Click here for Part I and a look at key blitz packages, defensive fronts, play-calling, and statistics that defined Saturday night's 17-point win over the formerly #8 Sooners.
11 tackles (standard), a sack (play of the day?), two tackles for loss, and a game-ending interception…standard? Te'o's fifth pick of the season -- also the fifth of his career -- ties him with Lyron Cobbins and John Pergine for the program record at the position.
Te'o cemented his Heisman candidacy with a standout prime time performance, cleaning up short passes in the flat, negating draw runs at scrimmage, taking away passing lanes, and sending a message to opposing quarterback Landry Jones with his brutal second quarter sack that sent the Sooners to the sidelines: We'll be here all night…
Te'o's concluding interception was fitting, but so too is the fact the the congratulated classmate Jordan Cowart for a good snap on the ensuing game-clinching field goal by Kyle Brindza…Let me reiterate: he congratulated the snapper.
For the magical season of 2012, Manti Te'o has been the best defensive player in the nation and the best leader in team sports -- at any level.
Big Lou -- All-American?
I'm not sure there should be a question mark. Junior nose guard Louis Nix is the best, or among the handful of best interior defensive linemen in the nation this season and at present, gets my vote as the second-best Irish player for 2012.
Nix was involved in a quarterback pressure on the first series, then made the biggest defensive play of the first quarter on the ensuing set of downs, pushing through an ill-advised solo block to break up a Landry Jones pass on 3rd and 3 inside the red zone and forcing the Sooners initial field goal in the process…I credited the big man for another pressure on the third series (he was later triple-teamed and suitably pancaked but the defense made the stop behind him to force a punt), and made a crucial play on second day two series later, blowing up the pocket so teammates Kapron Lewis-Moore and Prince Shembo could make a stop at the line setting up third and long…
He did the same later in the half, blowing up Oklahoma's interior, then combining with Carlo Calabrese on a tackle for which Calabrese was credited by game announcer Brent Musberger…
Nix was a bit more quiet in the Sooners pass-happy second stanza, but did combine for one take down of "The Bell-Dozer" to force a 4th and 2, and was also part of the defensive line's committee meeting at the quarterback -- a full front four sack of Jones to end the contest.
There's a reason head coach Brian Kelly mouthed the words, "come on, get up" when Nix was briefly injured three weeks ago vs. Stanford: he's the key to entire defensive production.
Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese -- Going Forward
I had the former a little out of position early with the Sooners in a high tempo attack, but fantastic on coverage late, of course forcing the game's crucial turnover when his well-timed pop of Saturday's top pass catcher Jalen Saunders (15 receptions, a new record vs. the Notre Dame program) resulted in the game's defensive highlight: a diving interception by Te'o that effectively sealed the proceedings.
Fox's ability to move laterally in zone coverage has been, and will be invaluable at season's end -- he's far better in that regard than his classmate.
Calabrese was more active vs. the run than Fox and remains a touch better in standard rush defense situations. I had the Verona, New Jersey native for two stops at scrimmage vs. Sooners draw runs as well as a big-time tackle on The Opening kickoff, but also three potential blown pass fits: the 4th and 2 play-action by Blake Bell that resulted in an 8-yard gain and later, the Sooners only touchdown; biting on a well designed wheel-route in which neither he nor Ishaq Williams ran with the backfield pattern down the seam (a gain of 21 for Damien Williams), and then what could have been a touchdown on a short cross near the end of the half, but the pass was dropped in front of him.
In every passing situation that requires the Will linebacker to remain on the field, it should be Fox. In every short-yardage situation in which the Will must push the guard or hammer through the front, it should be Calabrese. The pair work well as an alternating tandem, but situational substitution makes sense at this point as well.
Williams and Shumate -- An interesting duo
Notre Dame's use of a nickel package with the pair is intriguing: Ishaq Williams received 14 such snaps, 8 of which were spent in a pass-rushing position (usually 4-down linemen); 6 others when he had full coverage responsibilities…I had Ishaq down for one pressure of consequence; one major win at the point (helping Kona Schwenke and Keivarae Russell for a crucial backfield stop on the second series), and two head-shaking mistakes, one physical, one mental.
WIlliams was the edge defender with a shot at Bell on the bruising quarterback's touchdown run -- his effort was reminiscent of Irish players from the Weis era. He was also completely fooled by the aforementioned wheel route down the seam by Williams (21 yards) though I think ultimately that was Calabrese's missed pass fit (Williams didn't help with a re-direct, nor did he appear to understand what was happening against the on the boundary).
But one snap on the first drive of the second half illustrates why the enigmatic sophomore must continue to be heavily coached and developed: with the Sooners facing 3rd and 12 inside the Irish 40, Williams ran down the left seam vs. wide receiver Kenny Stills -- for 20 yards. Bracket coverage on third-and-long by a 6'5" 255-pound DE/OLB cannot be overlooked. The result was a short cross tackled by Russell and a Sooners punt.
True freshman Elijah Shumate played just five downs, which is five more than last week vs. Brigham Young. The Irish seem to favor Williams as their zone nickel defender but Shumate does a good job of playing man-under with two-deep behind him (Williams generally has three-deep behind him in coverage). On four of Shumate's five defensive snaps, the Irish forced a punt (3) or turnover (1), yielding just one first down. Its notable that three of the five were accompanied by a blitz to force a quicker throw.
Tuitt, Lewis-Moore, and Shembo -- The Beat Goes On
Nix might be No. 2, but Stephon Tuitt is 2A, and I've argued until this week he was the second-best Irish performer in 2012 (Nix makes it go around him). I had the monstrous sophomore with two pressures and two instances of solid backside containment, but for the first time this season, Tuitt appeared to crash down too hard as well, leaving rolling opportunities by Jones available to his side...
Prince Shembo was asked to play the role of fish out of water in the team's 3-4 scheme Saturday, often aligned to the boundary with short flat coverage responsibilities. (The Irish showed a 3-4 front 34 times vs. just 21 4-3 alignments). Shembo nonetheless recorded two pressures and a half-sack (the latter concluding the contest). Said Kelly of his junior standout: "Prince doesn't like playing out there (in space). He wants his hand on the ground and go get the quarterback. But he definitely helped our football team in accepting a role that is not one that is what he likes to do. But he understands how important it was to drop eight and to be in the short field and take away some throwing angles. He did a nice job for us."
Lewis-Moore has played lights-out football for five consecutive weeks, Saturday making two stops near scrimmage, alternating at DE, DT in four-man alignments, and even nose guard in three-down nickel packages. The trio combined for 10 official tackles, but consider the following regarding this standout defensive front Saturday: Oklahoma's longest rush was 7 yards. The Sooners managed just 44 rushing yards (15 net thanks to a bad snap) on 23 carries.
Schwenke Leads the Backup Brigade
Notre Dame's trio of backup defensive linemen played a crucial role again Saturday night, but for the first time this season, it was junior nose guard Kona Schwenke making the biggest impact. I had Schwenke for three backfield stops/forces in relief of Nix, one in congress with fellow backup Sheldon Day on 2nd and 10 to force a 3rd and 9 (and a sack by Manti Te'o on the ensuing snap)…
First it was Day; then of late, Tony Springmann. Saturday it was Schwenke, the spring's defensive MVP -- more for his improvement than overall play, but both manifested Saturday in the season's biggest win. With Schwenke emerging to play solid football in relief, Notre Dame's defensive front just got better.
My game notes showed contributions from one of the trio of five of 12 defensive series during the contest.
Motta -- The Mouth, and Muscle, that Roared
From occasional backup dime package linebacker in 2009 to Thorpe Award Semi-Finalist in 2012, Motta is the poster-boy for senior season improvement. Saturday, and every week since Jamoris Slaughter went down in a Week Three win at Michigan State, Motta patrolled the youth-filled Irish back end with a combination of guidance and physical force.
The senior leader told me prior to the contest that his plan was to put his hands on Sooners receivers whenever possible -- that it would wear on them both mentally and physically.
"They have some feisty receivers now. They can block. That motivates me. I like that kind of contact.
"I think its any chance you get to get your hands on someone or give them a pop, that wears on people during a game. That's how I like to (play). I think it definitely affects receivers."
He made good on that declaration on the game's second drive, blowing through Kenny Stills on a pass defended into the air, not only (legally) hitting Stills, but then flinging him to the ground, rolling over him, and using Stills prone body as leverage to stand up after the play -- the two (obviously) exchanged words thereafter, and the pattern continued.
Motta tossed Jalen Saunders aside after a hard hit following a 16-yard gain (and barking at him thereafter), taunted Justin Brown when the latter was covered expertly down the left sidelines on a fourth quarter pass that sailed out of bounds, and in general, was a physical presence and mental pest -- the mouth and pads that roared -- as Notre Dame's defense played the bully role in Norman.
Motta had just two tackles and one official pass breakup Saturday night. He gets a game ball for his approach to the contest and his senior season.
Winning the War -- KeiVarae Russell
That rumbling you heard Saturday from 8:15 p.m. ET until about 9:25 was a legion of Irish fans scoring Bob Diaco's "Bend but don't Break" approach. The object of their ire was likely the freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who undoubtedly was deemed to be playing "too soft" with "far too big a cushion" and would continue to be "picked apart."
So said a giddy Brent Musberger at the prospects of Landry Jones' "300-yard day" (what is this, 1981? Everyone throws for 300 yards these days…). So said the early-impressed Kirk Herbstreit, who failed to see the downside of a one-dimensional home team playing pitch and catch between the 20s…
Fans with knowledge of the game have likely changed their tune since.
Notre Dame's defense didn't allow a passing touchdown against a Top 20 passing attack. It yielded barely five yards per play despite facing 51 pass attempts, 76 snaps, and the full application of a prevent defense on the game's final drive.
Russell nine tackles, admittedly many after first down receptions by a receiver in his zone. None of them ran past him. None of them beat him downfield. He instead defended well on two deep sideline passes on third down to force punts. He made two tackles short of the sticks, one on second to later force a field goal; one on third to force another punt. He defended a slant on first down. He came on a run blitz the resulted in a tackle for loss. He defended the oft-used bubble screen well. He made a diving tackle of Jalen Saunders on the Sooners longest play, a 35-yard post through the Irish defense.
Yes, at times, such as on a 2nd and 5 at the Irish 10-yard line (with no chance of being beaten deep, Russell was too far off his man, especially considering he was working in congress on a safety blitz with Matthias Farley, but for the most part, Russell, a true freshman who first hit the field to play cornerback this August, won his battles in the season's biggest test to date.
Odds and Ends
Bennett Jackson added eight tackles to his climbing total with only one situation in which he was beaten in his pass fit, a 17-yard post-corner to Justin Brown on the Sooners opening touchdown drive. He plays the bubble screen better than Russell, though its not by a landslide anymore…The junior was likely the second happiest man in America when Sooners trash-talking receiver Kenny Stills had his end-game touchdown marked short of the goal by the replay official…
Speaking of Stills -- an all-time loser mentality to talk (excessive) trash after seemingly scoring in a 30-13 contest near the final gun. Save that for the Holiday Bowl…
Musberger and Herbstreit were practically salivating over the prospects of OU moving down the field and scoring with short passes early Saturday night…
I thought Fox looked overmatched athletically, early, but he was on point for the final three quarters -- several Irish defenders appear to adjust to a game's pace after the first series or two…Oklahoma's receivers were a step quicker than Notre Dame's back seven in space, but because of experience, talent, and coach-ability, the Irish back seven are better college football players, at least collectively…Calabrese takes too many false steps in coverage; it should be his chief point of emphasis in the off-season…
I assume its a good thing that safety Matthias Farley was not particularly notable in my film review vs. a team that threw 51 passes. Which reminds me: teams that throw 51 passes typically lose vs. quality defenses...
Quiet day for Danny Spond, though he again took on edge blocks well, allowing only two short runs outside his shoulder. He was used on two blitzes (one an obvious run blitz) and showed good coverage in bracket situations downfield with the exception of one 18-yard post late in the first half…
Kendall Moore has improved his focus and level of play on special teams since the season's opening two games. He made a pair of nice stops after Kyle Brindza kick-offs…
Herbstreit made a good point that one area to attack the Irish defensively is between the linebackers and in front of the safeties. That means the Irish are in trouble if they face Peyton Manning or Tom Brady this season -- that's not an easy pass for a college quarterback to hit consistently…Calabrese is far better this season vs. the run, i.e., defeating blocks. He's always played well downhill, but someone has to explain to me why he stays on the field on 3rd and 10 or more...
Manti Te'o's smile and clap following Oklahoma's overturned touchdown was my early indication the Sooners had committed a penalty that would take points off the board. Shembo was held on that play, but I agree with Herbstreit: rough call if you're an Oklahoma fan because that type of thing happens often…
I still can't believe Ishaq Williams ran 20 yards downfield, mirroring Stills in bracket coverage…Williams could stand to move his feet better in tackling position -- he should have stopped Bell for a loss on the latter's touchdown dive…
I don't think Danny Spond missed a defensive snap, nor did any member of the secondary or Te'o…Dan Fox is a great fit for the 2012 defense…Nice to see true freshman Romeo Okwara making the most of a late appearance -- he brought the wood on a clean-up hit and forced fumble…
This is the best Irish defense since 1989, though I'll listen to arguments for 1992 and '93 -- '92 had better linebackers than did '93…The defense's depth makes them markedly better than an admittedly fun-to-watch and often heroic 2002 group.
Can a stationary college quarterback defeat this 2012 defense? I say no.