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Football

McGinley: Stellar performance does not mean the defense is done

| Wednesday, September 29, 2021

For anyone who has said that defense doesn’t win big games in reference to Notre Dame football: I give you the 2021 Shamrock Series.

This current defense could run circles around the Irish defense from week one. I mean, twice now we’ve seen the Irish head into a game that should’ve been the closest game yet and come out more and more significantly on top. Both times, the credit goes directly to defense-heavy fourth quarters that put the game on ice.

Against Purdue, the Irish defense allowed the offense to work and simply kept the Purdue offense at bay. But in the Shamrock Series, that seemed to take a turn for the worse after Jack Coan left the game injured, Wisconsin took the lead and Drew Pyne had the ball stripped early in his appearance. The Irish defense turned it around and placed the game in the middle of a mile-wide glacier.

In my game prediction, I said the Irish needed to shut down the run game, something they hadn’t proven themselves at yet, and they did just that. The Wisconsin running back corps had 352 yards in their win against Eastern Michigan and 174 yards despite falling to Penn State the week before that. The Irish limited them to only 74 yards on the day, though. Junior linebackers JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser lead the tackles with 7.5 and 6, respectively. Backed by senior brothers linebacker and defensive lineman Justin and Jayson Ademilola, who helped to hold the line with four tackles each, these four, with Hart’s lead, maintained a tight defense.

The passing defense was even better than in the Purdue game as well. Without a successful run option to turn to, the passing answers grew slim, too, for the Badgers as quarterback Mertz was put to the test. Two late interceptions by junior safety Kyle Hamilton and senior safety DJ Brown against Purdue became four interceptions against Wisconsin, two of which were pick-sixes as Mertz threw away the game, quite literally.

The Irish defense was the definition of grit as they took advantage of that fact. Irish junior cornerback Cam Hart got a pass interference call. Instead of getting in his head, he turned around almost immediately to step inside and make a beautiful interception on the same kind of play. He kept up the level of intensity and focus graduate student nose guard Kurt Hinish said would be necessary against Purdue and carried it through to this match-up with Wisconsin.

That isn’t to say the offense and special teams didn’t meet this energy. Despite fumbling early, Pyne came back out onto the field and, off of the high that was Hart’s interception, sent senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. to the house off a 16-yard touchdown pass. Junior punter Jay Bramblett and sophomore running back Chris Tyree were successful on both sides of the ball for special teams. Consistently, week to week Notre Dame special teams have had the edge on their opponents. That has yet to be a concern (*she writes frantically, doing every superstitious protection she knows*).

The question is, will all of this be enough against a Cincinnati offense that has run up the score in all three of their games so far this season? Three things have to happen for the Irish to come away with another win this weekend.

The defense cannot have lulled themselves into complacency. The squad played at a new level against the Badgers. Nothing will change that. They need to be just as focused and on their game this weekend as they were against Wisconsin, though. If the pass interference call comes, remember the play and defend it better the second time as Hart did. Being that careful and that precise will make or break the game because Desmond Ritter is not Graham Mertz.

Yes, they have the same number of interceptions on the season with six each. Ritter will not cave and start to throw the ball away unless he is really under pressure. He can make the long pass and he knows it. His guys know how to get open. His ability will be much closer to something like Plummer’s. The only difference? Ritter can take off on his own, so this will be tougher.

Kelly cannot fall asleep to a lullaby of his history with Cincinnati, either. Yes, Kelly just beat Knute Rockne’s win record. You don’t reach an achievement like that if you aren’t a highly skilled coach. Despite that, he may feel he knows the Cincinnati program well enough to feel comfortable this game. That lens won’t work this weekend. If anything, facing a team Kelly practically built should light a fire under him. But the Irish cannot pretend they know them. Kelly may have built the program, but it has grown. Cincinnati is a new beast, not to be underestimated. They’ve made that very clear over the last two years. And no one has a concrete estimate for them yet.

Most importantly, the offense has to step up. I’m looking at you, offensive line. Whether it be Coan, Pyne or Buchner in the pocket, they need time to do their job. They cannot worry about three, four, potentially five sacks coming down on them within one half of play. The defense has found their footing, but they really can only do so much. While they set the bar high for what ‘so much’ looks like, defense alone may not cut it this weekend. All three quarterbacks have started to get their footing under them, but they can’t do so fully until the O-line well-establishes the stability in their stance. If they can do that, it will open a window (no pun intended) for the run game as well. After only three rushing yards this weekend, the Irish could afford to have that weapon back.

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