing attack has played winning football in each of the season’s five contests to date. Though ranked just No. 41 nationally at 179.6 yards per game, the team’s 5.41 yards-per-carry average is 15th. The 179-yard (highest since 2000) and 5.4-yard (highest since 19953) figures both serving as recent program bests if projected over the course of the season.
Photo Courtesy: Matt Cashore
As Kelly noted, the team’s rush defense has been outstanding this fall, and largely since Tulsa left South Bend with a victory last October. The defense yielded just one rushing score over the season’s final four games of 2010 (vs. a quartet of teams that scored 100 rushing touchdowns on the season).
And in 2011, South Florida, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, and Purdue have rushed for a combined 42 touchdowns – but none against the Irish. Michigan has ripped off 10 rushing scores already this year, but managed just a fumble recovery touchdown on the ground vs. Notre Dame.
How has defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the defensive staff, and the Irish defenders so greatly enhanced their level of play and success since the oft-reference Navy debacle (4 rushing scores, 367 rushing yards allowed) last October?
“I think the Navy game was schematic more than it was kids not understanding how to play the right kind of defense,” Kelly offered Sunday. “So if you look at that as not about our players, I think we've showed steady improvement since last year. I think it's continuously been better and better defensive play leading up to where we are right now.
“We still have a ways to go, but I will tell you this, that it's tough to run the ball on us, and that's where you want to start,” he stated. “So our starting point was being difficult to run the ball on, and then let's continue to improve in the back end.”
The Irish pass defense has allowed eight passing scores this fall – four in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame has doubled its opponents’ touchdown total to date: 18-9. The end-season disparity last year was 41-29 in favor of the Irish.
Personnel Fits Nicely
Key to the rush defense has been the consistent effort of Notre Dame’s defensive line. Regulars Ethan Johnson, Louis Nix, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, and Aaron Lynch have combined for 59 tackles, but the unit has met its primary goal: producing a largely impenetrable interior wall:
“Everything gets funneled out to the perimeter,” Kelly said when asked about the play of his edge linebackers to date. “It’s really important that we look at not only the outside backers when we talk about (Darius) Fleming and (Prince) Shembo, but Manti (Te’o) and (Dan) Fox and (Carlo) Calabrese. They're allowed to flow to the football.
“It’s not just one guy setting the edge as much as our defensive ends do such a great job of keeping people off of those ‘backers. Again, the 3-4 defense allows those backers to run. So it's been really a tandem of the inside and outside ‘backers being allowed to flow to the football.”
Diaco and Kelly often reference the defense’s “fits” both run and pass, in reference to individual assignments working in congress to complete the whole. The front seven isn’t alone in its defense of the run.
“We do a pretty good job of coming out of the back end of our defense: (safeties) Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke (Motta). They're extremely effective at fitting to the perimeter in our defensive scheme.”
So too do the Irish cornerbacks. Robert Blanton ranks second to Te’o in total tackles (49-28) while Gary Gray sits fifth with 21 stops.
“You know, he's had one bad game in his career here, really, to be quite honest with you,” Kelly said of Gray in reference to the Michigan contests. “So we feel like he's been a pretty consistent player for us. I think all of our team has a great deal of confidence in him, as well.”
Notre Dame’s last brush with a true triple-option attack proved successful; the Irish defense controlling Army (#8 rushing offense last season) for four quarters, yielding just 3.1 yards per carry and no touchdowns.
But the previous outing vs. Navy (detailed above) was a well-publicized train wreck. A third vexing triple-option offense is on tap this week when Air Force visits South Bend.
The Falcons currently rank #3 in rushing offense, leading the nation with 6.9 yards per carry, amassing 364.5 rushing yards per game with 15 touchdowns. The Air Force Academy finished #2 in rushing offense last fall, en route to nine wins, a bowl victory over Georgia Tech, and near-miss, 27-24 at Oklahoma.
“We’ve spent time on option principles, but not to the extent that we looked at (Tim) Jefferson and what he does,” Kelly said of the team’s preparation to date for the Falcons and triggerman Tim Jefferson. “And we (haven’t looked) at Air Force's scheme, per se, because there's some obvious similarities with Navy, but there's a lot of differences, as well.
“So we really didn't get into it from that detail other than making sure that our kids understand the option principles.”
That preparation has since begun in earnest, but the approach doesn’t require an overhaul of the staff’s weekly approach.
“Option offenses require my attention because there are things that we have to do that are not necessarily defensive schemes, that we don't have in the playbook sometimes,” Kelly explained. “So I'll be involved with that in terms of decision-making, but that's really about it, and those will be meetings. It won't be coaching; it won't be me being on the defensive side of the field more.
“It'll just be making decisions on how we want to attack the spread option attack of Air Force.”
Kelly offered that injured senior defensive end Ethan Johnson could potentially play Saturday vs. Air Force. Johnson suffered an ankle injury early vs. the Boilermakers, missing the bulk of the contest.
“We’ll immobilize him for the next few days and then get him moving and see,” Kelly said. “It's one of those things where it's such an individual case by case situation when it comes to ankles, so he'll be immobilized. (Saturday night) he was in a boot. He'll stay in that until probably midweek, and then we'll start moving him and see what he looks like.”
In Johnson’s stead Saturday stepped freshman Aaron Lynch. Though Kelly had yet to evaluate each individual’s grades from the Purdue contest, the freshman’s strengths and relative weakness are apparent.
“We know about his ability to rush the passer. That's pretty clear,” Kelly began. “There are some things that we need to continue to work on with him as it relates to gap responsibility and playing the defense. But I'll have a better feel of his technique and how he played against the run (following his review and meeting with defensive coaches), because I think we know, against the pass he's outstanding.”
Air Force has attempted just 55 passes this season, the third-lowest total in the nation. Jefferson has completed 33 of his 47 passes for six touchdowns and two interceptions. In an effort to keep defenses honest, the Falcons have earned first downs through the air on 25 occasions.