After a disappointing September that included yielding 41 points to Michigan, 24 at Purdue and surrendering a host of big plays in a 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the Notre Dame defense in October began to resemble the stellar 2012 unit.
Freshman Jaylon Smith's continued improvement in October aided the defense's overall rise.
First it held an explosive Arizona State offense (currently sixth nationally in scoring with a 45.4-point scoring average per game) to 13 points and one touchdown through the first three quarters before an interception return for a touchdown by the Sun Devils and a late letdown allowed ASU to be closer than the game was.
Next, after allowing a 96-yard touchdown drive by USC on its opening series, the Irish defense put forth a season-changing effort in the 14-10 victory over the Trojans. USC missed all 11 of its third-down conversion attempts after the first drive. In the second half, with the game on the line and the Irish offense rendered anemic without injured quarterback Tommy Rees, USC began possessions at its 48 and the Notre Dame 33, 47 and 34 — and failed to score each time against the Irish fortress.
Last week, Air Force also drew first blood for an early 7-0 lead before the Irish settled in the final three quarters for a dominant 45-10 victory. According to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, there are four areas specifically where the Irish began to jell over the past month:
• Fundamentals/Tackling, Especially By Corners and Safeties
This is where coordinator Bob Diaco and the Irish defensive staff take the most pride, but it was lacking the most in the first month. That has been upgraded significantly, especially after the bye week. Against Air Force, the cornerbacks alone made 16 solo tackles, led by KeiVarae Russell’s six, mostly along the edge while playing with no tentativeness.
“We felt like our corners needed to be better tacklers, more aggressive,” Kelly said. “I think Coach [Kerry] Cooks has done a great job of really taking on that role of demanding more from our corners.”
The safety play also should continue to improve with the possible return of hard-hitting sophomore Elijah Shumate in November.
• Shutting Down The Run
This has remained a relative constant from last season, but it’s been especially encouraging to see the progress of freshman Isaac Rochell (four tackles at Air Force after an injury to starter Sheldon Day) and senior Kona Schwenke, filling in for an injured Louis Nix III. Kelly said Schwenke has been an important cog this season, and NFL teams are starting to take notice of the 305-pound Hawaiian.
“We're getting a lot of favorable reports on him being able to play next year as well, at the next level,” he said.
Notre Dame also lost Mike linebacker Jarrett Grace for the season but has received more solid play from inside backers and fifth-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. As long as they stay in their "fits," the defense can continue to thrive.
• Limiting Big Plays
In the three October games, the opposition ran 214 plays. Only five of them were “explosives,” meaning a gain of at least 25 yards, the longest a 36-yard touchdown pass by Arizona State on fourth-and-four for its lone six-pointer through the first three quarters.
Upgraded Play Along The Edge
This especially highlights freshman Dog linebacker Jaylon Smith, the five-star recruit whose 23 tackles and playmaking skills in the three October games led the defense. Kelly admits he was amazed at how well and disciplined Smith performed last week in his first test against the triple option.
“The patience that he showed to buy time for the Mike [linebacker] to get over a block, or the safety to come from the backside hash — you just don’t teach that,” Kelly said. “It’s just instincts that he had that he could slow-play the options. Another weekend where you go, ‘The kid just has those things that are hard to teach.' ”
The Irish head coach said there were glimpses of all four listed factors back in September, but only in spurts, not consistently. The consistency returned during the month of October, and can now continue the upgrade for the final November push, especially when a healthier Nix returns.
“I was very confident that the markers were there and they were pointing in the right direction,” said Kelly of overcoming some of the early defensive deficiencies. “That was just a matter they all had to put it together. And they're putting it together.”