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Irish defense underlines Notre Dame’s success at Stanford

| Tuesday, December 3, 2019

In a season with some unexpected twists, and probably the same amount of expected narratives, the final game seemed to encapsulate that which Notre Dame is and has been for the past two seasons on the field: a team which builds primarily from its defensive prowess. 

Stanford’s first offensive drive, the first drive of the contest, cast a gloomy shadow on the high expectations of a Notre Dame squad poised to buck the recent trend of its games in Northern California. Stanford junior quarterback Davis Mills was flawless in the air, going five-for-five with 71 yards and a touchdown pass. The Irish defense appeared lackluster, unable to establish firm coverage over the middle and too slow to close out the corners. And with these shortcomings, others followed. Although the offense responded with a score, it was not until the defense got back on its feet that the offense could really shine. 

The defensive special teams unit, specifically freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey, recorded a key blocked punt in the second quarter which ultimately reversed the momentum in favor of the Irish for the rest of the contest. And, clearly having made half time adjustments, the Irish defense came out in the second half with a new, sleeker look. The unit forced Stanford to go three and out three times in the third quarter, holding Mills and company to no scores, and offering the offense the time it needed to catch its breath, make big plays and run with the momentum for the rest of the contest. 

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Irish senior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem jumps over the line to try to swat a pass during Notre Dame’s 45-24 win over Stanford on Nov. 30 at Stanford Stadium.

After the game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly spoke to those adjustments and to the efficiency of defensive coordinator Clark Lea. 

“I think what he really does well is adapt in game to situations. There’s a lot of good teaching that goes on, really good communication,” he said. “And so I think that that is one of his strengths in, as I listen to the communication, I think it’s clear and concise and can be replicated back to the young men.

“There’s not a lot of yelling and screaming. There’s a lot of clear communication that can be brought down to the sideline and kids can make those adjustments when necessary and that’s the mark of a really good leader.” 

Specifically, Kelly said the unit adjusted to Mills’ spot passing during halftime, and it came out with a better awareness of its situation. 

“Defensively, I think what happened for us more than anything else, they were into some spot passing game and we had to really make some adjustments at halftime, which we did, and kept the ball in front of us,” he said. “We went into some more drop eight, and I think that was pretty effective for us in the second half.” 

Senior defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji reaffirmed Kelly’s thoughts after the game, saying that the defense came into the second half with a better plan. 

“They made some plays, made some throws down the field on us in the first half,” he said. “And then we had to adjust in the, during the halftime and make some an adjustments. We went out there, we understood the game plan, saw our mistakes and then went out there and played.

“Just, we knew they were going to pass the ball a lot. And they were passing it on the perimeter and things like that, so we knew we had to get to the pass, get to the rush, get to the quarterback, make plays and then just get BD’s and that’s what we did in the second half.”

Ogundeji also said the defense knew Stanford’s offensive line was on the younger side, and when the unit made those adjustments, it took advantage of its edge in that respect. 

“We knew they had some freshmen in there and they had some injury issues like us, but we knew we could take advantage of it,” he said. “So we got some senior guys who stepped up and some younger guys who stepped up and so we knew we had to step up and make some big plays.”

Junior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah also said pressuring the quarterback and a heightened awareness of Stanford’s first half passing tendencies were key in establishing dominance in the second half. 

“Well, the key was to just stop them by getting to the quarterback, first and foremost, because it’s third down,” he said. “We were kind of looking at trying to get inside leverage and trying to adjust our leverages and trying to give them different looks to alter our stops.” 

In the end, the Irish did what it does best to close the season with 10 wins once again. The offense finished efficiently, but it what happened on the field for the Irish started with the defense, and such a change seems emblematic of Notre Dame’s strengths in recent years.

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