It started off brilliant, had a lot of ugly in the middle, but finished off well as Notre Dame's defense did what it needed to do late to help the Irish win 41-38 to start the 2021 season. Here are my immediate defensive observations.
*** This certainly wasn't the debut that first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman wanted from his unit. Evaluating the defense from the opener is, well, challenging. At times the defense was absolutely dominant, at times the defense was mistake prone, unsound and gave up too many big plays. There is a lot Freeman and staff will have to clean up but also a lot to build on.
*** The biggest issue was the inability to consistently contain FSU quarterback Jordan Travis and the big plays the Irish allowed in the run game, and then later in the game they couldn't stop McKenzie Milton. Notre Dame had far too many assignment mistakes, missed tackles and the second team defense didn't play as effectively as the first. That was another issue, at times in the first half Notre Dame made almost wholesale personnel changes instead of mixing and matching, and Florida State's first two scores came against the group made up mostly of second team guys, despite a few of them playing quite well.
*** Notre Dame was versatile all night long, mixing between four-down looks and three-down looks, 3-4 personnel and 4-3 personnel and nickel personnel. It worked out well early in the game but as Florida State got a read on what Notre Dame was doing they started to take advantage. The Irish staff didn't make the kind of adjustments needed in the second half and Florida State just kept pounding them, mixing up perimeter runs with quick hitters to their patient backs, and then throwing in some effective slow-developing play-actions and RPOs that allowed the quarterback to get the ball out in space.
*** The defense stepped up in overtime to help secure the win, but there is a lot to work on this week, and the Irish have a short week. I would expect the staff to do a lot of form tackling drills this week and for them to work on tackling angles, two hours that were really poor tonight.
*** Up front the defensive line wore down, but it was also incredibly disruptive. The two immediate standouts were Jayson Ademilola inside and Isaiah Foskey on the outside. Ademilola was disruptive all night long and Foskey was a monster on the edge. Both wore down a bit like the rest of the line, but they made a lot of plays. Foskey finished the night with 8 tackles and 2 sacks.
*** The second team defensive line struggled with gap integrity for much of the night, but before I dive too much into that I need to watch more film.
*** Linebacker play was all over the place. Mike linebacker Drew White was outstanding in the first half but there was hesitancy from him and the rest of the linebackers in the second half as they struggled to get a read on what Florida State was doing.
*** JD Bertrand made 11 tackles in his first career start, and although he has some angle and tackling things to clean up I was impressed by his performance. He was aggressive and physical all night long.
*** Bo Bauer struggled a lot in pass coverage, as did Isaiah Pryor. Bauer also seemed out of place too often in the run game, but I want to watch more film to really get a view on that. Bauer didn't do a good job getting to his zone and finding receivers. Pryor really struggled in the pass game when he wasn't blitzing. He played hard but failed to get outside to his zone on many drops and at times allowed guys to just get wide open. He also bit too hard inside on a bootleg that resulted in a touchdown.
*** The safety play was brilliant at times and awful at times, and that's true for both Kyle Hamilton and Houston Griffith.
*** Hamilton made two huge interceptions in the game, and the second was especially brilliant. Notre Dame actually blew a coverage when the quarterback scrambled and turned the receiver loose. Hamilton saw it, came off the hash and made a brilliant play on the ball for the interception, which set up a score. He also whiffed on a tackle on the 89-yard touchdown run and was beat badly on a corner route in the fourth quarter that set up a FSU score. Hamilton also got caught peaking inside on an early pass that went for big yards but a penalty on the offense negated it.
*** Griffith got torched for a touchdown on a play where he was late to react to the wide fade route and he wasn't fast enough to catch up. That kind of mistake can't happen in that situation, but Griffith was aggressive in the run game and was one of the better tacklers on the night. He is a senior and has to be more consistent, and Hamilton can't make those kinds of mistakes, but both also showed playmaking ability in the win. Griffith especially needs to clean up his footwork a bit in coverage.
*** For the most part the corners played very good football. Like the rest of the defense they wore down late and it impacted their tackling, but they were sticky in coverage all night long. The FSU offense went after the safeties and linebackers for much of the night and had very little success against the corners. Cam Hart was really good from what I could tell, as were Clarence Lewis and TaRiq Bracy. Ramon Henderson got some action and Florida State didn't challenge him.
*** The corners, like the rest of the defense, cannot have the tackling mistakes we saw late in the game.
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