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Lack of turnovers a concerning trend as Irish prep for more explosive offenses

| Monday, October 12, 2020

Leading by 16, Notre Dame’s defense was digging in their heels, hoping for another big red zone stop, one that has become almost expected from their bend-but-don’t-break defense in 2020. Florida State, led by new starting quarterback Jordan Travis, had pushed a fatigued Irish defense all night, to the tune of 26 points — doubling the 13 Notre Dame had allowed in their prior two games combined.

On third and goal from the Notre Dame 5-yard line, Travis took the shotgun snap and rolled left, firing a pass that was picked off by Shaun Crawford. The interception lead to a clock-draining, game-icing 6-and-a-half minute drive that sealed Notre Dame’s 42-26 win over the Seminoles. It was a satisfying way to end what had been a relatively long and at times sloppy game in Notre Dame’s return to the gridiron after a three-week layoff. 

It was also *checks notes* Notre Dame’s first interception of the year?

We’re talking about the vaunted Irish defense, which had given up just 13 points in two games and been the major reason Notre Dame escaped a week 1 challenge against Duke. But yet, no turnovers. 

This lack of turnovers has not hurt the Irish tremendously yet. But, to be fair, they’ve played Duke, South Florida and Florida State, three squads which have combined for a 3-10 record so far this season. It hasn’t exactly been a Murderer’s Row of Offenses that Notre Dame has faced, yet they’ve struggled to get off the field.

Notre Dame Athletics
Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton tackles the ball carrier and attempts to force a fumble during Notre Dame’s 42-26 win over Florida State Saturday night. The win over the Seminoles included the first interception of the season for the Irish, just their third forced turnover on the year.

In two of three contests, the Irish have actually lost the time of possession battle, and against the Seminoles on Saturday, the Irish also lost the turnover battle. Traditionally, these are two facets of the game you need to win, but Notre Dame has escaped, largely due to a strong offense and weak opponents. That will need to change soon. 

The road to an undefeated clash with Clemson looks a lot clearer now for the Irish. Louisville has been horrible, as has Georgia Tech, and Pitt’s two-game losing streak has the Panthers looking a lot less intimidating. Escape those three opponents, and the Irish will welcome Clemson to South Bend, for what could be a top-3 matchup (given that Alabama and Georgia play next week).

And if Clemson comes to Notre Dame and wins the turnover battle and is on the field for 32 minutes — like Florida State was tonight — the Irish will be lucky to stay within two possessions. For those who missed it, Clemson manhandled No. 7 Miami Saturday night 42-17, and they haven’t given up more than 23 points to an ACC team since 2017. Notre Dame has set up a sustainable approach on offense, but they aren’t going to drop 42 points on Clemson, and they absolutely have to start creating turnovers. 

To be fair, circumstances have been extremely strange. The game against Duke was the opener, and rust was inevitable. USF presented a run-heavy approach and Notre Dame played solid defense against the pass, just not perfect. And today, after a three week layoff, Notre Dame was still playing guys out of position — like Crawford re-manning a corner spot — with other matchup guys like Nick McCloud questionable up until game time. Brian Kelly even admitted that the defense on Saturday showed some fatigue, given the quick ramp-up to gameday readiness, as the Irish regained their players from quarantine and isolation.

“Look, we had to push them hard this week. It wasn’t ideal in terms of optimal game readiness,” Kelly noted. “We were a little tired. But we had to do it to get them game ready. You could see there was a little bit of fatigue defensively; we were falling off some tackles” 

But regardless of the situation, a national championship remains the goal, and such extenuating circumstances will exist all season. The excuses can always be around, but for the Irish, they need their consistent execution to be a constant as well.

Tonight, as Kelly said, they didn’t have it, and they learned how to win with their ‘B or C’ game. That’s all great when you’re playing a miserable Florida State team that is 1-3 on the year, but B and C won’t be enough against Clemson. And after watching UNC slap 56 points on Virginia Tech Saturday, it might not be enough against the Tar Heels either.

Notre Dame has some work to do if they want to secure a berth in the ACC Championship. For me, the adjustment period has to be over. Against Louisville next week, Notre Dame’s offense should have no issue putting up points against a Cardinals’ defense that has about as much resistance as soft cheese to a knife. Notre Dame needs to make a statement however.

They may be able to win another 42-26 type of game, but this is a game they need to win 42-7 or 42-10. They need to prove they can keep Louisville off the field, and give Irish fans a little more hope on the defensive side of the ball. Between the massive hits of JOK in the backfield, to the spectacular coverage work by McCloud, Kyle Hamilton, Crawford and others, this defense has absurd potential, but it appears to be relatively untapped through three games. 

So the mission for Notre Dame? Do not let a strong offense set the bar for what the defense needs to do. Against an offense like Florida State, the Irish shouldn’t let up more than 13-14 points. Clemson hasn’t allowed more than 23 points in a conference game since 2017, and that consistency has enabled their massive regular season winning streak.

Their duel with the Tigers is fast approaching, and if Notre Dame can’t figure out how to force turnovers and get off the field, they could be in for a long November night in Notre Dame Stadium.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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