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Football

Young and depleted Irish defense exposed by Cardinals

| Sunday, November 23, 2014

Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith drops to one knee after Notre Dame’s 31-28 loss to Louisville on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium on Senior Day.EMMET FARNAN | The Observer

Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith drops to one knee after Notre Dame’s 31-28 loss to Louisville on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium on Senior Day.

On a day devoted to its seniors, the exceedingly young Irish defense struggled to play with veteran poise in the first quarter, dooming Notre Dame to an early deficit that it would
not escape.

Entering the game, the Irish were already suffering from the losses of junior captain and defensive lineman Sheldon Day and senior linebacker Joe Schmidt, forcing Irish head coach Brian Kelly to play five true freshmen and seven sophomores.

Then, on Louisville’s first play from scrimmage, junior defensive lineman Jarron Jones collected a sack, only to come up hobbling and go to the sideline.

“We played pretty much the whole game without Jarron Jones and [all of it without] Sheldon Day [and] Joe Schmidt,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of freshmen in there, a lot of young guys, and they battled as best they could. I mean, we’re getting everything out of them. They played with great effort. We just made some mistakes.”

Jones’s absence on that first drive was felt right away as the Cardinals racked up 61 rushing yards on eight attempts, capped off by a 12-yard touchdown rush from freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. Even when the Irish forced Louisville into a third-and-14 situation, senior running back Michael Dyer was able to break through several arm tackles, picking up 21 yards and the first down.

“Just the little mistakes that are adding up to big plays are the things that are really killing us,” Irish sophomore defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said.

“The effort was there,” Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “It’s just about having that physical and mental mentality to the point that we’re not going to be denied. And that’s where age plays a picture.”

For most of the game, the lone veteran on the field for Notre Dame’s defense was graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth. Collinsworth missed seven games this year while dealing with injuries to his MCL and shoulder and said the injury to his shoulder changed his tackling approach.

“It’s just hard for me to wrap with that arm. That’s the only thing,” Collinsworth said. “[I had to change my form] a little bit.”

While the Irish suffered from mental errors, they failed to punish the Cardinals for theirs. On its second drive of the game, the Lousiville offense committed three false start penalties over an eight-play sequence but was still able to convert on a third-and-16 from its own 35-yard line.

Blown coverage down the middle of field left redshirt senior receiver Kai De La Cruz wide open for a 52-yard bomb from Bonnafon, setting up another rushing score and putting the Irish down 14-3 at the end of the first quarter.

“[It was] zone read, we’re [in] great coverage and we’ve got two guys playing the wrong coverage,” Kelly said. “[We] just made mistakes. When we were lined up properly and in our right fits and doing the right things, we did a pretty good job.”

Collinsworth took responsibility for the hole in the Irish defense.

“We’ve got to close in the middle of the field,” Collinsworth said. “We just came up a little short, but I’ve got to be able to overlap a little better than I did.”

By halftime, the Irish defense had allowed the Cardinals to convert on four of eight third-downs, including three of 10 yards or more. However, after the opening two touchdowns, Notre Dame rallied to allow just a Louisville field goal the rest of the half.

“We just started to get our cleats in the grass, talking it over on the sideline,” Irish sophomore cornerback Cole Luke said. “We went over the mistakes that we made.”

However, led by redshirt sophomore running back Brandon Radcliff, the Cardinals rallied to collect 102 yards on the ground in the third quarter on just five attempts. Radcliff also provided a fourth-quarter score that put Louisville ahead, 31-20.

Despite the young defense’s mistakes, Smith said there were still positives to take away from starting so many underclassmen.

“Just the experience … the atmosphere, even losing in this case, it’s something that we’re all learning,” Smith said. “We’re all just continuing to learn.”

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg