Irish defense stands strong in loss to Stanford
Daniel O'Boyle | Monday, October 17, 2016
Saturday’s game against Stanford certainly didn’t go completely according to plan for Notre Dame. The result should be enough proof of that.
Costly turnovers, changes at quarterback and another botched snap might have prevented the Irish (2-5) from winning, but the one unit Irish fans had become used to seeing cost them games — the defense — put in a performance that might just suggest new coordinator Greg Hudson is leading a change on his side of the ball.
Though Stanford ended the game with 17 points, only eight of those were the defense’s responsibility, with the other nine coming from a 50-yard interception return by Cardinal sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks and a snap from Irish junior center Sam Mustipher that went over the head of senior quarterback Malik Zaire and out the back of the end zone for a safety. If not for a bounce of the ball in the end zone on what proved to be the decisive score, junior linebacker Nyles Morgan could have earned the fourth takeaway of the game and Stanford’s offense could have put nothing on the board.
Graduate student defensive end Jarron Jones said the team finally played to its full potential against the Cardinal.
“We played unbelievable today,” Jones said. “And the thing about it was we knew we could play like that and we actually went out and did it. I felt like we’ve been doing it for the past two weeks now, it’s just all about being a consistent thing and just getting better. We’ve been reaching our goals, and now it’s about trying to beat our goals and each week doing more than we did last week”
In its first three games against Power Five teams this year, Notre Dame’s defense had given up seven, five and five touchdowns. Against Syracuse, Hudson had less than a week to prepare his unit and the Irish gave up another five. Against the Wolfpack, they gave up only a field goal, but weather conditions made moving the ball difficult. Although Stanford was missing junior running back and 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, this was still the first major test for Hudson’s unit. And the results looked good.
The greatest success came where the Irish had struggled all season: pressuring the quarterback. Without a single sack through three games and tied for 125th in the FBS before the game with only three, the Irish doubled their sack count for the season. Junior linebacker Greer Martini, who led the Irish in sacks on the day with two, said he felt the defense was determined to prove they could perform better than they had early in the season.
“I think the D-boys basically said, ‘enough is enough.’” Martini said. “We’ve been the reason we haven’t been playing as well as we could. We have a new energy with Coach Hudson; I think he brings a positive energy and we can kind of feed off of that.”
After giving up one score or less only twice in 30 games under Brian VanGorder, the Irish have now accomplished the feat in back-to-back weeks under Hudson. Jones said the Irish defense has has found the confidence it lacked early in the season.
“We let it go,” Jones said. “We’re not afraid to mess up anymore. We were always so tentative. We were alway worried we were going to mess up, or something bad was going to happen. I feel like that our coaches gave us a sense of confidence, a sense that they got recruited to Notre Dame. So coming to this special place, you know you’re a special player and you know you were chosen to be here.”
Jones was among the most impactful players for the Irish on the day. Jones had a strip sack, which he recovered himself, while the Irish were leading 10-7 in the third quarter. Jones said he always remained focused on trying to help his team win the game.
“I guess the dice just rolled in my direction,” he said. “I was just doing everything I could for the defense to help us get a win. I don’t really care about my personal stats, I just wanted that win, that’s all I really care about.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Jones has consistently shown effort despite the team’s struggles so far.
“You know, he’s committed,” Kelly said.” All these guys want to get through this really tough part of everyone’s career I guess you could say, mine included. We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together.”
Kelly had praise for the unit and noted the number of younger players who have played a big role defensively in recent weeks.
“I thought [the defense was] solid,” Kelly said. We’re playing a lot of freshmen back there, so we don’t want to expose them in every scenario, so they’re learning a lot as we go, right, so we want to minimize big plays, which I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down. The thing that I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays.”
Still, Kelly noted that despite the improvement in those areas, there are still problems that need to be resolved if the Irish are to improve their record.
“You can’t be everything that you want to be defensively with just those two things, but you can keep your football team in what I felt was a good position to win games, and we just haven’t been able to do the things that I expected to do to win games.”