Effort intact; assignment responsibility in-progressThe stat sheet shows Notre Dame's three-man freshmen (and redshirt) defensive line finished Saturday's victory with 11 combined tackles, including three for lost yardage, a sack, and a pass broken up. Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch contributed all but four of those tackles and all of the big plays.
Their head coach Brian Kelly saw the good – but also the areas in need of improvement that most casual observers miss.
"The one thing that we were really pleased with was that they competed really hard for four quarters; there were no loafs," Kelly said, the latter a term the staff uses to grade each players effort on every snap. "These guys are playing hard, and they give us big-play capabilities. Their ability to push the passer, chase some things down.
"Having said that, they make life a lot harder on (Dan) Fox and Manti (Te'o) because sometimes you don't know where they're going to be," he continued of the tandems job to protect the defense's inside ‘backers. "You got to take the good with the bad there. With Ethan (Johnson) on the field and Kap (Lewis-Moore), our linebackers knew exactly where their fits were because those guys are so disciplined and understand our defense. The younger guys have a tendency to roam a little bit and it makes it a little bit harder for our backers."
Kelly further noted that his freshmen pair was "very competitive." The description was in keeping with what he saw from his entire group in a win that pleased the team much more than it did media and fans who questioned why a 14-point spread turned into nip-and-tuck struggle.
"What I said (Saturday) night was during this journey towards getting to a consistent performance, once in a while you got to gut one out. You really just got to dig down deep. That's what I saw," he said of the comeback win. "This team really, really dug down and they clearly stayed together no matter what to get the job done."
The next step is likely that Kelly can count on such a reaction from his troops in ensuing road or trying contests.
"I want winning to become a habit. I don't want it to be something that comes and goes. We want to get to that level where we expect to win each and every week," he added. "That's something (where) we're not there yet, but we're on that journey. That's about playing consistently, as well, not having any games that you don't play your best. So I would say, as we continue to check off a lot of the boxes, the next one is to make winning a habit."
Adjustments ‘R UsMuch has been made on this site of Notre Dame's defensive performance following halftime. The Irish have yielded just one offensive touchdown (and a defensive score vs. USC) through nine third quarters this season, limiting all nine foes to two or fewer third-down conversions in the quarter (Air Force and Navy both converted twice) and outscoring their collective opponents 63-13 in the 3rd.
Saturday, the impetus for the the season's first second-half shut-out included a schematic change.
"I thought our coaches did a great job, our players did. As you know, we went more nickel in the second half with Jamoris Slaughter going in for Prince (Shembo)," Kelly explained. "It wasn't that Prince didn't play well, but they put him in space against skill players.
"People need to understand: it was during pregame, I looked at their DBs, I looked at their safeties, their wide receivers, and as a collection it might be the best unit that we've seen all year. So we knew we were in for a tough fight on the perimeter.
"I think the biggest adjustment was just the collaborative communication with our players, getting in some things to help out our linebackers because Manti was playing very, very hobbled, so we needed to help him out in the back end," Kelly continued. "I thought we did a great job there. So our coaches, our players, next man in, guys coming in, it was just one of those great kind of team efforts that you look for."
With two more similar team efforts – albeit it vs. two poor teams – Notre Dame should find itself among the nation's Top 25 teams heading into a season-end showdown with currently undefeated Stanford.
Kelly's less-than-concerned with that scenario.
"I've always felt there's a bit of a separation from the top five, six teams, and then on any given day you could probably put another 20 teams and stack them up, pluses and minuses," he said of his team's status just outside the current polls. "I think at this time, I'm not really interested in whether we're the 25th or the 24th ranked team in the country. I'm more interested in developing our program to where we're one of the elite teams."
Notre Dame's next two foes, Maryland and Boston College, are a woeful 4-14 combined on the season. No. 4-ranked Stanford has won 17 straight and scored below 35 points just once in its last 22 contests dating back to the beginning of the 2010 season.