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Defensive mistakes against Cavaliers need to be addressed

| Monday, September 14, 2015

After surviving Virginia, a lot of questions surround the Notre Dame offense, most notably its inefficiency on third down, the new face at quarterback and the inability of the offensive line to give the quarterback, whoever that may be, much time in the pocket. At the end of the day, however, the offense put up 34 points. The defense is the biggest question mark for the Irish moving forward.

After holding Texas to just 153 yards last week, the Irish defense looked like an entirely different unit Saturday, allowing the Cavaliers to put up 416 yards. The squad’s showing against Virginia brought back memories of the second half of the 2014 season and Notre Dame’s defensive struggles without leader Joe Schmidt. Schmidt is back, and so is every key player except the injured Jarron Jones. After a performance like this against a middling Virginia offense, there aren’t many excuses for the Irish.

The majority of Notre Dame’s struggles Saturday centered on its pass defense. It starts up front, where the Irish didn’t have a single quarterback hurry all game compared to eight against Texas. Their lone sack was on a cornerback blitz courtesy of KeiVarae Russell that resulted in a fumble recovered by Notre Dame.

Even if a team has a stout secondary, there needs to be pressure generated up front. Notre Dame boasts bona fide NFL prospects in pass-rushers Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, and yet neither could get to junior Cavaliers quarterback Matt Johns with any consistency. That doesn’t bode well for a defensive line that has to go up against the likes of Stanford tackle Kyle Murphy and USC center Max Tuerk later this season.

The defensive line shouldn’t shoulder most of the blame, however. Notre Dame’s secondary could not make plays, looking lost at times and letting receivers behind it on multiple occasions.

Cole Luke, Max Redfield, James Onwualu and Russell all blew coverages for the Irish.

A lot of times this didn’t hurt Notre Dame, as Johns overthrew receivers on his fair share of pass attempts. Against a better team, however, those kinds of mistakes in the secondary will come back to haunt Notre Dame.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly called the mistakes “correctable” and thinks they can be cleaned up in time for the upcoming game against Georgia Tech. If you’re an Irish fan, you had better hope so.

In addition, Notre Dame struggled against any and all forms of trickery the Cavaliers threw its way. Virginia ran multiple jet sweeps that netted good chunks of yardage, including one that went for 25 yards. The most head-scratching play for Notre Dame’s defense was failing to recognize when Johns lined up at receiver — the Cavaliers quickly pitched it to Johns, who found receiver Keeon Johnson wide open near the end zone.

And yet, all is not lost for the Irish defense. The unit held its own when Virginia tried to run in between the tackles and forced Notre Dame’s first turnover of the young season. Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, for his part, continues to impress.

This Irish defense has the talent and the leadership necessary to compete for a championship. Maybe holding every opponent to three points and 163 yards like Texas is unrealistic, but it can and should play better than it did against Virginia.

With Texas as the blueprint, the Notre Dame defense needs to forget all about Virginia and move on. With the offense facing questions of its own, the veteran defense must step up and show that week one wasn’t just a mirage. If not, the Irish could be in for a long season breaking in a new quarterback.

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

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About Brian Plamondon

Brian is a senior History major. He is a Maryland native that has been to 16 different countries including Italy, where he studied abroad. He loves all things hockey, especially the Washington Capitals. He's just doing this so he won't get fined.

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