Grades: Notre Dame Defense vs. Duke

Bryan Driskell

Grades and analysis of the Notre Dame defense from its 38-7 victory over Duke.


Grade: A

How can you not love the way the Notre Dame defense responded to its embarrassing performance against Michigan? Instead of feeling sorry for themselves after that bad night, Notre Dame's defenders responded with back-to-back brilliant performances in which it held both Virginia Tech and Duke to season-lows in a number of very important categories.

Notre Dame not only held Duke to its lowest season totals in first downs (10), rushing yards (95), yards per pass attempt (3.3), yards per pass completion (6.4), total offense (197 yards) and yards per play (3.2), all but the rushing total was Duke’s lowest offensive output since either 2016 or 2017, depending on the category.

When you can dominate an opponent in that many categories, and dominate the ground game and pass game, you’ve had a truly special performance. Duke never really threatened Notre Dame, and it’s only scoring drive covered just 39 yards.

This was a balanced performance from Notre Dame in that it got impact production from all three levels of the defense.

Clark Lea’s game plan was controlled but aggressive, which allowed his players to execute at a high level but didn’t leave them exposed to big plays. Notre Dame attacked, but it was well-timed, with the Irish choosing to use its front four to get a push and allowing the linebackers to flow to the football instead of running a high number of stunts or blitzes.

This clip is an example of what I'm referring to. The front four is aggressive attacking the Duke line on this 3rd-and-2 snap. By not stunting the linebackers, Lea allows them to read the blocks and then attack the ball instead of attacking a pre-determined gap on a run stunt.

Run stunts are great and useful, but in this game Lea didn't employ them as much due to the matchup advantage he had with his defensive line.

By doing this, Notre Dame was able to control the run game, keep quarterback Quentin Harris in the pocket, the secondary took away the quick game, and Harris wasn’t good enough to complete a high number of downfield passes.

The complementary style of the game plan was truly brilliant, and the defensive players executed that plan at a very high level.

Duke had 15 possessions in the game. Six of those possessions ended in three-and-outs, two ended with turnovers and another ended after just four plays.


DE #53 Khalid Kareem - Grade: B — 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL — I gave Kareem my player of the game based on watching the game live, and after breaking things down a case could be made for other players, but that was more about how well his teammates played. Kareem absolutely deserved to be in the conversation based on his outstanding all around play and leadership.

Being a leader is partly about making plays, and Kareem did that against Duke. His ability to get off blocks was top-notch, he was physical at the point fo attack and he was around the ball all night long.

But leadership is also about setting the example with how you play, and Kareem’s hustle tonight was something his teammates were forced to match. We saw him flying out to the sideline against perimeter screens, chasing down plays from the backside and playing with a high motor all night.

DE #42 Julian Okwara - Grade: B — 2 tackles — Seeing Okwara’s Notre Dame playing career end with an injury was heartbreaking. If there can be any consolation to this, Okwara's final play in a Notre Dame uniform was an outstanding pass rush that resulted in him getting a hit on the quarterback, forcing an incompletion.

The senior played good football against Duke, both as a pass rusher and run defender. He did a good job playing disciplined, staying within the structure of the defense and making plays. Okwara had multiple good pressures on sprint out throws, and he was effective on the edge in the run game. He was physical at the point of attack and his block destruction was impressive in the win.

DE #91 Ade Ogundeji - Grade: B — 2 tackles — These statistics do not do justice to how well Ogundeji played against Duke. The senior end was highly impactful in so many different ways. You’ll see him making a key third-down stop in the final clip of this breakdown. He was extremely physical on the edge in the run game, and his block destruction was highly impressive.

Ogundeji showed an excellent burst off the edge as both a run defender and pass rusher. He was playing with a great deal of emotion and swagger, and his fourth down pressure in the second half forced an incompletion that gave the Irish offense the football. Whether it was Kareem or Ogundeji on the field, Notre Dame’s play at strong side end was outstanding.

DE #44 Jamir Jones - Grade: B — 2 tackles — Jones was his usual steady self against Duke. He was solid on the edge in the run game, and his aggressive play off the ball on twists made them highly effective. You’ll see an example of what I’m talking about below in the clip showing Jayson Ademilola’s run stop.

Jones had an impressive quick inside twist on a third-down play in the third quarter that resulted in him drilling the quarterback and forcing an errant throw.

DT #95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa - Grade: B- — 2 tackles, 0.5 TFL — Tagovailoa-Amosa did a lot of good things against Duke. He had an outstanding run stop on a 2nd-and-1 play in the second quarter, using his quickness to twist around and make the stop. Duke had a hard time landing his quickness all game long, and Tagovailoa-Amosa held up quite well against double teams. His pass rush was strong and he was gap sound.

My only knock on him, and the reason why he got a B- instead of a higher grade, is that Tagovailoa-Amosa wasn’t quite as good at getting off blocks and getting to the ball carrier as others up front were. Had he been better there his grade would have been a B+.

With that being said, the combination of Tagovailoa-Amosa and Ademilola was quite dominant in this game.

DT #57 Jayson Ademilola - Grade: A — 5 tackles — The sophomore had arguably the best game of his career against Duke. The Blue Devil blockers had a nightmare of a night trying to contain Ademilola, who had a brilliant 23.1-percent run stop rate according to PFF. Ademilola used his quickness and athleticism to make plays all game long.

You can see an example in this clip. Being able to loop around on this stunt and still get to the running back requires two things. One is it requires help from his teammates to throw off the timing of the run, and you can see Jones do that here. It also requires an athletic and instinctive more from Ademilola, and we see that as well.

Ademilola wasn’t just using his quickness to make plays. He was physical at the point of attack and held up quite well against double teams. His pass rush was as good as I’ve seen it since he’s been at Notre Dame. According to PFF, Ademilola tied for the team lead in run stops despite having 11, 12 and 16 fewer snaps than the players he was tied with.

DT #41 Kurt Hinish - Grade: C+ — Hinish wasn’t overly impactful, but he did his job relatively well in the game. He was physical at the point of attack, held his ground and got a push at times, but like Tagovailoa-Amosa he didn’t get off blocks and make any plays on the ball.

DT #55 Ja'mion Franklin — 1 tackle — Franklin didn't play many snaps (9), but he made his presence felt in those snaps. Franklin held up well at the point of attack, which should be expected. What stood out to me was how many times he got into the Duke backfield. His quickness at the snap was impressive.

LB #22 Asmar Bilal - Grade: B+ — 5 tackles, 0.5 TFL — Bilal had yet another strong performance, continuing his final season surge. He did a little bit of everything against Duke, which is why Pro Football Focus put him on their Team of the Week list.

Bilal was aggressive attacking downhill on run stunts and on read plays. He was decisive, did a good job getting off blocks and cleaned up action near the line of scrimmage. His play to the sideline stood out, and he made multiple plays scraping across from the backside.

Bilal was also effective in coverage, taking away throwing lanes, being tight in coverage against the Duke running backs and he had a strong pressure that resulted in a hit on the quarterback.

LB #40 Drew White - Grade: B- — 7 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack — White wasn’t quite as disciplined as Bilal, but he made a lot of plays. The junior was aggressive and physical all night long, and when he played under control he was a force against the run. While there were plays I felt he fit incorrectly, he was still cleaner than we’ve seen him in the past, which shows he continues to improve as he gets more experience.

White was good downhill between the tackles, did a nice job closing off cutback lanes and his perimeter pursuit was impressive.

LB #6 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - Grade: A- — 6 tackles, 1.5 TFL’s, 2 break ups — Owusu-Koramoah was outstanding in the win over Duke, and he was the runner up for player of the game honors from me. I think a strong case could be made that he was, in fact, Notre Dame’s most impactful defender in the win.

Owusu-Koramoah was a beast in space for the Irish defense. His perimeter support against the run was top-notch, and his playmaking in the pass game was as good as it’s been all season. Early in the game he all but ended a Duke drive by himself. On first down he blew up a swing pass to the back, causing a 4-yard loss. On the very next play he had an excellent open field tackle of the tight end to force a third-and-long.

Duke had no answer for his perimeter speed, but his playmaking in coverage is where his game showed the most growth. There were several snaps where Duke had to look away from the man he was covering, and when Duke did try to throw the ball at him he made plays like this:

S #11 Alohi Gilman - Grade: B+ — 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble — In the offensive grades I mentioned how Chris Finke was getting back to the 2018 version of himself, and the same is true for the veteran safeties, which includes Gilman. The senior had a strong all-around performance, making plays in the run game, plays in the pass game and his tackling was sound.

Gilman played under control and within the structure of the defense, which helped him actually make more impact plays than he has in most games this season. Not only did he directly make plays, like an excellent open-field tackle on a tunnel screen in the first quarter, but he also helped others make plays thanks to his ability to play within the defense.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Gilman doesn’t make this play, but he does a lot of impressive things on this snap that helps the play get made by someone else. To begin with, Gilman makes a strong read and flies to the play side despite starting the snap backside. At first you can see he wants to make a play on the ball, but he knows he cannot allow the quarterback to get outside, so he sacrifices his ability to make the tackle and shoots across the face of the tight end, forcing the quarterback back inside where the help was.

Outside of one missed tackle and a bad run fit on the first play of the third quarter, this was a clean and strong performance from the veteran safety.

S #21 Jalen Elliott - Grade: B- — 6 tackles — Elliott had an early missed tackle and he gave up the inside too easily on a fourth-down conversion in the third quarter, but outside of that he played good football. His coverage was solid, he tackled well and he showed good alley support.

S #14 Kyle Hamilton - Grade: B — 2 tackles — Either Hamilton wasn’t around the ball much or Duke tried to avoid him. The use of Shaun Crawford as the fourth safety in the rotation also limited his snaps. His 24 snaps against Duke tied for his lowest total of the season.

Hamilton still managed to stand out. He had an impressive open field tackle of a cut back run in the first half that would have gone for a long gain if he doesn’t make the play. Early in the season he came up out of control in those situations, sometimes making the tackle and sometimes missing it. On this particular play, he was aggressive but under control, which allowed him to make the tackle for a short gain.

S #3 Houston Griffith — 1 break up — Griffith didn’t get much action (7 snaps), but he looked really good in those limited snaps. He was aggressive coming up in run support, and his technique and leverage was perfect on a fourth-down coverage snap in which he broke up the pass, ending Duke’s final drive.

CB #5 Troy Pride Jr. - Grade: A- — 6 tackles, 1 INT — Pride had one of his better games of the season. The early third quarter interception was huge, but he was impactful throughout the night. The only catches he allowed were in front of him in off coverage. Whenever Duke tried to attack him downfield, Pride was all over the wideouts and forced incompletions, or the quarterback was forced to look somewhere else.

Pride was also strong in run support. He had a second quarter missed tackle on a swing pass, but outside of that he was very good at coming up and forcing the ball back inside, he got off blocks better than he has for most of the season, and his aggressiveness resulted in him engaging blockers much closer to the line.

CB #8 Donte Vaughn - Grade: B- — 1 tackle, 1 break up — Vaughn got beat for a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and on the snap he was sloppy with his footwork, which allowed the receiver to get on top of him. That dragged his grade down, but outside of that the senior cornerback played well.

Every other pass attempt in his direction fell incomplete, and his third quarter pass break up on fourth down killed a Duke drive. Vaughn was tight in coverage, strong in run support and he played with confidence. For the second straight game we saw a version of Donte Vaughn that we have not seen since his freshman season, and it’s no surprise that Notre Dame’s pass defense has been so good in each performance.

In the three games that Vaughn has started, opposing quarterbacks are completing just 45.2-percent of their passes. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just five of their 14 attempts against Vaughn for 72 yards. Vaughn has four pass break ups in those three games.

CB #28 TaRiq Bracy - Grade: B — 2 tackles, 1 fumble recovery — Bracy also played top-notch football against Duke. He was excellent in coverage, which is expected, but I also liked how physical he was coming up in run support.

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Comments (7)
No. 1-3

That pass break up by Owusu-Koramoah was one a DB would make. Love that Rover position and specifically love the dynamics JOK brings to the position.

I'm more and more impressed by Lea with every game. The only bad game I can point to was the Michigan game and his defense has responded with two dominating performances. Tells me a lot.


Lea knows he has a lot more to learn before considering stepping in to the hot seat at any school. He has the potential to be a successful head coach, but he needs some more seasoning...


Great evaluations. Hope they match up well against the Midshipmen. Have I told you lately how much I love Coach Lea? Could you see him being a head coach at ND with the right assistants? Not today but in a couple of years? I just think he has the right stuff.