Notre Dame kicks off its 2021 home slate today when it takes on the Toledo Rockets. This is a game Notre Dame should win and win relatively handily, but the Rockets will still present the Irish with a tougher test than you might think. Notre Dame is going to have to earn this victory.
Like the rest of college football after week one, Brian Kelly’s squad certainly has plenty to improve on, and that’s a big part of what I’m looking for in this game. Improve areas where you struggled and continue areas where you performed well in the opener.
We already broke down the offense, now it's time to focus on the defense.
1. Tackle better - Notre Dame's tackling last week was poor, and I'll have two points about it this week for the defense. Toledo is going to get the ball in space, which means the linebackers and defensive backs will be tested in regards to being cleaner tacklers than they were last week. Notre Dame's second and third level defenders must tackle very well in space this week if they are going to keep the Toledo offense in check.
Notre Dame can't give up cheap touchdowns this week like it did last week, which means instead of giving up an 89-yard touchdown run the defenders must make those tackles in space against the run. Bryant Koback is a very good back and he runs hard, the Irish backers and safeties but be sound and physical against him.
Tackling better will also tell me something about Marcus Freeman. It will tell me that he can see a problem and quickly get it addressed during the week of practice.
2. Clean up assignment mistakes - Notre Dame made way, way too many assignment mistakes last week. One lineman slanting in the wrong direction, not setting the edge, not hitting the correct gaps in the run game, turning players loose on scramblers, coverage mistakes, taking poor angles in the run game, bad run fits. We saw all of it in the opener. Considering last week was the first game in a new defense I expected some of it, but there were simply too many last week.
Toledo is athletic and talented enough on offense to hurt Notre Dame just as much as Florida State did when those mistakes are made. If Notre Dame can limit, or eliminate those types of mistakes they are clearly good enough to shut Toledo down. If they don't Toledo will move the football and score some points.
As was the case with point one, this is going to tell us a lot about Freeman and his ability to quickly get his team prepared to clean up mistakes and improve the fundamental parts of the game.
3. Finish at the quarterback - Notre Dame's front seven put a lot of pressure on the Florida State quarterbacks last week, but the problem is they did not actually bring the quarterback down enough when they got those pressures. That needs to change against Toledo. The Rocket quarterbacks are mobile and can do damage with their arms and legs, but the Irish defense needs to make sure when those pressures happen they hit home and they get more and more stops behind the line.
4. Shut down the ground game - Toledo has averaged over 200 yards rushing in three of the last four seasons and they'll try and get the ground game going against Notre Dame. The Irish defense gave up a disastrous 264 yards on the ground to Florida State last weekend. Notre Dame's ground defense has to get A LOT better against the Rockets. If Toledo is able to gash the Notre Dame defense I'm going to start getting a bit concerned about the run defense as games against Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech loom.
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