When your defense scores more points than your opponent that is a darn good day of work. That's exactly what happened in yesterday's 41-13 Notre Dame victory over Wisconsin, and it speaks to what was truly an outstanding four quarter performance for the Irish defense.
There was plenty we learned about the defense yesterday, but here are my key takeaways.
1. The defense was always capable of this - After struggling against Florida State and Toledo the Irish defense was catching a lot of flak from outside Notre Dame nation and inside of it. As I said at the time, take your shots at Marcus Freeman while you can because anyone that broke down the defense in those games knew it was some good coaching adjustments away from taking off.
The unit started to show that a week ago when it shut down a Purdue offense that was scoring over 40 points per game and it was brilliant in the win over Wisconsin.
Notre Dame dominated up front, its linebackers were active and productive and for the most part the secondary played very good football. It was an outstanding unit performance in which the Irish thrived on first down, shut down the Badger run game, dominated the pass attack and played great situational football.
Notre Dame also did all of its damage without being overly disruptive from a tackles for loss and sacks standpoint, which had been the backbone of the defense in the first three games.
2. Notre Dame's defensive line is special - I'm going to have more on this part of the team later today, but Notre Dame's defensive line was brilliant in the performance against Wisconsin. There wasn't one or two players that just played other-worldly, Jerry Tillery four sacks against Stanford good, but Notre Dame throws waves of defensive lineman at opponents. It doesn't seem to matter who was on the field yesterday, Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes against the Badgers, and that's something that simply does not happen to Wisconsin very often.
Notre Dame held Wisconsin to just 74 rushing yards. In the previous eight seasons the Badgers were held to below 75 rushing yards just six times, and three of those games were in 2014 and 2015. Notre Dame held Wisconsin to just 2.64 yards per carry despite only having four tackles for loss in the game. Wisconsin had a grant total of one carry that went for double digit yards, and that was a 10-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
To make this even more impressive consider that Notre Dame was without three-year starting nose tackle Kurt Hinish, the team's only defensive regular that weighs more than 280 pounds. His replacements - Howard Cross III and Jacob Lacey - were outstanding in his stead.
3. Cam Hart is growing up in a hurry - Junior Cam Hart came to Notre Dame to play wide receiver, but late in his freshman season a lack of bodies at cornerback required he "take one for the team" and move to cornerback. That move has paid huge dividends for the Notre Dame defense in 2021, as Hart has quickly emerged as Notre Dame's best cornerback.
Hart was solid in the first two games but he started to be more disruptive in the win over Purdue, breaking up a career-high two passes, including one that ended with safety DJ Brown intercepting a pass. Against Wisconsin, Hart decided to take matters into his own hands, literally. The talented junior stepped in front of a pair of Graham Mertz passes to record the first two interceptions of his career.
Both forced turnovers turned into points for the Notre Dame offense, and those two big plays were part of what was overall a brilliant performance for Hart, who has gotten better and better each week.
4. Irish were dominant on first down - A big key to Notre Dame's success against Wisconsin was due to its dominance on first down. Wisconsin ran 31 first down snaps in the game and the Irish held the Badgers to 1 or fewer yards on 16 of those snaps, and another first down snap ended up being a Notre Dame touchdown (Jack Kiser's pick six). Two more first down snaps went for just three yards.
That means 54.8% of Wisconsin's snaps on first down went for 1 yard, 0 yards, negative yards or ended up a turnover. That's dominating a down that I wrote before the game was vital to the team's success.
5. Clarence Lewis needs to clean some things up - Sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis is having a solid season but his technique continues to get him in trouble at times. When Lewis plays within himself and the defense he has been good, but Wisconsin picked on him a bit yesterday. He has a tendency to get grabby in coverage and the Badgers took advantage of that.
This isn't something I'm overreacting to because Lewis is still just a sophomore who has yet to get to double digits in career starts, but the schedule is about to get a lot tougher on the cornerbacks, so Lewis will need to clean some things up pretty quickly.
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