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Defense uses rotations to shut down Spartans

Casey Karnes | Sunday, September 22, 2013

With the help of three new starters, the increased involvement of freshman talent and the steady play of some familiar faces, Notre Dame’s defense returned to last season’s shutdown level this weekend against Michigan State.

After losing Zeke Motta, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o from last season’s dynamic unit, the Irish defense has noticeably been in the  midst of an adjustment period in early action this season. The 41 points the Irish allowed against Michigan in week two eclipsed the Irish’s most points allowed to a regular season opponent last season by 15 points.

Saturday, however, the Irish held the Spartans to only 13 points and 254 yards. On a day when the Irish offense was struggling, Notre Dame’s defense gave its best performance of the season. According to Irish Coach Brian Kelly, his much-scrutinized unit may have reached a turning point.

“We think [the defense] is starting to come together,” Kelly said. “You could sense it. The pass-rush was better. We were on body a lot better. Assignment was much better. Definitely you could sense that the defense is starting to come together.”

The most visible change Saturday was the revelation of three new starters for the Irish defense. Due to sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon Day’s ankle injury, senior Kona Schwenke got the start at defensive line. And while the safety and middle linebacker positions have been rotating all season, this week junior safety Matthias Farley and graduate student linebacker Dan Fox began the game on the bench. 

In their stead, senior Austin Collinsworth and sophomore Elijah Shumate manned the back and junior linebacker Jarrett Grace received his first start in the middle of the field. Farley, Fox and graduate student linebacker Carlo Calabrese still rotated in, and Farley even came down with a crucial interception that stopped a Spartan drive in the third quarter. After his first start, Grace said it’s not who played that matters, but how they played together that allowed the Irish defense to return to form.

“We have all the guys, we have all the ability, we could put many guys in different spots,” Grace said. “It’s more about just settling down a little bit. We’re all brothers out there. When we’re out there, I feel like it’s going to be gelling no matter what.”

In addition to new starters, some young talent saw the field for the Irish as well. Freshmen cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler shared significant time on the field together down the stretch, and Kelly believes that their performance demonstrates the depth of the Notre Dame defense.

“We played a lot of freshman on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of how we put this team together, is that we need to count on the depth, especially in this freshman class.”

Senior tri-captain and cornerback Bennett Jackson showed confidence in his younger peers, while also providing some guidance for their first experience with extended playing time.

“I just told them they got on the field through their participation in practice and how well they practiced this week,” Jackson said. “I told them don’t do anything you don’t necessarily do, play your game, stay calm, stay confident, and execute your fundamentals and you’ll be fine.”

The Irish secondary held the Spartans and sophomore quarterback Connor Cook to only 3.8 yards a pass, and eventually forced Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio to replace Cook with senior Andrew Maxwell to try and spark his offense on the final drive. Even with the success, Kelly said he is not finished tinkering with his lineup.

“I wouldn’t say we’re at a point where we’re definitely sold we have the 11 guys in the right place,” Kelly said. “We think we’re closer. We still have to do a little bit more work.”

Regardless of this game’s rotation, or that of future matchups, Jackson believes the Irish will continue to succeed, invoking the same theme as Grace: brotherhood.

“[The rotation] didn’t really alter my game at all,” Jackson said. “I think we took a step forward. We just continue to grow our brotherhood on defense, and build that confidence and chemistry as a defensive unit.”

Contact Casey Karnes at wkarnes@nd.edu