Defensive Player of the GameOn the second play of the second half, senior Darrin Walls dove in front of a Trent Steelman pass near the line of scrimmage. The pass breakup was his first of the contest though he already had five tackles including one for lost yardage and another that saved an Army touchdown.
Following that aforementioned pass breakup I typed the following on my game notes page: Defensive MVP: Darrin Walls?
One snap and about 10 seconds later, Walls removed the superfluous question mark, picking off a Steelman pass and returning it 42 yards for an Irish score. 24-3 ND…ballgame.
Walls was exhibit A in the scheme adjustment by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: a player non-existent in run support vs. Navy last month, the senior corner finished with seven tackles Saturday night in the Bronx, none more important than his second - a TD saving ankle tackle inside the Notre Dame three-yard line that stopped slot back Jon Crucitti short of the goal.
The Irish defense held on the next two plays; Army's 17-yard drive fell four points short of its goal with the ending field goal, and Notre Dame's defense proceeded to dominate from Walls' tackle, forward.
Trust your eyes; make the play: Adding the finishing touch to Walls' four-point 1st Quarter save was the ensuing teamwork of sophomore ‘backer Manti Te'o and junior cornerback Robert Blanton.
Playing the role of drop linebacker in Saturday's contest, Blanton saved what would have been an easy pitch and catch score two snaps after Walls' stop, containing a Steelman keeper outside left before peeling off to disrupt the quarterback's passing lane to fullback Jared Hassin who was breaking open across the goal line.
Blanton's heads-up adherence to the system allowed Te'o to run down Steelman near the end line for a 3rd Down stop that forced Army head coach Rich Ellerson to settle for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
"I'd have liked to (scored a touchdown)," Ellerson noted when asked about his decision to kick the field goal, "If it was a little closer we might have had some success down there."
Army's best and only viable drive of the game was rendered less damaging because of Walls, Blanton and Te'o doing their jobs. Walls was spectacular throughout.
Offensive Player of the GameRuns of 16, 8, 25, and 12 yards; a block in blitz protection that allowed for a 33-yard pass and run from Tommy Rees to Michael Floyd; 93 yards from scrimmage on 15 total touches.
Redshirt-freshman tailback Cierre Wood was one of three possible choices for this week's mantle. His consistency throughout the contest gave him the final edge over classmate Tyler Eifert and freshman triggerman Tommy Rees.
Eifert put forth the best performance of his 11-game career, totaling 78 receiving yards on four grabs, one of which will rank among the season's top five pass-and-catch plays - a 35-yarder down the right seam to the one-yard line to set up Notre Dame's first touchdown.
One series later, Eifert extended his body enough to be credited with the score himself, catching a 31-yard corner route from Rees for the game's final offensive touchdown and a 17-3 Irish advantage.
"Two terrific catches; he's got that vertical (downfield) threat," Brian Kelly noted of Eifert. "We knew he was going to be a very good football player for us and he's beginning to feel comfortable with the day-to-day grind of getting banged on.
"Remember now, here's a young man who had a serious back injury and we had to get him back from not playing at all last year. He's made progress and he's a tough matchup (on a linebacker or safety)."
Cornering the marketIn addition to two connections with Eifert for more than 30 yards downfield, Rees managed to keep the Army defense on is heels with a trio of crossing routes: two to Michael Floyd, the other to Robby Toma.
Each was the byproduct of expecting – and getting – man coverage.
"Exactly. We just had to hang in there, read out the progression and the receivers and line did a great job," Rees said of first half crossing routes totaling 33, 31, and 22 yards. "The receivers separated and the line gave us plenty of time to throw."
As for his touchdown toss to Eifert, it was the third consecutive scoring throw courtesy of a lofted corner route.
"The corner is one of my favorite throws and it's been there the last couple of weeks. If its there we're going to take it."
Rees will likely need to find a third route for his repertoire vs. the faster Trojans next Saturday.
Diaco strikes backIrish fans expected (and frankly, hoped) for an adjustment by the Irish defense vs. the triple-option after the Navy debacle. How about two? a four-man front (logical to cover the offensive guards) but also two defensive backs positioned outside linebacker for the bulk of the competitive portion of the contest.
But if you'd rather judge performance by the bottom line, consider this: Notre Dame's defense has surrendered no touchdowns over 11 quarters; one in its last three complete contests.
Since a shootout loss in East Lansing in Game Three, Irish opponents have posted the following offensive touchdown totals vs. defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit: 2 (Stanford), 1 (BC), 2 (Pittsburgh), 2 (Western Michigan), 5 (Navy), 1 (Tulsa), 0 (Utah), 0 (Army).
Five touchdowns in one game; six total in the other seven. That's big time BCS defense…even if we'll never fully understand the annihilation at Navy.
"(The performance vs. Army) allows us to say (Navy) was an anomaly," Kelly answered directly regarding the need for Diaco to get back on track vs. the Cadets' option. "Listen, we haven't allowed a touchdown in November. You don't do that by accident.
"We've had answers all year. I really feel great for Bob and the defensive staff. This was a collaborative approach. The entire defense staff, myself…we were all involved in this. Bob is the defensive coordinator and he's the guy that deserves the credit but our players deserve equal credit.
"I think it validates the fact that I have smart guys over there. They know what they're doing," he continued. "Navy caught us…first time shame on you, second time shame on me…"
Of note: Including potential 5th-year seniors, the Irish return 15 of 19 main contributors from the group next season with at least two current members of the two deep (Lo Wood and Steve Filer) expected to join the fray more regularly next fall.