Irish defense has unanswered questions
Zach Klonsinski | Monday, September 5, 2016
AUSTIN, Texas — In a game where Notre Dame entered with its biggest question on offense, it left with the same tired questions on defense.
Yes, sophomore defensive back Shaun Crawford made what — had Notre Dame won — would have been the biggest play of the night, intercepting Texas freshman quarterback Shane Buechele and setting up Notre Dame’s touchdown that brought the game within three, 31-28, midway through the third quarter.
And yes, the defense held Texas scoreless for nearly 20 minutes in the third and fourth quarters while its offense dug out of a 17-point hole to take the lead.
But Notre Dame’s defense is far from championship caliber. When it came to crunch time late in the fourth quarter and into overtime, it barely offered resistance.
The Longhorns were a blocked extra point return away from winning outright after the Irish defense watched the Longhorns march 68 yards in eight plays to take what in most cases is a three-point lead.
It didn’t get better after regulation: Texas moved the ball to the Irish 5-yard line on the first play of the first overtime.
In the second extra frame, the Irish had a chance to force the Longhorns to settle for a field goal on third-and-1. Instead, senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes burst through for 10 yards to put the Longhorns in striking distance and then finished the Irish two plays later.
“We misfitted plays and Swoopes is obviously very difficult to tackle,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s a big physical player. Clearly we were not in some positions to make some tackles, and then when we were, they ran through some tackles as well.”
While junior DeShone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire flip-flopped at the Irish offensive controls for the first half, the defense had trouble getting the Longhorn offense off the field.
And it didn’t matter who flying the Texas ship: the Irish struggled all the same.
After Kizer led a touchdown drive to quiet Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium after kickoff, Buechele and junior running back D’Onta Foreman marched the Longhorns on an 11-play, 75-yard drive right into the teeth of the Irish defense to tie the game.
Twice Notre Dame had a chance to get Texas off the field, and twice the Longhorns converted, once on a third-and-2 and the next on a fourth-and-1 when the Notre Dame defensive line wasn’t set.
Swoopes gave Notre Dame problems on the Longhorns’ first drive of the second quarter, carrying the ball six times for 35 yards to push the Longhorns into Irish territory. Buechele re-entered facing a third-and-7 on the Notre Dame 34 and promptly hit wide-open junior receiver Jake Oliver for 21 yards down to the Notre Dame 13. Buechele again found Oliver on third-and-8 with a 10-yard strike right down the middle of the field. The freshman quarterback capped the 16-play, 88-yard drive with a sneak of his own to give the Longhorns their first lead of the game.
Again though, the Irish defense missed chances to get Texas off the field before the score.
Aside from the two Buechele to Oliver conversions, junior defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti lined up offside on a third-and-6. D’Onta Foreman converted the resulting third-and-1, bulldozing through the Irish line for three yards.
Notre Dame played a lot of three-man defensive lines and nickel packages throughout the game that Texas rolled through when it mattered.
“It’s really more about our personnel and matching our personnel against them,” Kelly said of his decision to move away from Notre Dame’s typical 4-3 defense some against the Longhorns. “It’s having the defensive personnel that best fits what we feel gets our best players on the field more than anything else.”
Texas receivers flew past the Irish secondary all night, too. While the one that will make the highlight reels was Buechele’s 72-yard touchdown bomb to sophomore receiver John Burt on the second play of the second half, Burt flat-out dropped a would-be touchdown on Texas’ second drive of the game.
“We were in Cover 3 when we got beat,” Kelly said. “We were in flat-out Cover 3. We weren’t even man-to-man. So the inability to play Cover 3 and not be effective in that requires better coaching.
“ … We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to be better as coaches. I think it starts with me and our staff coaching better, and then our players have got to do their job. I think if we do that, we’ve got some really key ingredients to this football team that as a head coach you really want.”
Both times Burt ran right by Irish sophomore defensive back Nick Coleman, Texas’ favorite target on the night. Coleman was pulled on the drive following Burt’s touchdown after getting flagged for pass interference on yet another deep route.
“[Texas’] perimeter speed was outstanding,” Kelly said. “ … Obviously we gave up big plays on the perimeter, caused us to make some changes out there, but it’s definitely the perimeter speed that is the game changer for their offense.
“ … But we ended up finishing the game with two freshmen safeties and a freshman corner. And they’re going to have to play a lot of football, and they’re going to be really good players.”
There was a consistent message from Kelly and the rest of his team following the loss: The team showed resilience in fighting out of the hole it’d dug itself.
“I think our team did a really good job of coming back from a pretty bad deficit,” senior linebacker James Onwualu said. “We were resilient and I think that says a lot about our team moving forward.
“But it does suck.”
This year, that’s just not going to be good enough.