Irish focus on turnovers pays off against Spartans
Elizabeth Greason | Sunday, September 24, 2017
EAST LANSING, Mich. — It looked like a touchdown as Spartans junior running back LJ Scott crossed the goal line with six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
But as Notre Dame junior cornerback Shaun Crawford knew, it wasn’t. It was the third of three turnovers the Irish (3-1) snatched up during their 38-18 win over Michigan State (2-1).
Inches before Scott crossed the goal line, Crawford was able to knock the ball loose, forcing a fumble, which he recovered in the endzone for a touchback. When the Irish offense got back on the field, it was only 1:34 before the Irish landed themselves in the opposing endzone, causing a 14-point swing.
The first turnover of the night came when sophomore cornerback Julian Love picked off a pass from Spartans sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke at the Notre Dame 41-yard line and ran it back for the second Irish touchdown of the game.
“I was just so happy that I could contribute to the team,” Love said of the pick-six. “I turned around after I scored and everyone was hitting me and was on me. It was just such an exciting feeling, especially in front of my family. … I love playing for this school, and I love to show it through that play.”
But the two takeaways against the Spartans are beginning to be characteristic of this season’s Irish squad under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Mike Elko, one of the program’s offseason hires. In the season opener against Temple, senior linebacker Greer Martini forced a fumble, which was recovered by senior linebacker Drue Tranquill. Tranquill had an interception the next week against Georgia. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan and sophomore defensive lineman Julian Okwara each forced a fumble against Boston College, while Crawford tallied two interceptions.
Compare that to the team that had eight interceptions, eight forced fumbles and just six fumble recoveries in the entirety of the 2016 season.
Saturday’s three forced turnovers — the other was another Martini forced fumble recovered by sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes — are representative of the way the defense is trending as a result of a concerted effort the squad is making. A focus is being made each week on forcing turnovers — a focus the team feels is paying off.
“Every day, we go through the turnover circuit, and that’s showing,” Love said. “We’re getting and creating our brand and Shaun [Crawford] especially, the turnover magnet, we’re just going after them and we’re doing it for each other, and I think that’s why we’re making the big plays.”
Crawford emphasized the importance of focusing on turnovers, as the squad looks to follow through on each play and hopefully come up with a positive result.
“Well, we have emphasize turnovers a big amount on defense,” Crawford said. “Through winter training and summer training, we always fought to be here, and we finish as a team and everything we do, we gotta finish.”
Although the team is just four games into the season, there is a healthy rivalry developing between the members of the secondary. While each one wants an interception for himself, Love noted the bond between them runs deep, and they are always cheering one another on, something he feels has benefitted the team so far this season, and will continue to do so.
“ … We’re brothers in the secondary, as well as on defense,” Love said. “We just get excited for each other. I’m so excited for the play of the evening. It feels like I’m making them when he makes them, and I know he feels the same way about me. I think that’s leading to our success. Just that selflessness throughout the whole team is really going to push us forward.”
The defense came into this matchup with an attitude of punishment, as Tranquill put it after the loss to Georgia. After Love’s and Crawford’s turnovers Saturday, he feels the defense is succeeding in doing that.
“I feel like [punishing is] our mindset; I feel like that’s been our mindset the last couple of weeks,” Tranquill said. “We started slow at Boston College, brought it in the second half. I feel like that was our mindset today. You have guys like Shaun Crawford punching the ball out from the running back coming into the endzone. That’s what I mean by punishing our opponent. Making plays like that, and I think he embodies that. I think we had guys embody that today. Obviously, there are areas to improve. I think we gave up too many yards on defense. Too many long drives, but I’m overall very excited.”
With the emphasis the Irish defense has placed on turnovers — not the mention the success it has had in converting on those turnovers offensively — Mike Elko’s defense makes the Irish look like a completely different squad.
“I think the story here is defensively, we’re taking the football away,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday’s win. “We hadn’t been able to take the football away over the last few years. We’ve taken it away, and then we’re opportunistic.”