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irish insider

Ward: Clark Lea’s defense must eat this week

| Friday, October 16, 2020

Many fans went into Notre Dame Stadium last Saturday skeptical of what they were about to see on the field. Three weeks away from the field did not appear to faze the Irish offense too much. But on the other side of the ball, the Irish defense failed to live up to expectations. Senior defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s absence played a large factor in that. The Irish were able to return sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton from what had appeared to be a gruesome injury but ended up being just an ankle sprain. The defense was not atrocious but the rust or stiffness or whatever you want to call it that the Irish had accumulated from the strange week leading up to the game could be shown in Clark Lea’s squad throughout the night. 

Noles quarterback Jordan Travis threw for more than 200 yards on 13 for 24 against the Notre Dame secondary, which was forced to step up dealing with absences and injuries. That said, it is difficult to assign blame or place judgment anywhere on this defense. The Seminoles were expected to lose the battle in the trenches — bad. Notre Dame did not come away completely empty-handed, posting four sacks on six hurries and nine tackles for a loss, but as Brian Kelly put, it they did not play to their standard. 

There is certainly no fleeting faith in this Clark Lea defense. Kyle Hamilton is awesome, and in just his sophomore year he has a bright future ahead. Fellow defensive back turned safety Shaun Crawford is starting to get into his groove, senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoa has some massive strength and hitting power that was put on display briefly on Saturday and he lines up alongside graduate student and captain Daelin Hayes, who is also coming into his own. 

Last year Notre Dame gave up a lot of chunk plays to Louisville and this was without Malik Cunnigham at quarterback. There is an interesting dynamic between both these teams in that regard. Notre Dame has a great defense, don’t get me wrong, but they have been susceptible to giving up chunk plays for a while now. These plays seem to snowball and often end up in the opposition getting on the scoreboard as well as subsequent drives being affected by the lapse, offensively as well as defensively. 

Louisville, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. They have found success finding brief gaps or weaknesses in a defense, exploiting it, picking up big yardage and then being able to maintain that momentum for quite some time. For example, in their tough 46-27 loss against an uninspiring Georgia Tech team last week, Louisville was able to convert a few unconventional chunk plays that would eventually result in 21 points on three consecutive drives. But they lost their momentum, could they have competed if they kept the ball rolling?

FSU was able to get going early last week thanks to some unforced errors from the Irish. Duke did the same in the opener, and how could you not mention the start against Louisville last year? Could you really look at this game without having that fresh memory in the back of your head if you’re Clark Lea? I don’t think so. But I have full faith in this Irish defense and I sure hope they are able to piece something together this week because whatever happens this week will be of the upmost importance in the scope of this season, specifically for this defense. 

The Irish will probably come away with a win on Saturday — there is little doubt there. But this defense absolutely needs to play to their standard. They simply cannot afford to keep playing at the level they have these past few weeks. The Irish will have two consecutive away games following this matchup against the Cardinals, albeit against less than intimidating opponents in Pitt and Georgia Tech. 

Then it’s Clemson. The Irish can get away with losing this game and still make the CFB Playoffs, but it would be ideal to come into the biggest game of the season with a defense that is prepared and capable of lining up against some of the best talents in college football. If the Irish play Clemson the same way they have been playing against offenses this year, it will not even be a competition. And at that point, even if you do meet Clemson again in the ACC Championship, they came into your house and dominated you. How much does a 52-0 win over South Florida mean if you have proven that you cannot get a leg up on your rivals, in your home stadium nonetheless — even if it isn’t filled to capacity with 80,000 roaring fans? Not much to me. And the scariest thing about the Clemson game is what succeeds it. 

Let’s just assume Notre Dame does lose to Clemson. They will be on the road the next two weeks at Boston College and then at No. 5- ranked UNC. Besides the Clemson game, these are the next two hardest on the schedule. If the Irish defense continues to not play to their fullest of capabilities in these three games … well I’m not going to say it will happen, but I think you can tell where I am going.

That is why a statement weekend for the Irish defense is absolutely necessary. Clemson, UNC and Boston College will all be going through this Louisville game’s film with a fine-tooth comb trying to find exploits in Clark Lea’s defense. A strong showing would not only assert a dominant presence to these teams but in all reality with the fluid situation that is college football right now, each and every game is just as important as the next. For Clark Lea and his defense, a win on the scoreboard would be great, but being able to enforce their will upon an offense that was — at least in the preseason, somewhat highly touted — would be a win that extends leaps and bounds beyond the confines of just this week.

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