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Moller: Irish defense needs to improve going forward

| Monday, November 1, 2021

In Saturday night’s 44-34 win over the UNC Tar Heels, the defense had its worst game of the season since the season opener at Florida State where the defense gave up 38 points. While Saturday’s struggles were somewhat expected against a UNC offense led by quarterback Sam Howell, it is no excuse for some of the fundamental mistakes made throughout the game.

One of the biggest issues for the defensive unit on Saturday night was the absence of junior All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton’s presence on the field makes an impact on every play, and it was apparent that the defense suffered greatly because of his absence. This was obviously most apparent in the secondary that surrendered nearly 350 passing yards to the Tar Heels and struggled to contain a talented group of UNC wide receivers. While Hamilton’s replacement, senior safety D.J. Brown, did have one crucial interception early in the fourth quarter, Brown and fellow graduate student safeties Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor could not limit the production of star Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs, who finished the game with an astounding 142 yards off ten receptions.

In addition to the play of the safeties, the cornerback position proved to be a huge issue for the Irish with junior Cam Hart, sophomore Clarence Lewis, senior TaRiq Bracy and junior Ramon Henderson failing to disrupt almost any passing plays that the Irish faced. One of the worst plays of the game for the Irish defense occurred late in the fourth quarter with the Tar Heels facing a third and short near the Irish thirty-yard line. All it took was a play-action fake from Howell, and he found wide receiver Antione Green wide open on the sideline with no Irish defender within ten yards of him. It looked like there was likely some miscommunication that occurred on the play, but there is no excuse for miscues like that at this point in the season, even with one of your best players out. Plays like these are inexcusable, and the Irish will have to clean up these mistakes going forward, especially in two weeks where they face a lethal Virginia passing attack.

When asked about giving up big plays like these, head coach Brian Kelly stressed the need for better coaching surrounding communication going forward.

“We have got to coach it better,” Kelly said. “Our kids should not be put in that position. We have to do a better job.”

While it was expected that the secondary would struggle on Saturday night, the poor play of the defensive line and linebackers at times was very surprising. Although the defensive line was able to record three sacks on the night, they probably should have had more if they had been able to bring down Sam Howell on multiple occasions. Mobile quarterbacks have proven to be difficult for Irish defenses to handle in the past, with former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence giving the Irish lots of problems in last year’s ACC Championship game and the Irish struggling to contain Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Virginia Tech’s Braxton Burmeister this season. There can’t be anything much more demoralizing to a defense than missing a sack and giving up first down yardage, and the Irish did just that with Howell on multiple occasions. Howell finished the game with over 100 rushing yards.

Past the defensive line, the tackling among the linebackers and secondary was also poor last night. There were multiple times that this was noticeable, but arguably the biggest play was late in the fourth quarter when Sam Howell scrambled out of the pocket and ran for a 31-yard touchdown with at least five Irish players missing relatively open-field tackles on Howell. A lot of this can be attributed to a poor game from junior linebacker J.D. Bertrand, who has been lights out for the Irish through the rest of the season. The Irish will need Bertrand and the rest of the linebackers to bounce back against the Navy triple-option attack next week. If the Irish struggle to tackle the Navy quarterback in that game, they could find themselves giving up well over 200 yards on the ground yet again.

Aside from tackling Howell, the Irish also struggled to contain UNC running back Ty Chandler who rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Chandler’s biggest rush of the game was a 53-yard touchdown run where he wasn’t even touched on his way to an easy score. With the amount of talent the Irish have on the defensive side of the ball, plays like this are inexcusable and need to be cleaned up. Giving up big plays like that are the types of plays that can break a defense. The Irish are very fortunate that they were able to hang on and win the game on Saturday night.

While there were times where the run defense was successful, there were also moments in the game that were perplexing. At the end of the first half, the Tar Heels started the ball in their own territory with a minute and a half to play. Surprisingly, they ran the ball three times, gaining 31 yards in the process to get deep into Irish territory. While it’s understandable that the Irish were trying to keep everything in front of them, it doesn’t justify them giving up runs for double-digit yards on multiple occasions. Obviously against Navy, they will be ready for it, but the Midshipmen triple-option attack has improved as of late, and the Irish run defense will have to be better come next Saturday.

Overall, it was a rough night for the Irish defense which was partly due to Kyle Hamilton’s absence. Assuming Hamilton is back next week, that will provide help to an Irish defense that desperately needs a consistent playmaker in the secondary. Beyond that, the Irish will need to focus on tackling and containing the run game because if they can’t do that, the Navy will be able to run up and down the field with their triple-option attack next week.

About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

Contact Nate