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Gastelum: Struggling defense will determine team’s fate (Sept. 20)

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has to be calling 5-1-1. Without No. 5, this defense just looks lost.

There is not one person who stands out, yet at the same time there is not one person who has really fallen short either. Various media outlets are currently picking on KeiVarae Russell. Last week it was Stephon Tuitt. Next week it will probably be Jaylon Smith’s turn.

But the point remains: No one sticks out or stands out in any fashion. That is, at least to the fans.

To opposing offenses, there are two gigantic, gargantuan standouts and their focus on these two is even greater. To opposing offenses, the only greater goal than limiting Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt is putting points up on the scoreboard.

What most see are the low numbers this dynamic duo provides in comparison to last season when their numbers were bigger than they were. Nix only has eight tackles and zero sacks through the first three games. Meanwhile, Tuitt has four tackles and one sack.

But all of that has been against double teams, triple teams, quick runs, three-step drops and passes away from their 66 percent of the defensive line. Dan Fox, Jarrett Grace and Carlo Calabrese are reaping the benefits of opposing offensive lines keying on Nix and Tuitt, as the three inside linebackers are the three leading tacklers on the Irish.

But this whole “next-man-in” philosophy has taken off to a completely different level. No philosophy can replace “that man.” This defense has plenty of seasoning to it and some stern voices among it, but there is no face to it. As the Diaco saying goes, sometimes you have to throw some “chili powder” into the recipe to bake a different kind of cake when you run out of vanilla.

But not when it is supposed to be a vanilla cake.

With the loss of that man, this Irish defense went from Cake Boss to North Dining Hall: exciting and dynamic to just generic and a little strange at times.

As I said in this space last week, Notre Dame cannot continue to run off the success and energy of last season. That was evident when Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner turned into Colin Kaepernick with both his eyebrows and Purdue quarterback Rob Henry became Joe Flacco.

Who does this Irish defense turn to in order to lead it? It seems like a difficult job for Bennett Jackson to do as a member of the secondary since he plays along the margins of the field. It also doesn’t help his status that Jackson has to play man coverage, expecting a blitz to hurry the quarterback into a tizzy, only to find out said gunslinger has an entire open canvas in front of him and time to paint it downfield.

If there is one major comparison to make between last year’s and this year’s team, it’s that this defense is going to have to carry the load once again and lead Notre Dame to a BCS bowl. It’s that this defense is going to be the meal ticket once again, whether Brian Kelly believes it or not.
The only problem: They’re trying to make a vanilla cake and they’ve run out of vanilla quite some time ago.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu                                

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