Key Takeaways From Notre Dame's Win Over Louisville: Defense
Notre Dame’s 12-7 victory over Louisville can be seen as sloppy or outstanding, depending on which side of the ball you are focusing on. The takeaways from the offense in the victory are mostly not pretty, but the defense played excellent football for much of the game.
Here are my key takeaways from the Irish victory over the Cardinals.
STAFF SHOWS THE ABILITY TO MAKE QUICK CHANGES
Notre Dame gave up 26 points to a Florida State team that really had no business scoring that much against the Irish. Those games happen from time to time, but what separates the good coaches from the best coaches, and the good units from the top units is the ability to identify the mistakes or problems, address them, and then coach the players up in a way that allows them to carry out those corrections.
Against Louisville, Notre Dame faced an offense that attacked the defense in many similar ways to how Florida State went at them, and with far more effective weapons, but this time the Irish were ready, and they played at a high level. During the week, head coach Brian Kelly said that defensive coordinator Clark Lea was going to simplify things, and that was evident. This wasn’t just about the players playing better, which they did, it was also about coaches making quick adjustments and putting together a strong game plan that not only took away what the opponent did best, but one that was built around what his players do best.
The offensive staff should take notes.
Notre Dame held Louisville to just 104 rushing yards, its second lowest total of the Scott Satterfield era. The Irish also didn’t shut down the run game at the expense of giving up big plays in the pass game. The Irish mixed up their coverages, the safety play improved and the cornerbacks bounced back. Notre Dame had a clear plan to handle Louisville’s bootleg package, and for the most part they completely shut down the aspects of the Cardinal offense that were most dangerous.
At the end of the day, Notre Dame held the Louisville offense to its lowest point total of the Satterfield era and its second-lowest yardage total. This coming after its worst performance of the season, and worst performance since last October. That is called excellent coaching and learning.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES DOMINATED THE RUN GAME
Cardinal running back Javian Hawkins came into the weekend as the No. 2 leading rusher in the nation, which came a year after he racked up 1,525 yards on the ground. Against Notre Dame, however, Hawkins had his lowest career rushing total as a starter. Hawkins went for just 51 yards on 15 carries. Hawkins had runs of 28 and 14 yards in the game, both in the fist half, which meant his other 13 carries went for a combined nine yards.
A big part of the defense’s success was the play of the Irish defensive tackles. I can’t point to one player that just dominated; rather, the unit did what the offensive line has done all season, and that is play well as a unit. No matter who was the in the game, the Louisville interior blockers could not get anything going. Notre Dame completely controlled action up the middle.
The fact is, if you get beat up the middle as an offense you will struggle to run the football, even when you try to run outside. Louisville’s best run coming in was the outside zone, and that is the play that Florida State gashed the defense with a week ago. Part of the problem was the inconsistent play of the defensive tackles, but the unit played much, much better against the Cardinals.
Against the Louisville outside zone, the interior players were gap sound, they got a consistent push back and they spent much of the game in the Louisville backfield. On perimeter runs it completely clogged up the vertical run lanes, and on inside runs it forced Hawkins to make cuts much sooner than he wanted to, which allowed the linebackers and safeties to quickly rally to the football.
SECONDARY BOUNCES BACK
Like the defensive tackles, the Irish secondary struggled against Florida State, but the unit got back on track against Louisville. Everyone was back on the practice field this past week, which allowed the staff to move Shaun Crawford back to safety and Nick McCloud back into the starting cornerback spot in the boundary.
Crawford had his best game of the season, by far. The safeties as a whole provided good help coverage and were good in the run game.
The Irish cornerbacks had a major battle on their hands while facing a wide receiver duo in Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick that might be the best combination that Notre Dame will face all season. Atwell made one catch for 28 yards thanks to a double move against TaRiq Bracy, but other than that the Irish cornerbacks shut them down, as Atwell and Fitzpatrick combined to make six catches for just 53 yards.
Just as important as their coverage was how aggressively and soundly the defensive backs took on blocks and defended the Louisville screen game.
PASS RUSH STALLS
A concern for Notre Dame was its inability to get much of a pass rush, which marks the second straight game the front has struggled to get consistent pressure. Louisville gave up 14 sacks in its first four games, but Notre Dame failed to get to quarterback Malik Cunningham one time. It wasn’t like they got strong pressures but just couldn’t tackle him, the overall pressures from the game were limited.
Outside of Adetokunbo Ogundeji, no one up front did much in terms of getting after the quarterback. The unit played extremely well against the run, but its lack of a pass rush the last two weeks against two relatively weak offensive lines is troubling when looking at future matchups.
BUCK LINEBACKER IS A MAJOR PROBLEM
Notre Dame has gotten strong Buck linebacker play in one game this season, and average to well below average play in the other three games. Ironically, the two players who did the damage in the one good game - Jack Kiser and Jack Lamb vs. South Florida - played a combined two snaps yesterday, and none of them went to Lamb.
Starter Shayne Simon has struggled in all three games he played, and his performance against Louisville was by far his worst. Unless Simon is coming downhill on a designed run stunt or blitz he does very little good. His inability to make quick reads and attack the ball is troubling, and his inability to get off blocks is equally concerning.
Simon is also a liability in the pass game, as we saw when he turned loose Hawkins on a wheel route that went for 29 yards and set up Louisville’s only touchdown.
In fact, Simon had three very poor plays on that series, and all proved crucial. He whiffed in space on Cunningham on a 2nd-and-12 snap that allowed the Cardinals to get into a manageable 3rd-and-5. Later in the drive, Simon got sucked inside and easily blocked on a 4th-and-3 that ended with a Louisville first down. It was later in that same drive that Hawkins beat Simon on the big play.
Lea has garnered some trust in regards to how he handles that position. I didn’t think he and Nick Lezynski could get Asmar Bilal to play like he did a season ago, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt …. to a degree. The fact is, last year by game three Bilal was playing at a high level. Through three games this season Simon has done very little to instill faith that a breakout is coming.
There is simply too much depth of talent at the position to keep getting this little production from it, and its too important of a position in this defense to keep performing this poorly.
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