Defense steps up in second half to lead ND to win
Daniel O'Boyle | Monday, October 12, 2015
As Notre Dame and Navy left the field at the end of the first half, it appeared the Irish woes at defending the triple-option had returned.
The Irish defense looked nothing like the unit that shut down Georgia Tech for more than three quarters Sept. 19, as the Midshipmen ran for 239 yards in 28 first-half attempts, scoring 21 points. But second-half defensive adjustments helped Notre Dame pull away, as the Irish limited their opponents to just 79 yards on the ground and 95 overall for the rest of the game and allowed only a field goal.
Notre Dame’s defense had forced a three-and-out to begin each of its first four contests this year, but for the second consecutive week the unit got out of the gate slowly. Navy senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds broke loose for a 51-yard run on his first play of the game, and junior running back Toneo Gulley finished the drive with a 13-yard score just two plays later. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the slow start was due to avoidable mistakes.
“On that particular long run, we just overran the play,” Kelly said. “We had our safety right there unblocked, and we simply did not execute.”
A second-quarter fumble, recovered by junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, was a rare first-half highlight for the Irish defensively. For the rest of the first 30 minutes, Notre Dame struggled not only in stopping Reynolds, but in stopping Navy’s offense without him. Reynolds ran for 95 yards before halftime, while two touchdowns from senior fullback Quentin Ezell came with junior quarterback Tago Smith taking snaps for the Midshipmen while Reynolds was injured. Kelly said his team struggled for most of the first half with stopping Navy’s fullback.
“We couldn’t get to the fullback,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t get our five technique down. So, consequently when we tried to get into our front that put our Sam and our Will [linebackers] on the dive, we just couldn’t get there.
“They weren’t running it to Jaylon, they were running it to James Onwualu’s side. They obviously checked away from Jaylon every time, and when James was trying to get down to tackle he was getting knocked off.”
But coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense used the break to adjust and looked like an entirely different unit in the second half. The Midshipmen were unable to drive the ball inside the Irish 20-yard line for the remainder of the game, and Reynolds had little impact on his return, rushing six times for only 15 yards while Smith threw an interception to senior safety Elijah Shumate at the end of the fourth quarter.
The defensive improvement coincided with the introduction of graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace, who had five total tackles on the day. Kelly said Grace’s size allowed him to be effective where the Irish had struggled in the first half.
“We went with Grace in the second half, a bigger body,” said Kelly. “He was able to get himself down on to that fullback a little bit better in the second half.”
Grace, however, said it was a combined defensive performance — and not simply his introduction — that led to the improvement.
“As far as my role went, I don’t think that that was the most important part,” Grace said. “I think it was just about them having an overall gameplan and using the resources they had, which happened to be putting me in there.
“Navy had a few wrinkles, we didn’t know exactly what they were, but we knew they were going to come and so I was just lucky enough to be put out there and succeed in a role that I can do well in with a great game plan.”
Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Greer Martini again proved himself to be somewhat of an option specialist, playing a key role for the Irish by leading the team with nine tackles. Martini said he was determined to show his strengths against Navy’s offense.
“I wouldn’t say that I was an expert on triple-option in high-school,” Martini said. “I just kind of got my opportunity to play against the option here, I got on the field and I made that my thing, I became good at it and knew I had to perfect it to stay on the field. I’m a downhill linebacker, I like to play the run and fill the holes, I think that the option just suits my strengths.”
After four impressive quarters against Texas to open the season, Saturday’s game marked another strong but at times inconsistent performance for the Irish defense. Grace said he feels the unit can still come together for a dominant 60-minute performance.
“I think we’ve played pretty well, but we can take this to a much higher place,” Grace said. “I don’t think we’ve even touched where our ceiling could be.
“I don’t think we’ve played a full game yet. The best football is definitely still ahead of us.”