Four on the Spot

Four key defensive players, game scenarios, and matchups for Irish fans to monitor in Saturday night's battle against the Miami Hurricanes

1 - Irish base defense vs. Miami's tempo offense: Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has enjoyed major contributions from four safeties, three defensive backs, seven linebackers, and six defensive linemen. A healthy rotation of personnel has allowed rotating defensive fronts from a base 4-3 (31 looks over the last two contests) that puts pressure on the passer and stops the run, to a more versatile 3-4 (50 looks over the last two contests) to the occasional nickel look -- the latter offering mixed results pending the contest studied.

Saturday night its likely Diaco's group will get caught in a base look vs. an up-tempo (no-huddle/quick snap) approach from Miami's offense. Its prepared, but the play in space of sure-to-be-targeted linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox (4-3) and Ben Councell, Danny Spond, Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, and Fox (3-4 pending the personnel) will be critical on at least one Hurricanes drive.

If "caught" with a Fox/Calabrese combination on the field as it was vs. Purdue (50 4-3 sets), Notre Dame will be vulnerable to quarterback Stephen Morris' arm. With Spond back and in god health, look for more base 3-4 sets from the defense (Spond in the lineup as an outside Dog linebacker rather than Calabrese as a Will) to naturally combat the 'Canes passing prowess.

Without Spond, the Irish were forced into (50) 4-3 fronts vs. Purdue, and short passes often turned into longer gains. That won't be necessary this week in the Windy City but Spond, Fox, and Shembo/Williams will be put to the test nonetheless vs. a talented collection of skill position athletes from Miami.

2 - Quarterback Stephen Morris vs. impatience: The borrow (and yes, change) a quote form former Irish quote Lou Holtz: "They aint playin no NC State."

Miami has faced defenses with pass efficiency ratings that look like shooting percentages: 51, 66, 92…what they'll see Saturday instead is the nation's ninth-ranked, albeit largely untested, pass efficiency defense. Considering the Irish rush defense is second to very few nationally, it should be concerning for 'Canes fans that the Miami offense will have to earn its keep through the air, because Bob Diaco's Irish defense won't make it easy.

The Irish play very little man-to-man, they don't have to blitz to create pressure on the passer, and with the notable exception of a defensive breakdown vs. Navy -- in a defense the Irish won't employ vs. non-triple option teams -- the unit simply hasn't allowed anything over the top.

Morris completed a ridiculous seven passes in excess of 40 yards vs. NC State last week -- the Irish haven't allowed a gain in excess of 27 yards since the aforementioned breakdown vs. the Midshipmen. Morris will be given the same lane most opposing passers are offered by Notre Dame when its defense shows a 3-4 front: the flats. Can Morris be patient and accurate for four quarters and 40-plus attempts?

The Irish defense has no problem allowing a team the 6-yard hitch, and both its 2012 continual success and intermittent failures have come courtesy the resulting tackle attempt. If Notre Dame tackles in space Saturday night in Soldier Field, it won't lose, because Miami and Morris will make enough mistakes given ample opportunity.

Its likely that at some point, Morris and Miami wide receiver Phillip Dorsett (28 receptions, 464 yards, 3 TD) will gash the Irish deep. But unlike games vs. ACC foes Georgia Tech and NC State, Miami's opportunity will be limited. If the end result isn't six points, the Hurricanes might end up settling for what Notre Dame's first four foes have found most often: a field goal, with just two of 10 red zone opportunities ending in touchdown scores vs. the Irish to date.

3 - K Kyle Brindza vs. KR Duke Johnson and the back of the end zone: Its not technically defense, but since "scoring touchdowns" has proved difficult for Irish foes to date, freshman kick returner Duke Johnson and the quick-strike return weapon he presents (one 95-yard touchdown, albeit vs. Bethune Cookman, and 319 kick return yards over 13 opportunities vs. four BCS foes) is a reality the Irish coverage units need not deal with.

Opposing return men average a whopping five more return yards (26.2, 109th in the nation) vs. the Irish kick coverage unit. The problem is opportunity, as sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza has booted 10 touchbacks in 23 kickoffs; Its assumed that in good health he can hammer the ball through the end zone at la greater rate. He should do so Saturday -- sky kicks, directional offerings and the like only offer Miami, and Johnson, a needless opportunity for the big play.

4 - Big on Big -- Miami front five vs. the Irish fearsome foursome: The great equalizer, or as Diaco referred to the Irish front, "a monumental piece." Notre Dame can get after the quarterback, with 14 sacks in four games, 13.5 of which came courtesy defensive linemen. It can pressure passers into mistakes as evidenced by interceptions against Purdue, Michigan (3) and Navy (one that resulted in a fumble recovery touchdown) created by pocket pressure.

Morris has been sacked just seven times, though two of four BCS foes (BC #91) and Georgia Tech (#90) are among the nation's worst at rushing the passer. But Kansas State dropped Morris five times in Week Two, largely the result of an early and decisive advantage that rendered Miami one-dimensional. Notre Dame's offense is unlikely to put a 50-spot on Miami as did the Wildcats in Manhattan that Saturday, but the Irish defense is more than capable of taking away any semblance of a running game vs. the 'Canes.

Notre Dame's defensive front is light years better than anything Miami has defeated in 2012. Keeping Shembo, Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, and the rest of the Irish pass rushers from wreaking havoc is Job 1 for Miami's promising, but youth-filled offensive front (three redshirt-sophomores and a true freshman). Top Stories