Joe Hettler | Friday, September 26, 2003
The defensive domination Notre Dame exhibited in 2002 was symbolized by the Purdue game last season.
The Irish failed to score an offensive touchdown, but managed two defensive scores and beat the Boilermakers 24-17 in South Bend.
This year, something is missing from that defense – and the Irish find themselves at 1-2. A far cry from their 3-0 start last season.
And that leaves Notre Dame’s players and coaches searching for answers.
In 2002, Notre Dame’s simple formula for winning games was to have a dominating defensive unit and an offense that could put just enough points on the scoreboard for a Notre Dame victory.
But this season, while the offense has struggled, the defense has not been as dominating – leaving the Irish left with a losing record and too many questions.
Where’s the missing link?
Notre Dame’s defense ranks 63rd in total defense heading into the Purdue game this weekend in West Lafayette. Take away the lopsided 38-0 loss to Michigan and that number improves to 36th in the nation. The Irish are also ranked 66rd and 63th against the run and pass, respectively.
Compare those numbers to last season for the Irish. In 2002, the defense allowed only 300 total yards per game and ranked 10th in rush defense and 46th against the pass.
“I really don’t care how much we give up as long as we win,” Baer said. “[S]tats don’t bother me at all. We’re playing a bunch of different guys. I don’t have an [excuse]. We played awfully well [against Michigan State] except for one play, and that play hurt us.”
Against the Spartans, the Irish allowed only 16 points, made several key plays when Michigan State had the ball inside the 20 and forced two turnovers.
But the team still lost.
“I don’t know if there’s any difference. We just have to make some more plays,” defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. “Last year we made some big time plays and turned them into scores and good things happened.”
The defense has set up touchdown opportunities, but the offense has not been able to convert. Two weeks ago against Michigan, Notre Dame’s defense recovered a Wolverine fumble on the first drive of the game. The Irish offense got the ball at the Michigan 38 and punted three plays later.
Last week against Michigan State, Quentin Burrell intercepted a Jeff Smoker pass and returned the ball deep into Spartan territory. But Notre Dame could only settle for a field goal. They went on to lose by six points.
The 2002 Notre Dame defense didn’t just make the key interception or force the critical fumble, but seemed to have a knack for putting the ball in the end zone when the Irish offense could not.
Take, for example, last season against Purdue, when Vontez Duff intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter and returned it 33 yards for the game-winning score in the Irish victory over the Boilermakers. Earlier in the game Lionel Bolen recovered a Purdue fumble and returned it four yards for a score. Plays like those enabled Notre Dame to win their first two games without scoring an offensive touchdown.
But that play has yet to happen this season, and the Irish have struggled.
“We’re still getting turnovers, but we’re not taking them to the house,” Mattison said. “So we have to find a way to score and get involved in as many turnovers as we possibly can.”
One step away
One of the biggest advantages for Notre Dame’s defense last season was the team’s ability to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush. Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard, Kyle Budinscak and graduated lineman Ryan Roberts almost consistently applied pressure to the opposing quarterback throughout the game.
This year, opponents have recognized the Irish defensive line and have used several different play types to allow their quarterback more time to throw the football.
“[Washington State’s and Michigan State’s] game plan was to get the ball out before you can get there,” Baer said. “They were in shotgun all the time, and to get pressure in shotgun is awfully hard to do. … You can blitz all you want or pass rush all you want, but [the quarterback in shotgun] is going to get rid of the ball.
Baer said that, even though the defense has recorded only three sacks, they have done other things to disrupt the opponent’s offense.
“There’s a lot of things I look at,” Baer said. “We had a lot of hits on the quarterback [against Michigan State]. That’s something people don’t notice. That’s big.
“I take a look at passing and how many yards [opponent’s] get per pass attempt. In the first game, Washington State had 6.5 yards per pass attempt. Anytime you’re under seven [yards per attempt], you’re doing a good job. Against Michigan State we were under four [yards per attempt] so that’s not bad.”
The defensive line has four experienced players starting with solid backups to rotate in. But Mattison said the unit has practiced the same techniques and game plans as last season. They have just been a step short of registering the sack or forcing the quarterback or running back into a loss.
“There’s no difference in the scheme at all,” Mattison said. “We have gotten pressure but we haven’t got the sack totals we want. We’ve been near the quarterback and that’s the little extra step we have to get to. People realize we do have a good front and they’re getting rid of the ball better. All of it has to come together for us to have the same success as we had last year.”
Injuries and freshmen
The Irish lost defensive backs Shane Walton and Gerome Sapp to graduation from last season’s team, leaving the defense with a talented but somewhat inexperienced secondary.
Then the secondary lost Jason Beckstrom and Dwight Ellick in the Washington State game, which forced freshman Freddie Parish into his first collegiate action. Linebacker Courtney Watson also sat out against the Cougars for an undisclosed reason, while Hilliard was replaced by sophomore Derek Landri. Freshman Victor Abiamiri also played significantly against Michigan State last week.
The defensive changes have made the unit more inexperienced, which puts more pressure on the veterans. But Baer said he has changed nothing about his defensive strategy, despite injuries to key players.
“I’m not going to change the game plan because of injuries,” Baer said. “It doesn’t change my mind who’s blitzing or who’s injured; I’m not going to change the game plan. We’re going to do what we need to defend and try and win.”
Baer did say the new faces had been playing well, especially Abiamiri.
“Victor got his feet wet; he played pretty good,” Baer said. “I thought [the younger players] played good for the most part. I’m pleased about it. I think we’ll continue to get better.”
The Irish defensive coaches understand that, even with the improved play of the younger players and the solid play of the veterans, something needs to change for Notre Dame to turn around a slow start. Especially if the offense cannot improve, there will be more pressure on the defense to make the big plays they forced last season, and even find ways to score points.
Mattison thinks the only way to make those big plays is to continue working hard in practice and stick to their game plan from last season and this season.
“The kids are working just as hard as last year, and they’re using the same technique,” Mattison said. “It’s just a matter of getting there.”