Eye in the Sky: Defense

The first of two defensive film reviews examines the contributions of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Jaylon Smith, a boost provided by the return of Sheldon Day, and the need for a return to form from Matthias Farley.

Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt

Nix's post-game comment when asked about Tuitt's play was telling: "Uh, I don't think he played that well. I think he could do better. He has a lot of potential to do better than he did tonight. People might give him a lot of credit for getting sacks, but he could do a lot better."

Tuitt was awfully good Saturday night and for my money, both live and upon film review, the game's MIP -- Most Impactful Player.

He showed much better lateral movement early, crashing inside after shedding his block outside to make a stop on USC runner Silas Redd in a goal-to-go situation. He followed later with a sprint from his field side across the line of scrimmage and nearly 15 yards downfield to make a boundary side stop of Redd who had shed a Bennett Jackson arm tackle. He skated down the line of scrimmage to combine with Dan Fox on a tackle for loss, again to the boundary side (and due to the efforts of freshman Jaylon Smith setting the edge).

As a pass rusher, Tuitt recorded a sack on third-and-two, charging inside left guard and aided by a delayed Ben Councell blitz that took USC's overmatched left tackle, Chad Wheeler, outside. Tuitt added a 3rd-and-3 pass breakup and a 4th-and-20 sack on the Trojans penultimate drive. The 20-yard distance was the result of a hold against Tuitt two snaps earlier.

He was doubtless the day's best, but Nix's mention that he can be better is true as well. Tuitt faced a poor offensive front and dominated it. None of the Trojans, from Wheeler to right tackle Kevin Graf, to left guard and oft-victimized Max Tuerk were in his league.

Had this Tuitt been available in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame would be 6-1 and in the thick of the Top 15 rather than outside the polls.

If he continues to improve through season's end, and Sheldon Day rounds into form post-ankle injury, Notre Dame has a shot vs. Stanford, because Nix has been there all season (with the exception of a disinterested and/or distracted outing vs. Temple).

A team player, Nix nonetheless has made multiple comments about "doing his job" -- that's exactly what he's supposed to do, and often that means taking up two men so his teammates can contend with one. Nix capitalized on a few opportunities as well, working through a double team for a pass defended that would have resulted in an easy first down to the perimeter, then burying Redd on 2nd and 8 inside.

He previously brought heavy pressure in a 2nd and goal situation, then after committing his x penalty of the season, charged through to burying Redd from the Wildcat formation for a one-yard loss, forcing a field goal and 10-7 rather than 14-7 deficit for his squad late in the first half.

Nix brought a rare moment of honesty to a post-game victory interview. I suspect he wants more from Tuitt, Day in good health, and his linebacker teammates, and knows they'll need it to contend with the Cardinal or quality bowl team thereafter.

The Ascent

In November 2002, Notre Dame senior safety Gerome Sapp recorded the most athletic interception I've witnessed in the House that Rockne Built. A remarkable diving stab of a Boston College pass that he caught inches off the ground, his feet above his head on the play.

Nearly 11 years later, freshman Jaylon Smith may have executed the best textbook interception by an Irishman, picking off a Cody Kessler offering in the left (wide) flat. Smith began the play by taking on the tight end at scrimmage. When he realized his assignment was staying in for pass protection, Smith wheeled, sprinted to his field-side flat, located an open crossing receiver -- Nelson Agholor, no less -- turned and executed an interception after first using his body to shield Agholor from the play.

It's exactly how a linebacker should execute on such a play -- a linebacker from outer space, that is. No other Irish defender during the Brian Kelly or Charlie Weis eras could have made that work.

One series later, Smith set the edge to allow Fox and Tuitt a tackle for loss. He then helped limit a pass to the flat to 7 yards to set up 3rd and 3 (and an Irish stop). Three series later he set the edge again, allowing Fox to fill and Day to make the backside stop for a loss of five yards -- it was Smith who negated Redd's outside lane on the run making it possible.

One eerie later with USC threatening at the Irish 21-yard line, Smith fired over left tackle on a run blitz that resulted in a loss of two yards. Three snaps later, his teammate Tuitt recorded a fourth-down sack that ended the Trojans penultimate drive.

Smith joined Tuitt and Nix playing at an All-American level Saturday night. The freshman's last two outings have been the best of his brief Irish career, and at the defense's most difficult position, to boot.

I know it's not in the cards (Brian Kelly noted they don't want to alter Smith's eye-progressions by moving him inside in passing situations; he currently comes off the field), but I'd love to see the team's best athlete try his hand in coverage in the nickel and dime packages as well.

Depth Was and Will Be Tested

On the fourth drive of the second quarter, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco began a series with both safety Eilar Hardy and inside linebacker Kendall Moore. During the contest, the dime package included two true freshman in Devin Butler and Cole Luke, and a player that was a walk-on the last time the two teams met, Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt starred in the dime -- it was the Diaco era's best use of the six defensive back package to date -- saving a potential first down with a diving stop on 3rd and long (the result) a 4th down stop thereafter; then delivering a pass breakup reminiscent of the days of Manti Te'o (circa 2012), dropping into his zone responsibility over the middle, not biting on a crossing receiver in front of him, and ultimately delivering a jarring blow that saved a USC reception and first down at the Irish 27-yard line with 1:05 remaining.

Cornerback Keivarae Russell delivered another pass defended one snap later and Notre Dame's first victory over USC in South Bend since Schmidt was eight years old was secured.

Kelly noted post-game the defense has lost eight members from its initial two deep (Danny Spond, Tony Springmann, Jarrett Grace, Sheldon Day, Lo Wood, and Elijah Shumate immediately come to mind). Those losses mean Hardy, Moore, Butler, and Schmidt, all three-deep members a month ago, will be necessary contributors, the latter two in larger doses than the former, over the next five games.

The Return of Day and Finding Farley

Sign me up for another 15 snaps for Sheldon Day over both of the next two contests. In other words, he needs to play and shake off the rust, but Kelly and Diaco need to protect the all-important #3 defensive line starter from requisite Service Academy cut blocks to his tender ankle.

Day's return provided a boost Saturday night. He made a pair of key stops, he made Kona Schwenke better by affording the senior DE/NG some rest -- and in turn made Nix better as Schwenke could offer respite to the big man inside, and most important, he kept Notre Dame's not-yet-ready backup defensive ends off the field for the bulk of the contest.

Notre Dame needs its four-man DL rotation at full strength vs. both Brigham Young and Stanford. That might be true of a November 9 game at Pittsburgh as well. Day's first steps back Saturday night were crucial -- he need not be overextended over the next two Saturdays.

Crisis of Confidence? Junior safety Matthias Farley missed too many tackle opportunities again Saturday night. He was hesitant in space, playing on his heels when coming to balance in run support, swiping at ankles in futile attempts after completions to receivers on the move, and wandering to scrimmage rather than attacking with authority, making himself easy to block at the second level.

It's been a rough year for Farley after he played well in a "Next Man In" scenario last fall. With Elijah Shumate out for multiple weeks due to a hamstring injury, Farley, a player most accepted as solid at worst entering the season, will have to play at a higher level going forward.

Farley did record a crucial tackle from behind on Silas Redd, limiting the hard-charging tailback to seven yards when it appeared he'd streak into the secondary near the Irish 25-yard line with five minutes remaining, Notre Dame clinging to a 14-10 edge.

It was one of the unsung plays of a game won by the Irish defense.

Note: Part II will include a look at the inside linebackers, and offer observations throughout the unit...

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