Midweek Notebook: Irish D

Notre Dame was burned by the big play in Ann Arbor, at least four of the five incurred because of poor tackling by the Irish back seven. They've shored up the weakness since, but Oklahoma brings a new level of athlete to the equation.

Bend -- and tackle -- then don't break

36 completed passes, 13 points.

Oklahoma's offense succeeded where the Irish defense allowed it to last October: playing pitch-and-catch on an 80-yard swath of fake grass, but one located 20 yards from Notre Dame's end zone.

Once the Sooners neared that line of demarcation, however, it became a dead zone. A no-fly zone. And with no chance at running the football save for its backup quarterback in short space, Oklahoma found out the stark difference between moving the ball on defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit, and scoring against it.

Teams though have since moved the ball and crashed vs. the Irish defensive coordinator's crew. It began with an offensive clinic by Alabama on the main stage, then continued earlier this month in Ann Arbor, and even rose to the fore sporadically in West Lafayette. 42, 6, 41, 24, and 13 points have been scored vs. Notre Dame in their last five games. Add those together and you'll arrive at a total in excess of the previous 11 opponents that faced Diaco's D.

And the commonality in the most recent five vs. the previous 11, was poor tackling. The Irish were far better in that respect Saturday vs. Michigan State, but the Spartans don't have an offensive skill player capable of joining the rotation at Oklahoma.

"We have to minimize the big chunk plays, and that's one of our goals each and every week:  Minimizing those big chunk plays," Kelly said. "We were able to do that last year. We're going to have to do it this year if we want to win the football games."

To do so, Notre Dame will have to account for dual-threat triggerman Blake Bell on every snap.

"You have to prepare for him within your scheme," Kelly said. "Somebody has got to have the quarterback within what you do defensively. I think that's probably the biggest thing.  And you certainly just have to make sure that you're solid in your tackling. But the biggest challenge is him having runs and passes built into the same play. 

"We've had that for the last couple of weeks (as well). Our staff and Coach Diaco has done a great job of formulating the plan, and we're going to have to have another great one this weekend."

Oklahoma has produced 15 plays in excess of 20 yards through its first three games (8 passing, 7 rushing). Eight different players have contributed to those gains. A ninth, running back Damien Williams, is not among that group, but he ripped off a 95-yard touchdown vs. Texas last season.

"I think from a scheme standpoint, they put you in a position where you have to cover a lot of different scenarios; you're put in a very difficult position when (the offense) can be running the football and have options to throw, as well," Kelly offered.

"That constant bind that the running quarterback gives you is a stress on your defense."

Notre Dame yielded five plays in excess of 20 yards at Michigan, including a trio of 35 or more. They've allowed just one since, a jump ball situation that resulted in 48 yards for Purdue in the fourth quarter.

Saving Grace

Starting his first game Saturday vs. Michigan State was junior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace. Long-assumed the heir-apparent to Manti Te'o's role as the defense's "Mike," Grace instead rotated behind 5th-year senior Dan Fox for the season's opening trio of contests.

"We always err towards the senior first and foremost, and Dan has played a lot of football for us," said Kelly of his post-camp evaluations. "Even though he was transitioning, Danny did an incredible job -- his whole career really was at Will (weak side inside linebacker), and for the team he moved over to Mike. That's how great of a team player he is, that he moves over to Mike as we continue to get Jarrett some other work."

Grace logged 50 snaps Saturday in a 66-snap contest for the Irish defense. Fox notched 33 and his fellow 5th-year Carlo Calabrese 38 as the primary Will. Grace also plays in the team's nickel and dime packages, in the latter sometimes as its lone linebacker.

He played just 23 snaps vs. both Temple and Michigan, prior.

"I think Coach D (Diaco) trusts me to have decent speed and understand the situation and be able to cover my man. Know where the sticks are," said Grace of his dime role. "I think he trusts me with that aspect of it, being on body with guys."

Kelly has trusted that Grace could do the jobs asked of him dating back to the coach's time in the Queen City.

"I recruited him when I was at Cincinnati at Colerain High School, one of the top public high schools in the Cincinnati area, a great tradition there," said Kelly. "He was a character kid from the day that I got a chance to know him, just great character kid, leader. And so I knew not only was he going to be a great player, but he was going to be a leader. He's lived up to that.

"Even though he was behind our best leader in our program (Manti Te'o), and that has a tendency, obviously, to overshadow you, he led in community service. He led in fellowship. Now he's starting to become more vocal as a football player, as well. He'll continue to develop in that manner."

A 23-game starter, Fox's position has hardly been usurped.

"Dan played a lot of Mike on Saturday, as well," Kelly noted. "I think it's an even -- both of those guys are playing the position. Jarrett is not taking every single one of those reps. I think you're going to continue to see Dan take some Mike reps, and obviously the Will linebacker position, as well."

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