Notre Dame’s ‘grit’ leads to defensive crackdown
Meagan Bens | Monday, October 30, 2017
The Irish once again were able to walk away with a victory over a top-15 opponent due to their persistent defense and mentality.
Although North Carolina State put on the pressure early on, forcing an Irish punt that was blocked and recovered as a touchdown by Wolfpack redshirt-junior linebacker Germaine Pratt, Notre Dame’s defense came out on top.
“It’s grit,” Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We go out there and give an atrocious play on special teams, which is totally my fault as a quarterback of that team. But there wasn’t a guy on the sideline that flinched. You would think we got a stop on defense, that was their response. It’s just a group of guys that buy into what we are doing.”
After the blocked punt and touchdown to put Notre Dame (7-1) down by seven within the first five minutes, Irish head coach Brian Kelly also said that the team’s mentality sets it apart.
“Coaching as long as I have, when you get a punt block it has tendency to affect the team, our guys never flinched,” Kelly said. “It was as if nothing ever occurred other than lets get back on the field and get to work. Took a long way and a lot of time to get there. But we never flinch, we take one play at a time, and the cumulative effective is what you saw today, that we can run the ball 15 to 16 times against a very good NC State team.”
Less than a minute after the Wolfpack (6-2, 4-0 ACC) put the first seven points on the board, a combination of junior C.J. Sanders’ 32-yard kickoff return, junior running back Josh Adams’ 33-yard rush and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s 25-yard completion to graduate student tight end Durham Smythe put Notre Dame back in the game.
The Irish moved into the second quarter letting up one more touchdown — redshirt-junior quarterback Ryan Finley’s 15-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Kelvin Harmon — and then shut down the Wolfpack’s offense for the remainder of the half and the game.
Entering the second half, Notre Dame robbed any of North Carolina State’s momentum to creep back up on the board. Sophomore cornerback Julian Love made the first interception off of Finley this season and made a 69-yard return for a touchdown. It was Love’s second pick-six of the season.
“On body pass break ups and holding a team that is so efficient offensively to seven points has got to be one of our best performances defensively,” Kelly said. “That’s an outstanding quarterback [in Finley] and even on the drive they scored he had to make three outstanding throws. [Junior linebacker Te’von] Coney was all over the field and he received the game ball. He had back-to-back games and played really good football. Love had the pick six again, it was a momentum swing.”
Noting the pick as the defining moment of the game, Love gave credit to the entire defensive line.
“Honestly that’s our front seven on the first and second down just making huge plays,” Love said. “Because then the percentages of us winning if they are down increases a lot. As one of our main goals each game, third down percentages, we worked really hard on it and we worked on it all week. Just executing it is the biggest part.”
Despite being up 21-14 before the play, Love said the pick-six was crucial to the whole team’s confidence and second-half performance.
“Thought we really needed it,” Love said. “We were up but you always need that turn of momentum and crushing blow to the opponent. After that, the offense was hitting them and the defense was doing their thing … I credit two guys. [Defensive coordinator Mike] Elko calling great plays and he is really inspiring and leading us. And [sophomore cornerback] Troy Pride Jr., he’s the heart to the secondary and he’s a funny guy, after every dead ball he raises our spirit.”
Continually forcing the Wolfpack to punt, the Irish gave a defensive player, Coney, a game ball to reward to his nine tackles on the day.
“It’s awesome as an individual to work hard and see it paying off,” Coney said. “More importantly, I have to thank the guys around me and the coaches. Without them I wouldn’t be at this point … Having that dominant mindset and just trusting our coach was a big key for us as a defensive and offensive whole. They put us in the right spots to make the right plays and win games.”
With a 7-1 record and four regular season games to go, Tranquill noted that the team is mentally prepared to take on future games.
“Confidence is a choice, you can go out there and choose it because there are negative thoughts that can always creep in your head,” Tranquill said. “Guys are just behind it in what we are doing and they’re loving doing it with one another. We’re just having fun, whereas most teams dread going to practice on Tuesdays, we look forward to it. We’re excited to get in the weight room and get after this Wake Forest team.”