Everett: Irish don’t break, but increased adversity is coming
Joe Everett | Sunday, September 2, 2018
“No Breaking Point.”
The motto written on the back of the 2018 version of “The Shirt” — which blanketed Notre Dame Stadium as the Irish faithful successfully accomplished a “green-out” — describes how Notre Dame (1-0) built a foundation during its 24-17 win over rival Michigan on Saturday night, and what it will need to continue to test and develop.
Notre Dame’s defense bent often, but it never broke. Clark Lea’s unit stopped the Wolverines (0-1) in their tracks when it mattered most. The defense kept Michigan out of the end zone until there were two minutes and 18 seconds left in the game, thanks in large part by forcing three critical sacks, a missed field goal and an interception. Then, during Michigan’s final drive and with the game on the line, senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery stripped Michigan junior quarterback Shea Patterson, whose fumble was scooped up by senior linebacker Te’von Coney to seal the deal.
“I’d be happy if they bend all night and don’t break,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of the unit’s performance. “I thought we played really well. We lost a little bit of our eye discipline … void of that I thought we played really well.”
A defense’s ability to bend and not break is largely a function of its depth and consistency of play. Kelly particularly noted the depth the team has along the defensive line, a unit that, by committee, was consistently able to limit Michigan’s run game, in addition to getting after Patterson all night long.
“That’s what we have to be — we have to have that type of depth,” Kelly said. “We’re not generally going to get that singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we can roll out a lot of very good football players.”
This Notre Dame defense may be the best defense the squad has produced in a while — perhaps since the 2012 defense led by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who patented the “bend-don’t-break” formula at Notre Dame. Now, Michigan isn’t known for its high-powered offense and wasn’t expected to put up 30 points on the Irish, but the valuable trait the Irish showed against the Wolverines was their ability to buckle down and come up with a key play when they needed to: Michigan was 0 for 3 on fourth down plays. The Irish stood strong and came up with momentum-killing plays when they needed to, plain and simple.
“You saw in their body language that they were kind of defeated,” junior defensive end Khalid Kareem said of how the Irish controlled the momentum. ”We just kept on coming. … After some big stops their body language was just slumped over, so we wanted to capitalize on that.”
Tactically on the defensive side of the ball, the Irish have shown that they have no breaking point. However, mentally as a team, the Irish have truly yet to be tested in that regard, and that is why I continue to reserve judgment about how good this team may be.
We all know that forging metal in fire makes said metal stronger. Well, overcoming adversity has the same effect on a team. It makes it stronger.
The only problem is, the Irish didn’t face much adversity Saturday night. They scored first and jumped out to a big lead. They had a raucous crowd behind them all four quarters. Their lead was never truly threatened until Michigan’s final drive.
Was it still a huge victory? Of course it was. But to say in this game that the Irish had to “attack adversity” and overcome “chaos,” as Kelly has been simulating in team practice, would be insincere. It was Michigan who had to try to overcome unforeseen situations, as starting junior safety Josh Metellus was ejected for targeting in the first quarter, the place-holder fumbled the snap — leading to a missed field goal in the third quarter — and Patterson was forced to leave the game for multiple series due to cramps. Inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night, Michigan was faced with more adversity than Notre Dame.
In order for this Irish team to be great, it will have to find a way to win when it faces more adversity than its opponent. Will the Irish be able to respond down 14 on the road in a hostile environment at Virginia Tech, or be able to move the ball effectively if Wimbush leaves with an injury? These are hypotheticals, but they’re not far off from last year’s realities, and therefore Notre Dame’s ability to attack adversity will be the marker of just how far the program has developed.
On Saturday night, the Irish built a strong foundation for a tactical and psychological emphasis on not having a breaking point. In order to get where they want to go, they’ll need to keep building.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.