The biggest storyline to emerge from yesterday’s dominating 45-3 victory for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was certainly the success of the downfield passing attack. With Clemson looming in just 2 weeks, it certainly has to make Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees feel a bit better about their offensive options. However, fans should not overlook what a magnificent performance the defense turned in yesterday as well.
To be fair, the Pittsburgh Panthers aren’t exactly the Kansas City Chiefs when it comes to offensive firepower. The Panthers were missing senior quarterback Kenny Pickett (left ankle injury) and were forced to start redshirt freshman Joey Yellen (3rd career start) in his place. Regardless of the circumstances, yesterday may have been as complete of a performance as the defense has played in quite some time. After allowing Pittsburgh a 45-yard field goal on their opening possession, the defense did not permit another point the remainder of the game. To illustrate just how dominant the performance was, take a look at the following numbers: Pittsburgh finished the day with 44 yards rushing and averaged 2.2 yards per carry, Pittsburgh finished 3/13 on 3rd down conversions, the Pittsburgh quarterbacks threw a combined 3 interceptions, the Pittsburgh quarterbacks completed 36% of their passes, and the Pittsburgh offense only held the ball for a grand total of 19:01.
The numbers become all the more impressive when one stops to consider that starting cornerback TaRiq Bracy did not play in the game (reason not given). Freshman Clarence Lewis slid into the starting lineup for the 2nd time this season and performed admirably for a true freshman. Throughout the game, the defense was consistently able to create pressure and finished the day with 3 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss, and 6 quarterback hits. Nick McCloud, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Bo Bauer each tallied 1 interception for a unit that entered the day with only 1 interception on the season.
The most impressive part of the performance to me was the depth that was on display throughout the game as 23 Irish defenders saw action on the field. Despite the game being well in hand in the 2nd half, there was no letdown and the backups who saw extensive action in the final 30 minutes of the game upheld the standard of play that has been set since Clark Lea took over as defensive coordinator in 2018.
Although the defense lost 4 defensive captains from the previous season, and 8 players went to the NFL (4 drafted and 4 undrafted free agents), the unit has not missed a beat as the coaching staff has seamlessly transitioned several new starters into the lineup. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens deserves kudos for how well his position group has played through the first 5 games of the year. With Shaun Crawford mainly seeing time at safety, Mickens worked to get graduate transfer Nick McCloud acclimated with the Irish scheme and was able to create enough confidence in freshman Clarence Lewis that Lewis has been able to make 2 successful starts in his young career. Clark Lea also deserves every bit of praise he is receiving from the national media, local media, and fan base. Current and former players rave about his leadership, teaching ability, and ability to make in-game adjustments. While it is important to have great players, it is also important that a coaching staff employs a scheme that allows their players to play freely and not have to worry about a complicated scheme (a la Brian Van Gorder’s defense). Over the past 3 seasons fans have witnessed several games in which the defense was on their heels early. However, unlike previous coordinators, Lea has been able to make successful adjustments to combat how the offense is trying to attack the Irish. Watching other defenses around the country makes it clear how unique Lea’s coaching ability is and how fortunate Notre Dame is to have him as their defensive coordinator.
As was pointed out on the broadcast yesterday, this edition of the Irish defense appears to be playing with phenomenal speed at all 3 levels. One of the major criticisms in previous seasons was that although the Irish defense was stout, they lacked the speed to matchup with teams like Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama. I’m not quite sure that criticism holds weight at this point in time. Looking up and down the depth chart, Notre Dame possesses athleticism and outstanding length at all 3 levels of the defense. Kyle Hamilton, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Daelin Hayes, and Isaiah Foskey are the types of players that could start for any team in the country. Based on the current standings, Notre Dame has the 6th best scoring defense in the country, is rated 7th best in pass efficiency, has the 5th best 3rd down defense, and stands 9th in total team defense.
While the unit is certainly the strength of this team, they still have areas that they can continue to work on as they begin to eye a potential College Football Playoff berth. Last week, I covered the need for the defense to continue to generate turnovers. The more turnovers the defense generates, the more it will feed into how the Irish offense wants to play, which is running the ball and dominating the time of possession. Another area of concern moving forward is the depth at the cornerback position. TaRiq Bracy and Nick McCloud are 2 formidable starters for the Irish. However, Clemson and other top teams across the country have multiple weapons at the skill positions. Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart remain question marks moving forward. The best way to prepare these players for the tests ahead is to continue to play them in controlled situations that can help build their confidence and allow them to work on their technique. The versatility of Shaun Crawford continues to be an asset for the defense and could help mitigate some of the question marks at the nickel corner position if DJ Brown continues his solid start to the season at safety. This would allow Lea to slide Crawford into the slot for certain matchups and help shore up the pass defense.
In this day and age, the elite teams in the country possess a top flight quarterback and an explosive offense. While Notre Dame is a notch below the other contenders for the College Football Playoff in terms of offense, this year’s team may be able to even the playing field by continuing to lean on their dominant defense as they continue to their march towards an ACC Championship and National Title.