Eye in the Sky: 1st Half Defense

O'Malley's defensive game notes, charts, and observations of Notre Dame's shutout effort in the first half vs. Michigan State on Saturday.

Notre Dame played dominant, disciplined defense in its season opener vs. an overmatched Navy squad. It then played winning, solid defense vs. Purdue in a 20-17 slugfest.

Saturday night in East Lansing, the Irish played championship level defense in a 20-3 bludgeoning of the host Spartans.

There are myriad ways to judge defensive domination, but consider the following:

After charting every snap of the last two games, I have the following Win-Loss-Neutral scores for the Irish defense, with each snap receiving one of three designations:

Irish D against Purdue:
- 32 Wins including 8 "big plays" and two huge, momentum changing plays) 2
- 24 losses, including 6 big plays allowed as well as five huge, momentum changing plays yielded to the Boilermakers offense.
- The remaining 13 snaps were scored as "Neutral" (little advantage gained considering down/distance and game situation.

Irish D against Michigan State:
- 41 wins including 12 big plays
- Just 20 losses and 5 big plays allowed. The Spartans offense did not have a "huge play" -- a game-altering effort -- over the entire 60 minutes.
- 16 others were scored neutral, and in a 20-3 contest, most "neutral plays" greatly benefit the team that led throughout.

In short, Michigan State "won" just 20 of its offense's 77 snaps, with no crucial, contest-altering play over the duration. Paramount in the Irish effort was a dominant front line that's proven on three consecutive weeks to be far and away the best position group on the roster.

Below are game notes of every first half snap against Bob Diaco's Irish defense:

Front Seven Dominates Early, Often

The Irish split 4-3 and 3-4 fronts perfectly throughout the contest: 15 apiece in the first half; 14 apiece in the second with nickel intermixed 12 times -- six times in both stanzas.

Prince Shembo and Kapron Lewis-Moore controlled bruising back Le'Veon Bell on the first snap, an off-tackle run to the right…Lewis-Moore made his early presence felt on the next snap, tipping a pass at the line as Te'o converged on the intended receiver, tight end Dion Sims…The first instance of Nickel brought a familiar occurrence: freshman nickel defender Elijah Shumate undercutting a route for a pass defended, forcing a Spartans punt…Included in the drive was a starting appearance by junior nose guard Kona Schwenke, as well as true freshman Sheldon Day and sophomore Ishaq Williams as pass-rushers in the nickel defense.

The Spartans managed two first downs including a pair of third-down conversions on their second series, one that culminated in a missed field goal from 44 yards out. Bell got the drive started with a nice hesitation move to freeze Motta in space (a rarity for Motta this season) but redshirt-freshman Jalen Brown was there for the stop after six yards…Now in a 3-4, Stephon Tuitt shed his block to register a tackle-for-loss. Tuitt was aide by penetration from Louis Nix (who was outstanding throughout after Schwenke started in his stead) and Lewis-Moore…The Spartans converted on 3rd and 3 despite immediate penetration from Nix and Shembo as well as a Danny Spond blitz, but Jamoris Slaughter got sucked inside on a basic "Smash" route and beaten to the sidelines for a 10-yard gain…

With Day and redshirt-freshman Tony Springmann now in up front, Bennett Jackson was beaten to the corner for a 19-yard gain in man coverage and was called for holding, to boot. Jackson played well for most of the contest, however…After a short gain by Bell, a Carlo Calabrese blitz over center forced a quick throw to the boundary, one dropped by the Spartans (Te'o was late in coverage). Calabrese timed his blitz perfectly as the Irish showed a 3-man line in front of him…ANother nickel situation, this time on 3rd and 6 and the Spartans catch the Irish weak on the boundary as Ishaq Williams is controlled and Bell gains 7 over left tackle…

The Irish secondary responded when tested deep for the first time as freshman Keivarae Russell expertly breaks up a go route to the back left pylon: Russell was locked in man coverage with the Irish stacking the box and played the sideline throw like a veteran…A rush to the boundary goes nowhere as Shembo seals the edge and Calabrese flows through traffic to combine with Slaughter for a two-yard stop of Bell…This time the Irish nickel D holds, with a pass dropped in the flat but a pair of sophomores waiting to make the tackle short of the sticks, regardless, in Williams and corner Josh Atkinson. Williams often played linebacker in the team's nickel Saturday instead of edge rusher in a four-man front…

Staked to a 7-0 lead, Shembo again sealed the boundary edge from his 4-3 DE spot, but a personal foul for shoving Bell well out of bounds costs the Irish 15 yards. It was the defense's only mental error penalty of the evening on a night with just three calls against Diaco's group (two pass interferences on Jackson)…Shembo penetrates on the next play, allowing Te'o to make a one yard stop with an ankle tackle as the Spartans try a "Jet Sweep" (motion receiver down the line takes the handoff)…Te'o makes a stop of Larry Caper 8 yards down field after a nice play-action fake by Spartans QB Andrew Maxwell, and one snap later, both Springmann and Shembo are well-blocked, allowing a 4-yard gain on 3rd and 1 (Nix showed great penetration again)…

Motta ran over two blockers to single-handedly destroy a bubble screen, limiting it to two yards and one play later, inside 'backer Dan Fox makes his first of two big plays vs. the pass, breaking up a middle hitch to Sims, then, as part of the team's nickel defense, undercutting a skinny post intended for Sims and what might be the most textbook pass breakup of the two-year starter's career to date. Fox's tremendous solo coverage forces a Spartans punt. Maligned by many Irish fans, Fox and Motta have shown well this season, especially Motta who's light years better this September than last...

2nd Quarter

Shembo dominated the ensuing series, stringing out Bell to the boundary for a 2-yard loss on 2nd and 6, then sacking Maxwell as part of a three-man rush in the team's new nickel look (Williams again played linebacker, giving the defense eight in coverage)...

The Spartans final series of the first half posed a decent threat, but the Irish front again rose to the challenge. After three Spartans snaps gain 11 yards (a nice stop by Spond and Jackson in space to limit Bell to four yards on a screen was intermixed), Springmann records his first career sack, with a stick-to-it pass rush on 1st and 10. Sharing the sack with Springmann was a blitzing Atkinson, who fired off the boundary edge to force Maxwell up in the pocket…

Pre-snap confusion felled the Iris on two ensuing snaps: the first gained 7 yards as Calabrese hung onto Bell after a 7-yard gain (it appeared redshirt-freshman Ben Councell and Atkinson were wrongly aligned) and in a nickel set on 3rd and 5, the Irish were still shifting defensively on the snap as Jackson broke well on a slant route but was called for a questionable interference penalty…

Two more Spartans first downs, including a near-interception turned 10-yard gain vs. Russell, moved the ball to the ND 26-yard line, but the defensive front would not be denied. Following a quick look pass that Motta and SPond limit to three yards, Day broke free from a 3-4 front to record a crucial 9-yard sack of Maxwell. The true freshman from Indianapolis showed great football intelligence on the ensuing snap, stunting from a nose guard spot (3-man front in a Dime defense) to nearly intercept a backfield flare all the way round right tackle. Day appeared to injure his knee (bone bruise) in celebration, though the timing of the injury is in (irrelevant) dispute).

Classic Bend then Attack defense by Diaco's unit as the Irish pitch a shutout in the first half for the second time this season. The Irish have allowed just seven points in the first half through three games.

First-half Breakdown: 37 defensive snaps, 121 yards allowed. The Irish defense showed 15 4-3 sets; 15 3-4 sets; 6 nickel defenses and one dime package. I scored Diaco's unit with 18 wins (8 big plays), 13 losses (3 big plays allowed) and 8 neutral snaps in total.

Note: Part II will be published early Tuesday afternoon.

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