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Irish Insider: Defense needs to wrap up

Irish Insider | Monday, September 28, 2009

The 2011 Irish proved they can win in 2009.

We saw Dayne Crist play passably well. We saw Jonas Gray show he can run and receive. We saw the offense, without Armando Allen and with a hobbled Jimmy Clausen, prove that it can win a close game. Despite injuries, despite offensive troubles, they won.

The 2009 defense proved to have some work to do.

There were flashes. Brian Smith had a big stop on third down. Darrin Walls had an acrobatic interception. Once again, Kyle McCarthy led the team in tackles. When Manti Te’o played, he disrupted plays. The defensive line, which didn’t pressure Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and had trouble containing Michigan’s Tate Forcier, got pressure on Joey Elliott.

It’s conceivable they could buckle down and stifle opposing offenses this season. Notre Dame has the personnel. They have Jon Tenuta, maestro of some effective, tenacious defenses in the past, calling the shots.

Tenuta can call any blitz he wants and the athletes can track down any offensive player they want, but unless they tackle, it’s all for naught.

Tackle. I don’t mean wrapping someone up until your boys sprint over and bail you out. I don’t mean launching yourself horizontal to the ground and hoping for the best. I mean a proper form tackle, hips low, shoulders square, wrapping up around the thighs so he can’t dance away.

Did Terry Tate ever pause next to a cubicle to arm-tackle someone around the shoulders, or rocket himself past a lazy worker and crash through the conference room window? No. He form-tackled.

This was a game where the Irish needed their defense at its best. Without Allen, the leading rusher, the offense used Gray and Robert Hughes, both capable players but neither able to replicate Allen’s production.

Clausen was visibly bothered by the turf toe in his right foot. He couldn’t step into his throws like usual, and passes he completes with his eyes closed missed their mark. Crist did what was asked of him, completing 5-of-10 passes for 45 yards. The coaches simplified the playbook for Crist, who saw his first meaningful game experience, rolling him out to avoid pressure and giving him quick reads.

Turns out Clausen had enough juice in his toe to fire a 97-mile-per-hour bullet to Kyle Rudolph. But that’s not the point.

With the offense struggling, the defense could have made a statement. Instead, they made several. They held Ralph Bolden, at one point this season the nation’s leading rusher, to 67 yards on 17 carries. But they also allowed Elliott to pass for 289 yards and three touchdowns.

They got a key stop when they needed it, on the second-to-last play, in emphatic fashion. But they also left Jaycen Taylor all alone near the left hash to run 38 yards untouched for a go-ahead touchdown with less than four minutes remaining.

You could say the players need to buckle down and take pride in their play, or whatever cliché usually gets thrown around here. You could put it on the coaches, say they need to drill the players in the fundamentals.

But I’m not. The Irish won. It’s irrelevant. Charlie Weis knows that, so do the players. It’s just something to keep in mind for Washington.

Something to help the cause: increase the dosage of Manti. He’s quick, he’s strong, he’s the best blitzer the Irish have. He plays middle linebacker, a position that allows him to impose his will on the offense no matter what the play.

He’ll be around with those 2011 Irish. But he can contribute in 2009.

Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu.

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