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Irish secondary aims to rebound vs. MSU

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Last year, Notre Dame relied on three first-time starters in the secondary to anchor a defense that allowed less than 13 points per game.

This year, the No. 22 Irish returned all of those first-time starters in the secondary. The back end of the defense was supposed to be the rock of the unit that allowed defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to throw exotic blitzes at offenses.

But three games into the season, the Notre Dame secondary has allowed quarterbacks Connor Reilly (Temple), Devin Gardner (Michigan) and Rob Henry (Purdue) to average 260 yards per game in the air.

“I think the first three games, we haven’t executed to the best of our ability,” sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “That’s the biggest thing this week, is to focus on executing. When a play comes your way, just make a play.”

This season, the Irish (2-1) have allowed seven passing touchdowns after surrendering just 11 scores in all of 2012.

All three Purdue touchdowns against the Irish were catch-and-runs, with Notre Dame missing tackles and allowing the Boilermakers to hit pay dirt.
“We’ll be in great position and something just wouldn’t happen,” Russell said. “At the end of the day, it’s a 50-50 chance. You either do or you don’t. Lately, we haven’t been making plays we should be making.”

The Irish also allowed Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon to spin away from would-be tacklers and sprint in for a 61-yard touchdown.

“You’re going to have plays where you blow a coverage or miss a tackle or something like that,” Russell said. “That’s what’s going to happen, it’s football. Secondary is probably the hardest position to play, other than quarterback, on the field … You just have to learn to get better from your mistakes.”

Diaco and Irish coach Brian Kelly have been dialing up more and more blitzes this season, but in doing so have put the secondary in a perilous situation.

“Obviously if you bring more pressure, you’re giving up some zones,” Kelly said. “So you either have to play some three under, three deep, which vacates some zones and you’d better get there or you have to play simply some more man coverage; and within that man coverage there’s a lot more technique that goes in, because it’s not simply you line up wide. It’s bunched formations; it’s picks; it’s fighting through all those complexities of playing man-to-man coverage.

“I guess what I was saying is that I still think we are not where we want to be defensively in terms of what that structure is going to be yet.”

Last week, for the second straight game, Notre Dame cashed in on an interception to score a touchdown. After junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt scored against Michigan, senior Bennett Jackson took one to the house against the Boilermakers. Jackson said he hasn’t used the pick-six to give himself a confidence boost.

“It didn’t really play too much of an effect on me,” Jackson said. “I was just happy I could contribute to the team and put points up on the board. It definitely made me feel better about myself that I was able to go out there and perform and do something for the team.”

Michigan State (3-0) comes into Notre Dame Stadium with sophomore quarterback Connor Cook at the helm. On the year, he’s passed for 276 yards and four touchdowns while only attempting 49 passes.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]