My initial defensive MVP award went to sophomore defensive end/freak of nature, Stephon Tuitt, and while the sophomore defensive lineman played well, further film study showed a pair of outside 'backers who performed their duties on the edge equally well:
Junior Prince Shembo showed a comfort level as a 4-3 defensive end, sliding down the line to take out quarterback Trey Miller at scrimmage on the first series. He predictably looked adept controlling and coming off the edge as a down lineman, recording a sack thanks to a push up the middle by defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, and recording a quarterback pressure that led to Manti Te'o's first career interception. Shembo also negated a sack by Kapron Lewis-Moore with a needless face mask as he joined the fray late.
Shembo's tag-team partner at Cat linebacker and as an edge rusher, sophomore Ishaq Williams, played the best game of his career, and it started on The Opening drive. Williams' hit on Miller forced an early pitch that redshirt-freshman Matthias Farley was able to control in space, limiting a 2nd and 7 situation to four yards. Williams then tripped up Miller on an option keeper to the opposite side, forcing a 4th and 1 the Irish subsequently stuffed.
The rangy sophomore showed great versatility throughout, stopping a fullback dive, providing outside pressure to force an errant throw, forcing a fumble late on an option pitch, and notably, diagnosing a play-action pass by Miller, closing on the quarterback with two quick steps, and forcing a fumble that led to Stephon Tuitt's 77-yard scoop and score, a play that effectively put Navy in panic mode for the remainder of the contest.
Navy threatened to breach the Irish red zone when Tuitt's 77-yard scoop-and-sprint for a score occurred, serving as the game's decisive play, one that extended Notre Dame's lead to 27-0 at the 2:12 mark of the second quarter.
Tuitt's interior push as a pass-rusher was the difference all afternoon. On the Mid's second drive, the Monroe, Ga., sophomore collapsed the pocket to force a hurried screen pass on 3rd Down that teammates Manti Te'o and Bennett Jackson stopped at scrimmage. He beat a double team on 3rd and 14 later in the second quarter that allowed a sack by Kapron Lewis-Moore (negated by Shembo's face mask), and near the end of the opening half, recorded his first sack, again with an interior push.
Tuitt's explosiveness inside when the team shifts to a 4-3 front could be the major difference in the unit this fall.
Tuitt added two more pocket pressures that resulted in a pass thrown behind a crossing route downfield and in a sack by classmate Ishaq Williams. If there's one major issue in Tuitt's game is his tendency to play a bit too high in short-yardage situations. It's a correctable error noticeable in junior nose guard Louis Nix's game as well, one that lingers from last season.
Nix was pushed six yards downfield on Navy's first third-down rush and was also caught too high on 4th and 1. It doesn't matter if you're 325 or 260 on 4th and 1 -- low man always wins. Nix though showed the quickness that makes him a weapon inside, blowing through Navy's line to force a quick pitch to the perimeter, combining with Te'o for a stop for no gain inside, and combining with Tuitt for an interior push that resulted in a second-half sack by Shembo.
Nix later added a tackle-for-loss of his own, casting aside his assigned blocker to take down quarterback Trey Miller before an option play could materialize. He doesn't give the same effort every play, but the massive junior can wreak havoc.
Adding to the overall effort upfront was unsung veteran Kapron Lewis-Moore. It was Lewis-Moore's submarine effort the destroyed Navy's blocking scheme on the offense's left that allowed Manti Te'o to drill Miller for a loss on the Mid's opening 4th and 1 effort. Lewis-Moore later stayed home on the backside to cut-off a Navy reverse attempt (cleaned up by Bennett Jackson) and applied pocket pressure to aid junior Kona Schwenke in his first career sack. Lewis-Moore had his only sack negated by the aforementioned penalty on Shembo.
Schwenke played well enough in relief considering his injured hand (cracked bone) and improved as the game went on. In addition to the sack I noted him for two solid efforts fighting off a block to limit Navy rushes to four yards and a pocket pressure. Just once did it appear he was controlled on the Mid's bread-and-butter dive play.
True freshman Sheldon Day showed nice quickness down the line -- he was involved in a second drive stop near scrimmage and also in the scrum that caused Navy's only fumble. Day broke free for a QB pressure late in the half but could not keep Miller inside his rush lane. Redshirt-freshman nose guard Tony Springmann saw his first career action and was turned by a his blocker a few times inside. I thought Springmann still looked more comfortable at defensive end than on the nose, but that's likely to change as he continues in his development.
His first career fumble recovery (happenstance); his first career interception (a veteran read of a downfield pass in Cover 2); and a game-changing stop behind the line of 4th and 1 … all in a day's work for senior star Manti Te'o, who will benefit all season from strong play up front.
"I have monsters in front of me," he noted post-game.
Te'o added a second stop of no gain and consistently fought off the cut blocks that plagued him in losses to Navy as a freshman and sophomore. Said Kelly of what the media deemed improvement vs. the pass:
"Were doing some things in coverage and he helped the run with the No. 3 vertically later in the game, and did a great job.
"He's always been very good in pass coverage. And I think he just got his opportunity. Sometimes you're just not in the right place at the right time. We were very confident for him to be on the field this third down situations. We never take him off the field. Yeah, I just think he got his and he's going to get more."
Week One Wrap
Tuitt is a force, but he'll have to get better protecting his legs, and not just against cut blocks -- blockers tend to get under him in short yardage situations...Shembo as a pass-rushing DE is really his college calling card. He's quick off the edge and much stronger than most 260-pounders...I agree that offense's that can spread the field and go five wide will at one point trouble the defense, but Notre Dame's nickel and dime package might be better than their base set: putting Shembo, Tuitt, Lewis-Moore, and Williams on the field simultaneously will be a challenge for opposing offensive lines...
Nice to see Te'o start off with three big plays to open the year (his 4th and 1 stop included)...Lewis-Moore is excellent vs. option-based attacks, and he might be the team's best short-yardage defender...Dan Fox is quicker than most fans care to admit - he's a full two steps above Calabrese as of our last viewing of the latter last winter, though Calabrese played his best football in September 2010 (better than Fox has yet to play at ND)...Dog linebacker Ben Councell gets his first true evaluation this week, and especially in what will be a rough-and-tumble battle in East Lansing for Week Three...
Anyone else think the shamrock shoes looked better live than in pre-season pictures?