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Defense’s turn to lead ND to victory

Dan Murphy | Friday, September 19, 2008

Against Michigan it was turnovers.

Against San Diego State it was … well, it was San Diego State.

Against Michigan State it has to be stopping Javon Ringer.

Two weeks in a row Notre Dame has been able to point to a specific reason why it came away with a victory. If the Irish want to be 3-0 Saturday night, they will have to be able to shut down Ringer, Michigan State’s running back.

Ringer has rushed for 498 yards and nine of his team’s 12 total touchdowns. So, saying he is a focal point isn’t exactly breaking new ground.

The question is: is it possible for Notre Dame to slow down the 5-foot-9, 202-pounder who looks like he is firing out of a slingshot every time he touches the ball?

Last Saturday, Michigan freshman Sam McGuffie torched the Irish defense for 131 yards on the ground. Like McGuffie, Ringer is a smaller, shifty back with a great burst of speed. But Ringer brings even more to the table.

His great vision and agility allow him to slip through the eye of a needle to find daylight, and once he gets a step on you there is no catching up.

With all the areas that Notre Dame has so noticeably improved, the one department that is lagging behind is the run defense. In their season opener, the Irish gave up 4.7 yards per carry to the Aztecs – a predominantly passing team.

The following week the same off-tackle play sprung McGuffie again and again for big gains. It’s usually not a good sign when the top two tacklers on your team are both safeties.

The problem comes from the fact that in the first two games, Notre Dame faced spread offenses that normally kept at least three receivers on the field. The extra receiver meant the Irish have spent most of the season in a nickel package with five defensive backs.

Safeties David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy have both done good jobs coming up and making plays, but by the time they read the play and get to the ball carrier, he is already a few yards downfield.

The extra man in the secondary meant that linebackers Brian Smith and Maurice Crum were left on an island as the third backer, usually John Ryan, moved down to a three-point stance where a defensive end would normally play.

Playing out of position, Ryan has been about as effective as a screen door on a submarine. Right now he has as many solo tackles as wide receiver Duval Kamara – one.

While Ryan struggled, defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Morrice Richardson watched big chunks of the game from the sidelines. If Ryan’s job was to clog up the works up front rather than make tackles, it makes more sense to have an end in the game who is more comfortable using his hands to get free in tight spaces.

Michigan State does not run the spread offense. This week defensive coordinator Corwin Brown will be able to return to his normal 3-4 set that puts an extra linebacker on the field. The extra man in the box should help in getting to Ringer a little bit quicker, but bringing him down will still be a challenge.

The defense has definitely improved its tackling since last season, but it is still not where it needs to be against a slippery back. McGuffie proved that last week when he turned a two-yard catch into a 40-yard touchdown littered with missed tackles in the second quarter.

In week one, the offense – especially the line – stepped up to avoid an embarrassing loss to the Aztecs.

In week two, the specials teams created good field position and big turnovers to set the tone early.

In week three, it’s the defense’s turn to carry the burden and lead the team to a victory.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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