Unsung, undervalued, unusually fortunateBrian Smith was IrishEyes' (and I would assume the rest of the world's) defensive MVP Saturday night. He's arguably the team's defensive player of the month after switching from a backup (and struggling) Drop linebacker role to his more familiar inside spot next to Manti Te'o.
But Smith, Te'o and the rest of their back seven mates have had a chance to shine in the season's final month because a foursome up front has gone from intermittently solid to immovable seemingly overnight.
Junior defensive end Ethan Johnson – he of the incidental two tackles Saturday night - will likely grade out better than even Smith on film as the staff reviews his performance vs. the Trojans. Johnson was a force on the left side of the Irish line, holding the point vs. the run and collapsing USC's front in short yardage situations.
His bookend and classmate Kapron Lewis-Moore is the more consistent tackle producer of the pair, at least through two seasons together. KLM finished fourth on the team in stops this season with 58, far out-distancing himself from his line mates (and somehow posted 22 tackles in three November contests).
He seems to spend more time in opposing backfields than does Johnson...but a closer look shows Johnson, once again ranked among the team's top two in sacks, tackles-for-loss and QB hits for the second straight season.
Scribes, fans, and analysts feared the worse when Ian Williams was lost for the season in a Game 8 loss to Navy. IrishEyes' co-publishers have long been fans of Cwynar, but neither of us thought the run defense would improve - immensely - when he and Hafis took over the duties inside.
Mike Elston's front employed more four-man looks in an effort to replace the senior Williams. It worked, as the nation's No. 15 (Tulsa), 53 (Utah), 30 (USC) and 10 (Army) ranked rushing offenses totaled an aggregate 388 rushing yards and just one TD over a 15-Quarter stretch.
Of the junior quartet, only Johnson will exhaust his eligibility after next season (unfortunate, but definitely necessary that he play as a freshman because he was one of Charlie Weis' four best linemen).
Talented – and thankful – tandem: With a minimum of exceptions, cornerback Gary Gray has been outstanding since the outset. His starting corner mate Darrin Walls also strong in coverage with flashes of brilliance as an open-field tackler.
But the improvement of versatile third cornerback/nickel defender Robert Blanton and senior safety Harrison Smith keyed Notre Dame's best coverage season since 2002 – and in one telling statistic – since 1993.
Notre Dame's highest statistical ranking as a team this season was Pass Efficiency Defense – 26th nationally. That's up from 87th last season but more telling is the Average Yards Per Completion the defense allowed to opposing passers and offenses: 10.0, the best since the 11-1 and No. 2 ranked Irish yielded 9.5 per completion in 1993.
Smith was the last line of defense; Blanton the playmaker in zone coverage and especially in the Irish red zone.
Saturday night provided a dose of good fortune for both as USC receivers dropped point-blank catches vs. Blanton (on the sidelines) and Smith (a potential game-winning gift downfield).
Smith came back with a pass breakup and interception on the following two plays. Blanton saved four touchdowns this season with hands in the end zone or near it.
Pundits muse it's better to be lucky than good. I'll posit when you're good all year, it's okay to be lucky on one drive.
Streak destructionOne minute with Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco offers the interviewee with coach-speak moments a few miles left of the norm.
Tired phrases such as "'meet and defeat blocks'; ‘good feet'; and ‘run to daylight'" are replaced by Diaco gems such as "‘block destruction; ‘uncommon contact balance'; and vertical vs. horizontal crease.'"
(In possibly disturbing news, I generally understood what he meant at first blush).
Apparently one season with the detailed defensive coordinator (eventually) morphs a team of undisciplined, less-than-confident defenders into a cohesive group that absolutely will not break with their backs to the goal.
The second most impressive Irish feat this season was the defense's denial of an offensive touchdown for 13+ quarters in November. But the most impressive – by far – was that it took USC's band of 5-stars four plays to move the requisite two yards to barely breach the Irish goal, thus ending the streak Saturday night.
Prior to the defense's let down vs. the superhuman effort of Denard Robinson in Week Two, Diaco noted that, "There's no defense in the menu where a gap is not fit, and a zone is not covered. We don't have that defense. Every single defense we have, every single gap is filled and every single zone is covered by assignment."
Saturday night, that plan on paper played out on the rain-soaked turf of the Coliseum as Bob Diaco's "No-Crease Defense" and 18 Notre Dame defenders limited USC to scoring drives of 3 yards, 15 yards, 2 yards, and 18 yards. FG, FG, TD, FG.
12 of USC's 14 full possessions accrued fewer than 26 total yards; five of those fewer than 10.
If you remove USC's second drive (7 plays, 39 yards, punt) and its last (9 plays, 46 yards, game-ending interception), the Trojans managed 158 yards on 58 snaps.
Diaco's defense was always the best unit on the field throughout the season's final month...and there wasn't a close second.