Game Observations - Defense: Notre Dame Beats North Carolina

Analysis of the Notre Dame defense from the win over North Carolina
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Notre Dame beat North Carolina by a 31-17 score, and a big reason was the brilliant play by the

*** The early game plan against North Carolina wasn’t overly effective, and the result was the Tar Heels twice going right down the field for a touchdown on each of its first two drives. Poor tackling didn’t help the situation, but the defense stayed back with its linebackers and tried to iso cover on the outside, and UNC made the Irish pay with big throws and a long run.

*** After the first two series you started to see defensive coordinator Clark Lea make adjustments. Number one, Lea started being more aggressive with his linebackers. As we got deeper into the first half the UNC ground attack was almost non-existent, and it continued in the second half. North Carolina could get nothing going with its ground game after the first two series, and that played a big role in the strong performance of the defense.

*** Lea then spent the rest of the game mixing up his looks, and the UNC offense couldn’t get a read on what he was doing. They should blitz and smoke, they should show blitz and actually come, they would pressure from base alignments and they mixed up the coverages.

*** As I worked through my notes to put this breakdown together I have "Great call!" written time and time again. This was a masterful defensive coaching performance, and the players executed it at a high level.

*** Notre Dame held North Carolina to a season low in total offense (298 yards), passing yards (211) and rushing yards (87). The Tar Heels were just 2-11 on third-down and had a season-low 14 first downs. The previous low for first downs from this offense was 23.

*** North Carolina has been a brilliant second half team this season, but Notre Dame held the offense to just 78 yards of offense and zero points in the final two quarters.

*** Notre Dame defensive line was a bit spotty early in the game, but they settled down and played well. The issue early was more about the defensive tackles not getting to the ball (although there was some help by non-holding calls). The ends were getting strong penetration early and played extremely well throughout, and the tackles settled in after a rough first two series.

*** In my Midweek Musings article about the defense I noted that a key to this game was stars playing like stars, and made mention of Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji needing to play well, and the veteran ends did just that. Both Hayes and Ogundeji were tremendous in this game.

*** Ogundeji had two sacks, but he had impact pass rushes throughout the game. He forced quarterback Sam Howell out of the pocket on multiple occasions and spent much of the game in the backfield. Ogundeji also dominated in the run game. He was outstanding setting the edge, and he made a huge third-down play where he was actually lined up inside. On that snap Ogundeji chased down the North Carolina back to the perimeter and made the stop for no gain, forcing a punt.

*** Hayes was a terror as a pass rusher in the first half, but he had a strong all-around performance. Like Ogundeji, he was excellent against the run, both as an edge setter and closing hard on the backside. Hayes also had a pass breakup on a snap where he dropped, read the throw and jumped up and got a piece of it.

*** Ogundeji and Hayes finished the game off with a tandem pressure in which Ogundeji finished the play off with a sack, all but ending any hope of a UNC comeback.

*** Notre Dame’s back up ends also handled their business at a high level. Junior Justin Ademilola played with a great motor, was strong against the run and cleaned up a pressure with a sack with Howell. Sophomore Isaiah Foskey had a sack and had one of the best games of his career as a run defender.

*** Senior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa got off to a rough start, missing a tackle that opened up a big play, and the gap assignment wasn’t great early. He settled in and played outstanding football the rest of the way. He had one particular second half pressure where a back got open in the flats, but the MTA pressure forced an off-target throw, forcing a punt.

*** The backup defensive tackles struggled to contain gaps early, but like the veterans they settled in and handled their business.

*** Senior Drew White had a rough start to the game, missing a backside run fit on the first series and missing another tackle attempt in space on a swing play that resulted in a 14-yard gain. When Lea started using his linebackers to be more aggressive, White was one of the beneficiaries. He was outstanding in the final three quarters, attacking downhill, blowing up running lanes and making plays in space. White made play after play at the ball and was an impact defender in this game, once he got settled.

*** One of the big plays of the game was a relatively well designed and well timed quarterback draw play in the fourth quarter. White was dropping into coverage but quickly diagnosed the draw, planted, redirected and flew to the ball, stoning Howell for just a 1-yard gain. Notre Dame got a sack on the next play, which was on a 3rd-and-9.

*** When White was scuffling early, junior Bo Bauer stepped in and played well. Bauer jumped a 1st-and-10 slant throw that resulted in an Ogundeji sack, and on the next play his aggressive run fill forced and early cutback and allowed his teammates to rally to the ball for a shirt 3-yard gain. Bauer continued playing well as White got better, and the play from the Mike position was outstanding for most of the game.

*** Junior starting Buck Shayne Simon had a rough start to the game, and his lack of aggression was an issue on the first long run from the Tar Heels. He also failed to get underneath a curl route in coverage that resulted in another early first down.

*** Sophomore Buck linebacker Marist Liufau had by far his best career performance, and he was another beneficiary of Lea turning the linebackers loose. Lea had Liufau attacking downhill all game, run and pass, and the Hawai’i native was highly disruptive. He had multiple blitzes that blew up UNC pass plays, forcing Howell out of the pocket where Liufau’s teammates were able to clean things up. His athleticism and physicality played a big role in Notre Dame shutting down the Tar Heel offense.

*** Liufau also had several strong run fits that proved impactful, and that was a big change for him and a welcome sign. 

*** Senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had three big mistakes in the game, but outside of that he was impactful and effective. He took an inside angle on a perimeter screen, allowing the wideout to get outside for a big gain, he got sucked inside on an out-cut to a back that should have gone for a big play had it not been for a pressure from the front four that forced an errant pass.

*** The good was Owusu-Koramoah used his speed and playmaking ability to eat up the perimeter for much of the game. He was able to make a lot of plays in space, eating up the perimeter pass plays that UNC relies so much on. Owusu-Koramoah was also effective on the edge, crashing hard and forcing quick cuts in the run game. Lea brought him on a well-designed second quarter pressure that almost resulted in a sack in the end zone, and his ability to blitz from depth and still impact the play is not something you can teach.

*** Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was outstanding early in the game, making six tackles in about a quarter and a half. His ability to close downhill against the run and quick throws helped settle the defense down. Hamilton was ejected in the second quarter for targeting.

*** When Hamilton went down, juniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown were thrust into the lineup and they both handled themselves quite well. Griffith played the alley effectively, jumped routes into his zone and had a big play in the fourth quarter where he read the back going outside, came downhill and pursued, pushing the back out of bounds for just a 1-yard gain.

*** Safety Shaun Crawford had two missed tackles early in the game, but he settled in and played well. He was aggressive coming downhill, and Crawford’s ability to jump routes from the slot and read the in cuts took away a number of throws that Howell wanted to make in the game. Crawford was vocal and seemed to be doing a lot to get the rest of the defense lined up properly.

*** Junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy was beat twice early in the game, once on a fade route (there seemed to be a push off) and again for a 51-yard bomb that set up another score. Bracy is clearly playing with no confidence right now.

*** Freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis was also beat for a big play, but the throw was negated by a holding penalty on a pressure by Hayes. Lewis was inconsistent with his ability to come up and get off blocks, but he got better as the game went on.

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