Ladd: Al Golden’s defense attempts to play savior this season as Irish offense struggles on road
Madeline Ladd | Monday, November 6, 2023
It was not a pretty sight in Death Valley for Notre Dame. This year’s Irish team looks like an entirely different team at home versus away. Rivaling Louisville in terms of poor performance, the offense looked jumbled and predictable as their veteran leader Sam Hartman appeared out of place in the pocket. The graduate student was sacked twice and completed only 43% of his passes against the Tigers. In the past three road games, Hartman has thrown two touchdowns against five interceptions. He has also taken a total of nine sacks.
The hopeful quarterback who was supposed to be the best Notre Dame signal caller in a decade has not felt much different than quarterbacks in seasons past recently. Despite the increased media coverage and recognition Hartman has brought to Notre Dame, he has fallen short on the road in times when the Irish needed him to step up. This is probably not surprising to Irish fans given our record with quarterbacks. But I think the Notre Dame fanbase was all hopeful that “Hartmania” would come with buckets of success.
Perhaps the silver (some may say “golden”) lining of all this has been the high level of play of the Notre Dame defense led by defensive coordinator Al Golden. The expectations this year were for an explosive offense. But in reality, it is Golden’s defense who have led the way for the Irish and encapsulated the identity of the team. Golden was under fire for the defense’s performance last year. But he has seen a resurgence this year with a defense ranked seventh in the nation, up from 21st last year.
This improvement is due to several factors, especially in red zone defense. The Irish are fifth in the country. Last year, they ranked a lowly 129th, besting only Rutgers. Senior safety Xavier Watts leads the nation with seven interceptions. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary’s leadership has built the defensive backfield into one of the best in the nation, led by Watts and cornerbacks sophomore Ben Morrison and senior Cam Hart.
Though a mistimed safety blitz cost the Irish a big touchdown early in the first quarter yesterday and the run defense was not quite up to par, they could only do so much to try and overcome the lackluster performance by Hartman and the offense. Junior running back Audric Estimé successfully gashed the Clemson defense for 82 yards in the first half. But he only had three carries the rest of the way.
There is a lot of blame that to place for the Irish’s downfall yesterday. But I don’t think it should be on the defense. The defense held Clemson to under 300 yards despite being beaten up at times by explosive running back Phil Mafah. Nevertheless, the defense forced five punts and a late fumble in the second half, essentially giving the offense plenty of chances to score and claim an Irish lead. Golden seemed to have made the right calls to do enough for a win.
Senior defensive lineman Rylie Mills notched eight total tackles and a key fumble recovery. Graduate student linebacker Jack Kiser led the Irish with nine total tackles on Saturday. The defense certainly has kept the Irish in all games this year by covering up offensive woes, this game included. When it comes down to it, Golden’s elite defense is being wasted on an offense that cannot seem to contribute meaningfully on the road.
With many of the defensive starters being seniors, Notre Dame’s performance could drop on that side of the ball next year. On top of that, Golden’s success could shorten longevity with the Irish. Will Golden stay to see another year with the Irish, or will he move to greener pastures in the NFL? Perhaps a head coaching gig in college? Only time will tell. With two regular-season games left, the Irish have lost much to play for but their pride and the opportunity to get younger players into the rotation to gain the experience to carry into next season. Win or lose, Golden’s work with the defense has been a key component for the Irish this season that should not go unnoticed.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.