Irish defensive line makes strides as it readies for Miami
Renee Griffin | Friday, October 28, 2016
Notre Dame’s pass rushing stat line in the 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15: three sacks for a total loss of 13 yards, plus two quarterback hurries.
Notre Dame’s combined pass rushing stat line in the six games prior to Stanford: three sacks for a total loss of 11 yards, plus 22 quarterback hurries. The Irish were among the very last in the FBS to record a sack this season, failing to do so until Week 4 against Duke.
Statistically, the defense’s efforts to hassle the Stanford quarterback was its most successful since a 2-sack, 11-hurry performance in the 50-33 win over Syracuse on Oct. 1.
Senior captain and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, who is the team leader in quarterback hurries by far with nine, said the improvements are largely due to the team’s upbeat mentality.
“I think guys have bought in and had really positive attitudes,” Rochell said. “Guys have been excited about playing well, and when you get excited about playing well, you keep playing well.”
The Irish weren’t the only team able to take advantage of poor pass protection by the Cardinal and the Orange, who are among the worst in the NCAA at sacks allowed, with Stanford giving up three per game on average and Syracuse giving up 2.75 per game.
Miami may be similarly vulnerable to sacks after its star junior quarterback, Brad Kaaya, was taken down behind the line of scrimmage eight times in his team’s loss to Virginia Tech last week, though Rochell emphasized how the Hurricanes’ tempo and athleticism will keep the Irish defense on its toes.
Graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones, whose strip-sack and fumble recovery was one of the highlights of Notre Dame’s performance against Stanford, agreed with Rochell’s assessment of the eagerness to compete that remains strong in the Irish locker room.
“We just play for each other,” Jones said. “Just being here, at Notre Dame, a lot of people would kill to have this. Yeah, our season’s not going the way we wanted, but we’re blessed to be here. Not the best situation, but we’re going to make the most out of it. Football ends at some point … you’re gonna miss your brothers.”
Jones said that fraternal atmosphere is directly related to the team’s ability to step up and make plays. He pointed to coaches and player leaders demanding accountability, like the way junior linebacker Nyles Morgan sometimes gets on sophomore defensive lineman Jerry Tillery in practice: “You’d think he’s about to fight him.”
“It trickles, and it leads to a better defense,” Jones said.
With an interception and two quarterback hurries this season, in addition to the sack and fumble recovery he recorded two weeks ago, Jones hopes his presence in the middle frees up his teammates – and Tillery in particular – to take down the quarterback, he said.
“[The offensive line will] pay attention to me regardless, just because I’m the biggest guy that comes out there on the D-line,” said Jones, who stands at 6-5 1/2 and weighs in at 315 lbs. “Jerry, I want to give him a lot of opportunities, because to be honest I think he’s a better pass rusher than I am. … He’s better one-on-one pass rushing. It’s kind of a team thing.”
Jones said his big play against Stanford was possible because of his ability to catch on to how the Cardinal were guarding him in certain formations, but that it’s rare he can expect to penetrate the opposing line so successfully.
“I just always expect a double block. When I bull rush somebody like that, especially, a lot of times a guard will come down and just knock me out of the gap,” Jones said. “I’m just trying to look out for my teammates and making sure I’m not making too big of a seam for their quarterback.
“I’m just trying to push the pocket and keep the quarterback corralled.”
Looking beyond the line, Jones said he’s seen significant progress from the defense in practice, making him think that the Irish will finally begin to turn around their 2-5 season in the upcoming matchup with Miami.
“I really expect a shutout out of our defense, because our defense has been playing lights out in practice,” Jones said. “The way we carry ourselves in meetings, there’s just a new sense of excitement. Even though our record’s not where we want it, there’s still excitement to come to meetings, to go to practice.
“I really feel like this will be the game we put it all together.”