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Football: Rushing defense improves

Matt Gamber | Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Irish defense was far from dominant in Saturday’s heart-stopping 24-21 win at Purdue, but a quick look at the statistics shows Notre Dame did a pretty decent job of stopping the Boilermakers, particularly on the ground.

The Irish held their hosts to 363 yards of total offense and limited talented tailback Ralph Bolden to 67 yards on 17 carries in what was, by far, Notre Dame’s best effort against the run since the opening shutout of Nevada.

“The rushing defense I thought was dramatically improved,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said in his Sunday press conference. “I think that was one of the things that I was pleased with the most, especially in the second half.”

Purdue averaged only 2.8 yards per carry as a team, and Weis said even that number was a touch inflated by three long runs.

“You know, they had a couple of carries where they got yards, and then the rest of the carries, I mean, they gained 56 yards on three carries, and they gained 11 yards on the other 14 carries,” Weis said. “The rest of it averaged less than a yard a carry.”

That doesn’t eliminate all concerns, however, as the Irish struggled to stop a mediocre passing attack for the second straight week.

Notre Dame’s two safeties, senior Kyle McCarthy and junior Harrison Smith, are the team’s two leading tacklers through four games. Both are relied upon to help significantly in stopping the run, especially when the front seven struggles to contain the ground game.

When McCarthy and Smith creep closer into the box, that forces the corner backs to play a softer coverage to avoid being beat deep, and that likely accounts for the cushion that both Michigan State and Purdue exploited in consecutive weeks for 354 and 289 yards, respectively. And the Irish still need to improve their tackling, which Weis mentioned as early as Week One.

Even still, Weis said the improvement the defense showed against the Boilermakers was significant.

“This is [coordinator] Jon [Tenuta] and the defensive staff deciding that they had to put a couple wrinkles in here to get a little bit of balance,” Weis said. “I think that especially when a lot of those coverage’s they went to were bluff and blitzes, I thought it was a nice change of pace.”

Though he was used sparingly, there was one Irish player in particular who looked a major change of pace.

Freshman linebacker Manti Te’o still hasn’t garnered consistent playing time, as junior Brian Smith and sophomore Darius Fleming have flanked senior middle linebacker Toryan Smith in most base defensive packages.

But when Te’o has been in the game, he has made his presence felt. Te’o surged through the Purdue line and sacked quarterback Joey Elliot for a loss of 12 to bury the Boilermakers on their first play after Notre Dame’s final touchdown.

“I think one thing we need to do both in practice and in games is just play him more,” Weis said. “The only thing, when you have a young linebacker you’ll go through some growing pains, but I think that you’ll see him just playing more.

“We talked about that today. I think as the year goes on, you’ll see his playing time just increase more and more.”