18 and OverFootball is a young man's game – just not at the collegiate level. Experienced, developed talent usually shines through, especially in the trenches. But for Brian Kelly's 2011 Irish, youth has been served along the defensive front, and the contributors are growing in number each week.
"If we are giving out helmet stickers, Stephon Tuitt gets it," Kelly said of his freshman defensive lineman's effort vs. the Air Force Academy. "He and (Darius) Fleming were outstanding.
"Tuitt, he was as good as Aaron Lynch has been at times," he continued of his "other" freshman phenom. "Tuitt showed that kind of play against Air Force. He's got great versatility; he can play inside and outside, and he's just a rare combination (in terms of versatility along the front) where Aaron is more suited on the outside.
"Tuitt can play both inside and out just because of his length and his athletic ability."
Joining the duo in extended duty Saturday was first-timer Chase Hounshell. "Hounshell played 38 plays for us and played very, very well in his first college appearance," Kelly noted. "He is going to play this year for us; he showed that he's a football player.
"So we were really excited about watching the film this morning about his play. Aaron is better suited outside. He battled inside but he's much better on the edge of our defense."
Tuitt finished with five tackles and a pass breakup at the line; Hounshell notched four stops while Lynch added one in his first career start, plus a pair of QB hurries, adding to his team-leading eight over the season's first half.
Kelly offered several observations regarding the 10 true freshmen to see action through six games.
"Obviously Tuitt and Lynch are great freshmen; I wouldn't put that tag on them as seniors, but as true freshmen, they played great," Kelly began. "They made mistakes but you can see that they are going to be a great building block for us.
"George Atkinson has provided a great spark for us on the kickoff return team. I think if you continue to look at freshmen in terms of their impact, along the line, Ben Koyack has done a very nice job in our tight end set coming in and providing us really some solid play when he lost Mike Ragone, who is an outstanding blocker.
"Chase Hounshell played very, very well for us at 39 snaps; that's a lot of work when you talk about week six, and his physical conditioning was outstanding," Kelly continued. "Kyle Brindza has been pretty good and kicking the football, the number of touchbacks, that's really impacted what we've done.
"You know, (linebacker) Troy Niklas, he (came) in and had to start against a pretty good team against Pittsburgh and has done a great job for us…Cam McDaniel on special teams has been outstanding for us.
"Ishaq Williams, you look at what Ishaq has done, he has not gotten as many snaps as Lynch, but you can see him coming each and every week," he concluded, adding, "How's that so far?"
As for Everett Golson, a highly touted freshman signal-caller who's yet to see the field and would thus be in line for a possible 5th-season of action through 2015, Kelly noted, "I think you guys can figure out what the rotation is going to be at this point."
They only hoped to contain it…In Game Four (Pittsburgh) and Five (Purdue) combined, Notre Dame's conquered foes accrued 544 yards of total offense.
Saturday afternoon, Air Force 565, including 363 on the ground.
Both numbers were understandably the post-game lament of Irish fans. But for Kelly, it was a sense of Mission Accomplished, for the defense.
"Option football is about keeping the points down, and that mentality is what we talked about, any time we now enter a week where we are preparing against option, yards have nothing to do with the outcome," Kelly offered. "It's keeping the points down, and quite frankly if we don't jump off side on fourth-and-one, and if we don't give up a fake punt, we are even lower in the points.
"So we were really pleased with keeping the points down. Give credit to Air Force; they are a very good offensive football team," he continued, noting, "Something they did in this game they had not done a lot during the year was they tempo ed very, very well. It took us awhile to settle in but we settled in nicely. We were pleased and our players know when they play option football (the goal is to) minimize the big play and keep the points down."
The Irish held the Falcons to 19 relevant (and 33 total) points by turning their focus to the triple-option triggerman, Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson.
"It's pretty clear for us that the biggest thing for them is they are going to read out their triple, and we wanted the ball pitched. So part of your plan is to take it away inside-out, and we forced the ball to be pitched," Kelly explained. "And I think that that's pretty much most philosophies as it relates to the triple.
"When he threw the football, you know, he's pretty good at it," Kelly said of Jefferson. "But when you have such a big point differential and we know he's going to throw it, you know, that takes away a little of his effectiveness."
Adapt, Adjust, OvercomeThe third game in the last 12 outings for Notre Dame vs. some form of the triple-option resulted in victory No. 2 over that span. Another remains in three weeks when Navy returns to South Bend a Stadium in which they've won two straight – and three of the last four vs. the Irish overall.
With a fourth option-focused contest in the last 14 matchups, can fans expect Kelly and Bob Diaco's Irish defense to have a firm grasp of the task at hand?
"It's interesting, we had this big binder, and it's truly a three ring binder, and we just keep adding to it in terms of what we are going to see," Kelly said. "We saw a lot of unorthodox things, again, with Air Force. For instance they went tempo… like they had never gone before, and so we could not check into some things.
"Just more familiarity with what option teams want to do against us; it just adds to the three ring binder for us."
Kelly noted Tuesday the goal was to play physical football vs. Air Force, an approach Kelly believes has carried the Irish through six games to date. But that wasn't the only adjustment.
"Everybody seems to want to play unbalanced against us, so that's the flavor," Kelly said of the propensity for unbalanced lines the Irish have encountered over the last calendar year. "As you know, the Navy game (last year) was an unbalanced offensive line that they had never shown before, and we struggled adjusting to that.
"Now everybody wants to run unbalanced against us in the option game," he continued. "Army did it. Air Force is doing it….We made some really good adjustments on the field and on the sideline, and went back to some techniques we had used before, and I think more than anything else, it's just being more familiar and more comfortable with option football."
Personnel PointsNotre Dame's defense escaped Saturday without any new injuries – this despite two egregious (and requisite) chops blocks (both called) executed by Falcons blockers over the course of the contest.
But one key injury from Wednesday practice lingered a bit in Saturday's game.
"He had a slight sprain on Wednesday in practice and we kept him limited," Kelly said when it was noted Manti Te'o was limping, post-game. "But even with his limited ability, he was an impact player.
"He's an amazing football player," Kelly offered. "I mean, he does things each and every week that sometimes defy what the average player would be able to accomplish. He was hobbled in an offense that requires the linebacker to be integral in what happens, and he played very, very well…but this break comes at a good time for him."
Te'o finished with 10 tackles including a team-best 2.5 for loss, adding a pass breakup in the opening quarter.
As Kelly noted previously, Te'o had plenty of help, with Stephon Tuitt and Darius Fleming receiving mention for outstanding efforts. None of the trio, however, received the team's defensive game ball. That honor belonged to senior Jamoris Slaughter.
"He's going to get our defensive player award; he was our best player, and again, we had some great performances from Fleming, an outstanding performance from Tuitt, but Jamoris was outstanding," Kelly offered. "He played Prince Shembo's position, the drop (linebacker). He played physical and he did an incredible job of slow playing the option and giving us an opportunity to get out on the pitch.
"And of course the two big turnovers were directly a result in him being around the ball."
Along with six tackles (the second-highest total of his career), Slaughter broke up a pass and forced a fumble on the Falcons first snap, the first of his Irish career. He added his second career interception – one he tipped to himself before diving to secure – in the second quarter.