Taking back the trenches

Our fifth-ranked unit also holds the distinction as the squad's most improved from a season ago.

No. 1 (Field Goal Unit)

No. 2 (Coverage Units)

No. 3 (Tight Ends)

No. 4 (Inside Linebackers)

#5 Defensive Line

At the suggestion of the team's head coach, Notre Dame's OLB and DE will be evaluated as one next season. But for the sake of consistency, we'll stick with our pre-season system through 2010.

Starters/key reserves: Senior nose guard Ian Williams, junior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Junior nose guard Sean Cwynar, junior defensive end/nose guard Hafis Williams. Senior defensive end Emeka Nwankwo and freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke. Sophomore nose guard Tyler Stockton also saw time early.

IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 6 (of 12)

Quote to note: "Fans should not underestimate the physical growth and maturity of true junior Ethan Johnson entering his third season, or the career arc of redshirt-junior Kapron Lewis-Moore (entering his second season as a contributor). The pair has yet to appear on any publication's list of top tandems, but could emerge this fall as the team's most improved duo." – IrishEyes' July 12

By the numbers: Lewis-Moore led the unit in tackles (58) while Ethan Johnson ranked first (and fourth on the defense) in tackles-for-loss (6) and sacks (5). The pair combined for 10 more official hits on opposing quarterbacks. The Irish received 69 tackles including 6.5 for loss by the nose guard tandem of Ian Williams and Sean Cwynar.

But it was the quartet's effort up front for the bulk of the season that keyed the turnaround of Notre Dame's run defense. The group yielded 200 rushing yards five times in a six-game span from the end of 2009 through Week Three this season. Since, only Navy found such success vs. the Irish front (admittedly, that debacle could probably count double) as Notre Dame limited its final eight foes (sans the Midshipmen) to 807 aggregate rushing yards and a mere five rushing touchdowns.

Notre Dame's final eight opponents in 2009 (again removing the Navy wreckage for the sake of consistency) rambled for 1,247 yards and 12 rushing scores.

The longest rush vs. the Irish in November was a mere 18 yards. Sound defense starts up front, and the quartet of Lewis-Moore, Johnson, Cwynar and backup Hafis Williams deserve the lion's share of the credit.

Best moments

"You ask me why you see there's light at the end of the tunnel; it's those things we know that we can correct. If I was standing here (saying) ‘We have no chance to stop the run,' that's a different feeling."

Brian Kelly's prescient words prior to the Stanford game came to fruition in seven (arguably eight) of the next nine contests as Notre Dame's defensive front helped limit eight of its next nine opponents (save Navy) below its weekly average:

  • Stanford: 211 rushing yards per game and 5.02 per rush; 166 yards on 44 carries vs. the Irish.
  • Boston College: 133 rushing yards per game and 3.6 per rush; 5 yards on 23 carries vs. Notre Dame in Chestnut Hill.
  • Pittsburgh: 158 rushing yards per game and 4.46 per rush; 110 yards on 31 carries in South Bend.
  • Western Michigan: 125 rushing yards per game and 3.9 per rush; 37 yards on 26 carries vs. the Irish.
  • Navy: 302 rushing yards per game and 5.50 per rush; 367 yards on 60 carries vs. the Notre Dame. (Man that's incredible.)
  • Tulsa: 219 rushing yards per game and 5.2 per rush; 203 yards on 40 carries in South Bend. (123 of Tulsa's 203 rushing yards occurred in the 1st Quarter vs. the Irish).
  • Utah: 157 rushing yards per game and 4.7 per rush; 71 yards on 29 carries vs. ND in South Bend.
  • Army: 261 rushing yards per game and 4.59 per rush; 135 yards on 43 carries vs. the Irish at Yankee Stadium.
  • USC: 189 rushing yards per game and 5.16 per rush; 80 yards on 30 carries vs. the Irish in the Coliseum.

Moment to forget: You mean besides Navy? (Actually, Kapron Lewis-Moore was the lone defensive bright spot in that contest, so he gets the group off the hook, here). Though the Irish defense stiffened in the 4th Quarter and overtime in East Lansing, it was the middle quarters in which the host Spartans exerted their muscle up front.

Michigan State rushed for 183 yards and two touchdowns on 25 mid-quarter carries, playing to a 21-21 draw through three. It was the last game (aside from Navy) in which the Irish D was gashed for an abundance of double-digit gains as the RB tandem of Larry Caper and Le'Veon Bell rambled for 16, 16, 12, 56, 12, 12, and 16 yards.

The Spartans finished just 40th nationally in rush offense with six Irish foes (Navy, Army, Michigan, Stanford, Tulsa, and USC) slotted from No. 5 to No. 27.

Class status: 2011 will be junior Ethan Johnson's final season. Assuming they're granted a 5th-season of eligibility, 2012 will the last for Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams – Johnson's classmates who each enjoyed the luxury of a freshman season on the sidelines. The same is true for junior DE Brandon Newman who did not play a down this season and has seen little field time through three years in the program.

Sophomore Tyler Stockton sat out 2009 as a true freshman and thus has three seasons of eligibility remaining as does true freshman Kona Schwenke who played a consistent backup role late this season. Fellow frosh Louis Nix was withheld this year to preserve a year of eligibility down the line (through 2014). Senior Ian Williams will play his final game December 31 in the Sun Bowl.

Final Analysis: Notre Dame's defensive backs made more impact plays but no unit was better in the season's final month – and for the bulk of October as well – than Mike Elston's defensive front.

The group thrived after losing its best player in Ian Williams, featuring more four-man looks with CAT linebacker Darius Fleming in a down position and received a huge effort from the new nose guard tandem of Cwynar and Hafis Williams through season's end.

Without the unsung effort of the quintet above, Notre Dame would be home for the Holidays. In a calendar year, the program's greatest weakness – its run defense – has morphed into a team strength heading into 2011.

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