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Football

Okwara leads defense in shutout, ready for breakout performance against USC

| Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Irish defense posted its first shutout in five years against Bowling Green, stifling the Falcons offense and flushing quarterback Grant Loy out of the pocket on nearly every play. The Irish bent but never broke, conceding 228 yards but tightening up whenever the Falcons threatened. Irish senior defensive end Julian Okwara picked up a sack and had another strong performance after his three-sack showing last week. Okwara said that getting his class’s first shutout was a great moment for him and his classmates.

“It was awesome, I was just talking to [senior safety] Jalen [Elliott] and the rest of the guys in my class about how we’ve really never shut out a team since we’ve been here,” Okwara said. “It’s an exciting time for us. The defense as a whole played very well — we were able to get guys on the field that hadn’t played before, which was a good feeling.”

Emma Farnan | The Observer

Irish senior linebacker Julian Okwara assists in tackling a Bowling Green player during Notre Dame’s 52-0 win over the Falcons at home on Saturday.

The play of the game from the defense occurred shortly after halftime. The Falcons had driven 52 yards in 11 plays, converting two third-and-longs to keep the Irish defense on the field. The Irish and Okwara never panicked and forced a 40-yard field goal, which Okwara blocked. He bull-rushed his blocker, knocking him directly backward, and got his hand on the kick to bat it down. Watching Okwara make this critical play at the end of a tough drive for the defense revealed something about Okwara: he does not allow a bad start to get him down.

Okwara did not quite have the production to start the season that many expected from him. He recorded just two unassisted tackles in the team’s first three games, low production for an edge rusher who some expect to have his name called in the first round of next April’s NFL Draft.

Okwara put those games behind him quickly, exploding against Virginia for three sacks and forcing two fumbles. His sack today got him up to five for the season, and he is looking like the menace that fans saw last season. Okwara said that his confidence in himself and the defense has never wavered.

“We come out here every day and work our hardest to try to be the best defense in the country. Coming out here and having that mindset every day, I think everybody was confident in the game plan,” Okwara said. “We had one of our best weeks of practice coming into this. We were locked in. We knew we had to go out there and play our hardest.”

It’s easy to start looking at the scoreboard and counting the time down until achieving a shutout or something similar, but Okwara did not think a shutout was a possibility until it was secured.

“When the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter. Obviously anything can happen — they can get a fumble and pick it up and run,” Okwara said. “You don’t stop playing until the last down when the clock hit zero, that was when we knew.”

It was the 18th straight game from the Irish giving up 30 or fewer points, pointing once again to Clark Lea’s dominance commanding the defense. Irish head coach Brian Kelly was pleased with his defense’s performance but already has USC on his mind.

“Our defense played well enough to get a shutout. We were superior in terms of players today. We are not going to run around the Gug[lielmino Athletics Complex] all weekend about the shutout. We have it in perspective,” Kelly said. “We did some good things, there’s no doubt. It’s hard to get shutouts in college football. We’ll enjoy it for 24 hours and then get back to USC.”

Even after such a great night, this defense is completely committed to getting better. While Kelly gave out plenty of praise to his defense, he believes there are areas the team needs to improve in to get ready for USC, including becoming a bit less reliant on Okwara and the defensive pass rush in pass defense.

“There’s some things we have to tighten up in coverage. Obviously, we are going to play elite receivers next week. We can’t do some of the things we did today. We’re going to have to tighten some things up,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t particularly pleased with some of the things that happened today and some things that happened on third down, so we’ll clean those things up. We still bring a lot of pressure, and we had pressure on the quarterback that made up for it, but we have to clean those things up.”

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