Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2021

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

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Page 45 of 47

46 DECEMBER 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED B rian Kelly slammed his fist on the table in front of him. He re- peated the same word each time he did. Practice, practice, prac- tice, practice. He said the word four times with a smile that grew wider each time he did. Notre Dame had just de- feated Stanford 45-14 min- utes prior. The Fighting Irish put forth another defensive gem of a game in the process. For the fourth game in a row, Notre Dame held its opponent to less than 100 yards in either the passing or rushing category. This time, it was the latter. And if not for a couple lapses in garbage time, it might have very well been both. The Cardinal only had 42 passing yards through three quarters. It wasn't long ago when North Carolina torched Notre Dame for 565 total yards. Sure, quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heels posed a big- ger threat than Tanner McKee and the Cardinal. Just like senior Desmond Rid- der and the Cincinnati Bearcats were a tougher test than freshman Jordan Yates and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Notre Dame's schedule has certainly gotten easier on both sides of the ball in the second half of the season, but that doesn't mean Notre Dame's defense hasn't gotten better from the unit it was two months ago — or even one month ago when Howell was tearing the Irish up through the air and on the ground. The schedule got easier. But Notre Dame still played those inferior teams better than they would have had the Irish not made any progress defensively from week to week. Both things can be true. And both things are true. This Notre Dame defense is much better than it was before. And Kelly said it all has to do with that word he uttered over and over after holding Stanford to 227 total yards. "We do practice. Do you know that?" Kelly said. "We just don't [always] show up on Saturday. We do this for a living. "A lot of work. [Defensive coordinator] Marcus [Freeman] every day starts off practice with run support and tackling drills, and he's committed to it, and we have to be committed to it. We've worked really good early on in the season, and those guys are really sure tacklers now." Kelly pointed to senior safety Houston Griffith as an example of a player who's a sure tackler now but wasn't necessarily one at the beginning of the season. "He was not making those tackles earlier in the year," Kelly said. "That's a commitment on his part to really be 1 percent better in the areas that we asked them to be, and good for Houston. Those kids really took to it and worked hard." Senior defensive end Justin Ademilola said it's easy to work hard for a coach who demands so much for his players in a positive way. He said Freeman has fa- cilitated a culture of support and cama- raderie in his first season in South Bend. "He does a wonderful job making sure the unit is on the same page," Ademi- lola said. "We harp on communicat- ing, we harp on executing. When you love the guy next to you, when you love your coaches, when you're out there on the field you just want to do everything you can for the guy next to you. "That's why our unit is playing the way it's play- ing — it's true love for our brothers and true love for our coaches." Notre Dame's defense isn't one of the best in the country statistically. It went into the Stanford game ranked No. 39 in total de- fense. But it showed tangible statistical improvement in the second half of the sea- son, particularly in the four games played in November. Notre Dame gave up at least 300 yards of offense to opponents in eight straight games to start the season. It did not give up 300 yards once in any of its last four games. The Irish finished the regular season with 40 sacks. That ranked top 10 na- tionally. The Irish forced 22 turnovers, which ranked top 20 nationally. At first, Notre Dame was simply an aggressive, opportunistic defense. But as time went on, the players seemed to grasp Freeman's system. That came with, of course, practice. But it also came with growing chemistry and comfortabil- ity. One of Notre Dame's best offensive players, sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, saw that every day in — you guessed it — practice. "A ton of different looks in practice, a ton of different looks in camp," Mayer said. "Coach Freeman has done a fantas- tic job with the defense. Got better ev- ery game throughout the season. I think you guys would agree with me. They're climbing and been climbing the entire season. They been doing fantastic." ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman's unit held all four November opponents to less than 300 total yards. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Defense Vastly Improved In Season's Second Half Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at

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