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Surging Irish defensive line ‘not done yet’ after six-sack night against USC

| Friday, October 27, 2023

Sofia CrimiVaroli | The Observer
Defensive lineman Rylie Mills (99) grabs Trojan quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during the game between Notre Dame and Southern California at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, October 14, 2023

Notre Dame’s defense was good against USC. Really good.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden’s unit held the explosive Trojans offense to just 20 points while forcing five turnovers. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams threw three interceptions and fumbled another time.

After the game, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said part of the gameplan against Williams was to keep him under consistent pressure from the defensive line. It worked. The line generated six sacks and three more hurries. One of those sacks came from graduate student defensive lineman Nana Osafo-Mensah, who spoke about the defense’s mentality after the dominant display against USC.

“The whole defense is looking at USC as, ‘That has to be our worst game.’ All we can do is come back and do more and more,” Osafo-Mensah said. “No team should score any points on us.”

Fellow graduate student Howard Cross III offered a similar response when asked about where the Irish defense can go from here.

“Everyone in the building knows that this is the standard,” Cross said. “That’s our floor. We can do way more than that, but that is the bare minimum of what we should be doing every game.”

It’s a mindset that comes straight from Golden. When asked about USC, he had little to offer. Instead, he spent the bye week focused on the Pitt Panthers and how the Irish can improve for the game this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We [the defense] have to be better than we were two weeks ago,” Golden said. “That’s where our focus is, on getting better.”

The defensive line has taken that focus to heart throughout the season. Against weaker competition, the unit was getting a lot of pressure but lacked gaudy sack totals. Through four games, Notre Dame had only tallied six sacks. They have nearly doubled that output with 11 sacks in their following four contests.

Their success has been buoyed by several key contributors up front. Some are upperclassmen like Osafo-Mensah, Cross and senior Rylie Mills, who have been wreaking havoc at Notre Dame for several seasons. Others, like graduate transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste, are making themselves known this year.

Jean-Baptiste arrived at Notre Dame in the spring after spending four seasons in Columbus with the Ohio State Buckeyes. At 6’4 and 260 pounds, the Irish brought him in to hopefully replace the output lost on the edges when Isaiah Foskey left for the NFL. While he hasn’t put up Foskey’s historic sack totals, Jean-Baptiste has undoubtedly made an impact, bringing veteran leadership and experience to the defensive line.

Notre Dame’s depth at the defensive line position has also shone through with younger players stepping up. Eight different Irish defensive linemen have recorded a sack this season. Depth is a strength the unit can rely on, and Freeman spoke about constantly rotating players up front to always keep fresh legs on the line against Williams and USC. The veteran Mills pointed out the impact that younger players have had.

“We have guys executing and younger guys stepping up, like Josh [Burnham], Jason Onye, Junior [Tuihalamaka] got in there. It’s great to see that we have depth on the D-line and that we have playmakers,” Mills said before the USC game. “It’s a big deal to have people come out there when their name is called and make a play.”

One guy Mills didn’t mention is true freshman defensive lineman Boubacar Traore. The Boston product earned his first in-game action before the bye and recorded his first career sack and forced fumble right before halftime against USC.

“Boubacar is a really good pass rusher and he’s continuing to develop trust in the coaching staff,” Freeman said Monday. “It’s good to see him put himself in a position to make that play.”

Top to bottom, the Irish defensive line brings talent and depth. They had a slow start to the year, but — following their coordinator’s lead — have gotten better each week. Their six-sack performance against USC serves as a notice for the rest of the college football world that Notre Dame is a force in the trenches. And there’s more to come.

“We’re not done yet,” Osafo-Mensah said. “We have to keep going and going.”

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About José Sánchez Córdova

José is a senior from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico studying political science, French and journalism. He is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer.

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