The numbers on Notre Dame’s defense speak for themselves after five games:
Brian Kelly's vision of building a great defense first is bearing fruit.
• 2nd in scoring defense (7.80 points per game)
• 10th in pass efficiency defense
•13th in total defense (290 yards per game)
• 17th in rushing defense (106.80).
Third-year head coach Brian Kelly’s vision of prioritizing defense in Notre Dame’s return to power is coming to fruition. What is especially gratifying is how the unit has responded to myriad offenses, including “Navy’s triple option, a run-first style with Purdue, Michigan State's grind-it-out power attack with Le’Veon Bell, the ultimate dual threat in Michigan’s Denard Robinson and then Miiami’s vertical attack that produced 1,002 yards passing the previous two weeks.
“When I came to Notre Dame, having lived in that world of trying to outscore opponents, I felt the best blueprint that we could put together for a national championship here was through our defense,” Kelly said. “We're starting to see the building of that … The blueprint here is to not try to outscore people and turning it into a track meet. It's to control the line of scrimmage. It's to play great defense, to be solid in the special teams. So it's just the choice of the way I want our program to evolve.”
After almost getting burned on a couple of deep, dropped TD passes by Miami’s Phillip Dorsett, the Irish secondary quickly adapted, and the overall defense put in several new looks — including three down linemen while dropping eight into coverage.
"[Miami] probably saw three or four different zone looks that they had not seen all year because of the games that we played,” said Kelly of holding Miami quarterback Stephen Morris to 18-of-35 passing for 201 yards (only 5.7 yards per attempt). “…We were able to do a lot more things on the back end of our defense.
“We were disciplined, and we put ourselves in a good position to succeed because we pushed the pocket pretty good and took away some quick throws that they like … probably the biggest thing was after we settled to the speed of the game and picked up our own level of speed, we kept the ball in front of us, which was the number one goal going into the game.”
Next week, the Irish face a power-style team again, similar to Michigan State, in No. 17 Stanford with running back Stepfan Taylor. His success sets up play-action opportunities in the passing game. For Kelly, one simple premise remains.
“It takes intense preparation … Not swaying at all and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived' — because once you think you have, in this business you’re obviously going to be lost,” he said.
Running With Everett Golson
Sophomore QB Everett Golson entered the Miami game with minus-11 net yards rushing. The Irish staff finally incorporated the zone read into the game plan for him, and on his first such keeper he picked up 12 yards. He finished with 51 yards on six carries.
So the natural question to Kelly was, “What took so long to get Golson running the zone read option game where he can keep or hand off to the back?
“Just didn't like the way he carried the ball, exposed the ball a lot in practice, wasn't comfortable given the fact that we have to be very, very conscious of turnovers,” Kelly replied.
Golson did put the ball on the ground twice against Miami. One rolled out-of-bounds while on the other his leg was ruled down near the goal line.
“That was probably our biggest concern of running him was that we didn't want the ball on the ground,” Kelly said. “We're working at it in practice. He's better at it. He's cognizant of it. He's aware of it. As he continues to protect it better each and every week in practice, we'll continue to run him more.”
However, this is not going to be a Denard Robinson situation, because Golson’s strength is his passing. About five or six carries per game might be the ceiling.
“He's not a big, thick, physical guy [like] Andrew Hendrix, who is 230 pounds,” Kelly said. “We're not going to run him in a fashion where we're going to grind him out and put him in a position where he can't utilize his strengths. We'll pick our spots and make sure that he's one-on-one when it comes to some of the running opportunities that he has.”
Kelly said for the first time this season, he saw Golson more consistently recognize certain pressures, not bail out of the pocket, deliver the ball on time, but predicted that rookie mistakes will continue throughout the year.
News & Notes
• In addition to Golson settling in more, Kelly said the offensive line and running backs appear to be getting more in sync with the inside-outside zone blocking schemes as opposed to more of the gap and pulling plans the first two season.
• Senior running back Theo Riddick did not play in the second half because of a bone bruise in his elbow. Tight end Tyler Eifert needed three stitches for a laceration in his elbow but is expected to be ready for Tuesday’s practice. Wideout John Goodman had his back lock up on him, but he too is projected by Kelly to be ready next week with Riddick and Eifert.
• ESPN’s Gameday will be at Notre Dame next weekend for the showdown with Stanford. Kelly does not anticipate it will be a distraction because for 10 days over the past couple of week NFL Films was on campus to do a special an hour before the Stanford game on life behind the scenes at Notre Dame in preparation for a game. For that, even some players were miked.
“It’s a life in the day of the Notre Dame football program,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of business as usual. But having said that, we’ll have to remind 18-to-21 year olds on how they got here and continue that same message.”
Having Gameday on campus only means that the program is good enough again to be “relevant” and helps attract top prospects and interest.
“You want to be in that in-crowd,” Kelly said. “You don’t want to be on the other side looking in. All those things are great. We’re excited about the spotlight being in South Bend.”