Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 18, 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 53 of 55

54 SEPT. 18, 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED H ere are two things that can both be true. They don't have to be mutu- ally exclusive. No. 1: Notre Dame's defense didn't look very good against Florida State in the season opener, especially for half of the third quarter and the entirety of the fourth quarter. No. 2: Notre Dame's defensive per- formance against Florida State was not an overall indicator of what the unit will look like this season under first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Notre Dame could very well be the de- fensive team it was for the first 40 or so minutes of the game and not the one that showed up out of nowhere in the final 20. Let's not forget what the Irish did to the Noles in jumping out to its 38-20 lead. Florida State had four passing yards in the entire first quarter. Florida State had 25 rushing yards in the entire second quarter — on 2.8 yards per attempt, too. There were two things that ruined what would have otherwise been a stout showing defensively for Notre Dame in Week 1; an inability to prevent the big play from occurring, and a total lapse in strategy and execution down the stretch. Sixty of Florida State's 178 pass- ing yards came on one play — the long touchdown throw from quarterback Jordan Travis to running back Ja'Khi Douglas three plays into the second half. Eighty-nine of Florida State's 264 rushing yards came on one play — the long touchdown rush from Jashaun Corbin midway through the first quarter. Translation: one-third of Florida State's offensive production from the entire game came on two plays. If se- nior safety DJ Brown makes a tackle on Corbin, that game would have likely taken a different path. If senior safety Houston Griffith stayed with Douglas, that game would have likely taken a different path. And then, of course, if Freeman didn't employ a three-man front after Notre Dame took its 38-20 lead, then the game would have likely taken a different path as well. Those three factors were critical in creating a nail-biting finish. Notre Dame was doing just fine de- fensively outside of the two big plays for two-thirds of the game. Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey was applying pressure on the quarterback. Junior linebacker JD Bertrand was solid on run stops. Ju- nior safety Kyle Hamilton had two of the team's three total interceptions. The pieces were in place. Notre Dame played satisfactory defense — until it didn't. Head coach Brian Kelly said ad- justing from former defensive coordina- tor Clark Lea's scheme to Freeman's is something that'll simply take some time. "Let me just take you to where we were defensively last year," Kelly said. "Essentially the structure of the defense was, by virtue of where you played, your role was you always had that gap. That's what you do. You have that gap. "This defense, six different players have that gap depending on what the call is. … So when you're moving, it changes what your responsibility is. It requires all 11 players to be locked in and focused ev- ery single snap. And it puts you in a posi- tion where they have to make those plays." Notre Dame didn't make those plays late in the third quarter and in the fourth. Florida State running backs freely ran into the gaps for chunks of yardage before they were contacted by players in blue and gold. It was a lapse in execution, but it shouldn't be expected to be prolonged. Not enough emphasis was placed on the role Notre Dame's offense played in the Irish's defensive woes late in the game, either. The Irish possessed the ball for just 5:29 in the fourth quarter. Florida State had the ball for almost two-thirds of the fourth quarter. At the end of the game. In the late Tallahassee summer heat and humidity. Kelly wouldn't fully admit his defense got tired, but put two and two together there. Those players were a bit gassed, especially when the Seminoles were content with grinding out yards on the ground. That takes a toll. Not enough emphasis was placed on what the Notre Dame defense did in overtime, either. After a five-yard gain from Florida State on first down, the Irish held the Seminoles to one yard on second down. It appeared Notre Dame sacked FSU quarterback McKenzie Mil- ton for a loss of 13 on third down, but the officials overruled the call on the field. Then FSU missed its 37-yard field goal attempt. That's about as well as you can draw up the first defensive possession of overtime — especially one in which the team on offense had every ounce of momentum going into the extra period. And it was exactly what the Notre Dame defense can look like going for- ward. Adequate run stopping on first and second downs. A relentless pass rush on third. And no points from the opposition. Relax, Notre Dame fans. Don't write off Freeman or this Notre Dame defense quite yet. Just like it showed flashes of what fans hope it isn't, it showed flashes of what it probably is, too — a sound, playoff-worthy unit. "I think there is just an execution piece [missing]," Bertrand said. "I love what Coach Freeman is doing. He does a great job emphasizing fundamentals. Being able to come off a block and make a play. Just getting to the ball. "At the end of the day, effort and at- titude is going to overcome any kind of mistakes." ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Notre Dame allowed 442 total yards to Florida State in Freeman's debut as defensive coordina- tor. However, one-third of the Seminoles' total offense came on two big touchdown plays, an 89-yard run and a 60-yard pass. PHOTO BY ELLIOT P. FINEBLOOM/COURTESY FSU PHOTO Give Marcus Freeman's Defense Some Time Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at

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