Week 3 Notre Dame football grades: Irish secondary takes control late
Tyler Reidy | Wednesday, September 13, 2023
For the third consecutive week, Notre Dame football turned in a commendable performance on defense and special teams. And for the first time this season, it did so against a Power Five opponent. In Saturday’s 45-24 victory at NC State, the Irish limited the Wolfpack to 344 total yards, including just 84 on the ground. Notre Dame also picked off sixth-year quarterback Brennan Armstrong three times, completely inverting the game’s second-half momentum. Factor in a school-record field goal and a mediocre game for Wolfpack returns, and evaluating the Irish defense and special teams comes with plenty of positives.
All afternoon, NC State couldn’t generate much of anything on the ground. For the third consecutive week, the Irish held their opponent to less than three yards per carry, slowing the Wolfpack to 84 yards on 30 attempts. Led by graduate student Howard Cross, Notre Dame consistently won in the trenches and clogged up lanes. Cross spent plenty of time in NC State’s backfield, finishing with five tackles and making an impact all game.
On the flip side, Notre Dame sacked Armstrong just once on 50-plus dropbacks. But the mobile quarterback couldn’t improvise much beyond his first passing touchdown of the day. And in terms of metrics, Notre Dame’s defensive line is still in great shape. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Irish have the fifth-best pressure rate in America. Though the results may not show it, head coach Marcus Freeman believes plenty of sacks are on the way.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: Low A-
The assignment was clear for Notre Dame linebackers: limit Armstrong’s potent rushing game. In week one, the Wolfpack signal-caller had racked up 96 yards and two touchdowns at 5.1 yards per carry. On Saturday, he was bottled up from the get-go. The Irish slowed Armstrong to 26 yards on 12 carries, spying him especially well in passing scenarios.
Four different linebackers finished with at least four tackles, including sophomore Junior Tuihalamaka for the first time in his career. Graduate student Jack Kiser paced the group with six tackles, with fellow graduate students JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau each adding five more. Bertrand and Liufau were particularly effective in Al Golden’s blitz schemes, consistently hurrying Armstrong. The group as a whole consistently made sure tackles in the open field. Finally, not a single defensive penalty went against the Irish linebackers, making for a strong evaluation.
Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: High A-
A reasonable argument can be made that the Irish secondary blew the game wide open. At worst, it changed the trajectory of the game significantly. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison secured his first pick of the season in one-on-one coverage and nearly snatched another on an unsuccessful tackle for loss. Meanwhile, graduate student safety Thomas Harper, who made a team-high seven tackles and two pass breakups, thrived early on as well.
But the secondary fell back to earth right before halftime. On NC State’s first scoring drive of the afternoon, defensive backs accounted for 21 penalty yards, including 15 on an extracurricular unsportsmanlike conduct foul against Morrison. Then, midway through the third quarter, the Wolfpack burned graduate student corner Cam Hart on a 38-yard deep shot. The ensuing touchdown narrowed the Irish lead to 24-17.
Two plays later, a strip sack deep in Irish territory placed the Pack 17 yards from a tie game. But the Irish secondary stood tall, denying two immediate shots to the end zone. NC State would go three-and-out, missing a 34-yard field goal and handing momentum back over to Notre Dame. On the Wolfpack’s next drive, senior safety Xavier Watts snagged his first career interception, setting up an Irish touchdown. The next drive gave way to an interception by graduate student safety DJ Brown, who made a perfect break on the ball over the middle.
Overall, Armstrong struggled to move the ball through the air. His 46.8% completion percentage marked his worst in over a year, and his 260 passing yards appeared unimpressive given a career-high 47 attempts. Notre Dame also owned the 50-50 ball, limiting NC State to three catches on 14 contested balls. As a wise man once said, the Irish secondary faced a test and exceeded expectations.
Weekly Grade: A; Season Grade: High B+
Marty Biagi’s group enjoyed another largely successful day at the office. Defensively, the Irish limited all runbacks well and forced a fumble on a second-quarter kick return. In addition to his six-for-six showing on extra points, graduate kicker Spencer Shrader drilled the longest field goal in program history, a 54-yarder which opened the scoring late in the first quarter. Though he hit the left upright from 56 yards later on, he again provided more than enough distance. On the topic of distance, sophomore punter Bryce McFerson averaged more than 50 yards on his boots. His second kick of the afternoon traveled a career-best 59 yards in the air.
Kiser accounted for the only Irish blemish on special teams. With the play clock running low on a second-quarter fourth-and-four, he attempted to time the snap but jumped offside, handing the Wolfpack a first down. But the Notre Dame defense made Kiser’s rare mistake forgettable, allowing NC State to gain just three additional yards after the foul.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: Low A-