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Containing the (Best) 1-2 Punch

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett represent the best combination of running back and running quarterback Notre Dame has faced in the Brian Kelly era. We checked in with eight key Irish defenders on how they plan to limit the pair’s inflicted damages.

If it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it.

Ohio State doesn’t plan to, and in the wake of the Buckeyes last two outings, it seems they’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

“We're not going to change things up. We're going to go out there and play Ohio State football,’” offered running back Ezekiel Elliott Wednesday morning. “We're going to come out there, play aggressive as always, be physical.”

The Buckeyes played “Ohio State Football” in their most recent contest, a brutal humbling of archrival Michigan, the second-best defense Elliott – last year’s national championship game MVP – and crew faced this fall. The end result was 51 team rushing attempts, 369 rushing yards and 42 points scored, each number representing the most registered against the Wolverines defense this season.

Conversely, the Bucks previous outing presented the polar opposite, both in approach and result. Facing the best defense on their schedule this season, Ohio State was limited to 86 rushing yards, 14 points, and dealt their lone defeat, courtesy Michigan State’s 9th-ranked rush defense. A mere 29 rushing attempts by the host Buckeyes stands as the accepted root cause of the loss.

Can Notre Dame’s undervalued 64th-ranked rush defense (facing two triple-option teams skews the number) respond in kind against the best offense it has faced, not only in 2015, but arguably since encountering Alabama 157 weeks ago in Miami?

As captain Joe Schmidt mused when asked what makes Elliott special, “That's a hard question to answer.”

Irish Illustrated posed the question of “how” to those charged with performing the daunting task Friday in Glendale.

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Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, plus Sam linebacker James Onwualu are faced with the vexing challenge of adhering to their individual assignments on each snap.

With quarterback J.T. Barrett possessing the football and disguising his intentions on either a fake or actual handoff to Elliott upwards of 40, perhaps 50 snaps Friday afternoon, how will the trio respond and what is their singular focus?

Onwualu – “Containing those athletes. (But) I have a ton of great athletes coming to swarm. I know my boys are coming. So containing the ball, working to play as a team. Swarm to the ball.

“This offense has a lot of different dynamics. They can beat you in a lot of places so of course we have to be in-tuned to our assignment but we’re going to throw a couple different variables at them so we’ll see how they do.”

Trumbetti – “They’re great athletes. Fast, quick. They just, that backfield is incredible. We’re focusing on…they’re just really good. I have to be really technically sound and locked into my assignment.

“I’m just focused on my job, not anyone else’s, because the one play I do that he (Barrett) could break it for a 60-yard touchdown. If everyone has that mentality and if everyone does that we’re going to win the game.”

Okwara – “It’s just being disciplined. You really only have one job. If you try to do someone else’s, that’s when the mistakes usually happen. Know what you have each play.

“The story of the game will definitely be our front seven vs. their running game.”

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The strength of the Irish defense lies in its defensive interior, namely Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, weak side linebacker Jaylon Smith, and mike ‘backer Joe Schmidt. The initial three represent the unit’s top three players (for both of the last two seasons) and each member of the quartet will have to shine if the Irish are to thrive in the Desert.

Smith – “We view Ezekiel Elliott as their best player. I think the offense runs around him, getting him the ball. The difficult thing when a running quarterback is involved is there’s a hat for every player. So the quarterback is the extra hat. You know what I mean? So that’s the game-changing thing.

“To combat that, players have to get off blocks and make plays when he’s running the ball.”

Asked if Barrett and Elliott are the best combination he’s faced, Smith laughed, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Schmidt – “Obviously putting a running quarterback into any system changes the variables tremendously. You have to account for another guy running the football back there. That's as basic as I can kind of put it.
(Barrett’s) so talented at running the football.

“I don't think people realize he's a 6'2", 225-pound runner back there when he decides to be. Obviously he's a very capable passer when he wants to be, but he's another running back and can do a lot of challenging things.”

Rochell – “You have to be assignment driven and slow-play everything. You can’t be quick to go to something because those guys are way too athletic. If you give ‘em space or an opening they’ll take it. The biggest thing is slow-playing everything.

“I think there are definitely advantages to (slow-playing) it. Slow the game down. Any good player would tell you that when you’re anxious and it’s going fast you don’t know what’s going on. Slow play it, read your keys, play off that.”

Asked if he would see time at the nose as he did last season vs. LSU, Rochell offered a noncommittal, “It might just be the thing to do. I love playing the middle. I love being in the trenches. I think the team can benefit and so can I. It’s kind of a win-win.”

Day – “You have to rally to the football. Everyone has to gang-tackle these guys. They can make people miss and once they do, they turn it into an explosive play.

“It’s unique because they’re two good runners. Seems like J.T. always makes the right decision, whether to pull or keep it. We just have to limit the explosives.”

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While free safety Matthias Farley and cornerbacks Cole Luke and Nick Watkins doubtless must remain disciplined Friday afternoon, the most difficult challenge belongs to strong safety Elijah Shumate, the de facto “eighth man in” when Notre Dame’s defense is tasked with stopping an obvious run.

The problem, of course, when facing an Urban Meyer offense, is nothing is actually obvious.

Shumate – “It’s knowing our keys. If you have a run responsibility, play the run, but be conscious of the pass. If you have a pass responsibility, play the pass, but be conscious of the run.

“Have field awareness, savvy. We’ve watched a lot of film and we know what they’re going to do in certain situations but at the same time you still have to play your assignment, read your keys, play within the scheme.

“That’s why we have D-Linemen and linebackers to play (the run) and secondary guys (to play the pass).”

Easier said than done, but the key to Friday’s contest nonetheless. Top Stories