Captain’s Corner with Ned Bolcar

Notre Dame has implemented a more aggressive defense the last two seasons, but it has come at the expense of big plays and consistent, fundamental performance.

(Editor’s note: Bolcar focused on the defense for Irish Illustrated’s Captain’s Corner segment.)

I’m disappointed Notre Dame didn’t play better. It was tough to watch. Ohio State beat us up with their front seven, and then when we go in there shorthanded defensively, it makes it that much more difficult, even with Jarron Jones back.

Ohio State has that big offensive line that has made their money running the ball the last couple years. You can only contain Ezekiel Elliott for so long, and the last couple years, we’ve seen the defense give up a lot of big plays and long drives, and that continued against Ohio State.

I thought we had a shot when the offensive started generating some points and we got it to down to seven. But you have Elliott making big plays as everybody gets walled off, and he’s off to the races.

What a tough break for Jaylon Smith. It sounds like he had an insurance policy and it’s not like he isn’t going to be drafted in the first round. So he’s still going to make more money than most of us ever will, but it’s a tough way to end a season. He’ll be fine in the long run and back to where he was physically.

But then you add on the injury to Sheldon Day during the week and you’re missing (Jerry) Tillery, who’s a freshman, but a good player. Max Redfield’s poor decision didn’t help.

The defensive backfield played well, especially with Redfield out and some injuries. I thought Matthias Farley played a pretty good game, and Nick Watkins played well despite being thrown in there basically as a freshman. I heard Elijah Shumate’s name quite a bit, and when that happens with a defensive back, you know you’re in for a long day.

You just didn’t see any push from the defensive line or any control of the line of scrimmage. The linebackers were fairly inconsistent this year, and when Jaylon goes down, now you’ve lost your best defensive player, which Notre Dame couldn’t afford to have happen.

We talk about Joe Schmidt’s heart and leadership, but he didn’t play as consistently as he did last year. I thought Jarrett Grace played pretty well when Te’von Coney was injured, but he hadn’t played in two years, so it’s hard to raise his game.

Ohio State manhandled the front seven. They did what they wanted. We didn’t give up any real big pass plays, but Elliott’s long run broke our back. We forced a turnover and converted it into a touchdown, but we just couldn’t score at their pace. We were out-manned, especially with the loss of talent to injuries.

Brian VanGorder has been a successful coordinator for a lot of years. Does the talent fit the scheme that they’re playing? Possibly not. They weren’t consistent all year. Ohio State is a top five team and they’re really good. It wasn’t as bad as the Alabama game a couple years ago, and yes, we had injuries. But Ohio State’s defense lost Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington. They lost a top five pick and another stud defensive lineman, and the fact our offense couldn’t do more is disappointing.

Should we play a different scheme? I can’t speak to that. I don’t study it like Notre Dame’s coaches do. But our linebackers get walled off too often. Linebackers overran plays and were in the wrong position. We didn’t get beat deep, which says something about the guys that played in the secondary. But Ohio State’s not a big-play, deep-threat team per se. They’re going to work their way down the field and then Elliott or J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller is going to break a 30-, 40- or 50-yard run. When the other team goes up 14-0, they can adjust their mindset because they don’t have to throw the ball. That kind of kept the game closer for us.

It’s hard to criticize too much when Smith, Day and Redfield are out. I’m more upset that Redfield got into trouble, which shows a lack of maturity and focus. Tillery, whatever happened, he’s a freshman, but if you’re going to be a productive member of the team, you better show up and have a professionalism about you.

I was more mad about Max Redfield because how do you get to the third year of your career, playing the biggest game of the year, and get into trouble? Come on now. That’s selfishness, basically. Therefore you wonder where’s the focus for the whole team? Where’s the sense of urgency for the whole team?

People were talking about what Ohio State’s focus would be for this game. I was with an Ohio State alum and he was saying, ‘Well, it’s not a national championship game, so our focus might be off.’ But at times, it looked like it was the Notre Dame team that wasn’t focused, and Notre Dame had everything to play for.

Urban Meyer gets the talent, develops the talent, and gets them ready to play. They were 12-1 this season, and most of the year, they didn’t look like a dominant team. But they showed up and won, and when they really focused at the end of the season, they blew Michigan out and, for the most part, dominated Notre Dame.

Meyer gets his guys ready. They have their issues. But they always show up. I’m not saying our staff doesn’t get our team ready to play, but the defense was suspect all year, even before all the injuries hit. I wasn’t overly surprised to see what happened defensively against Ohio State, especially missing guys.

I’m not a defensive coordinator. I like Brian VanGorder. The stats Irish Illustrated showed this year regarding long touchdown drives and red-zone issues shocked me. They’ve got to go back and evaluate what kind of talent they have, what kind of talent they’re bringing in, and what defense fits the talent. You have to put your players in a better position to be successful.

When you’re a defense that gives up so many big plays, you can’t be fundamentally sound. Someone might say, ‘Yeah, but we’re playing aggressively.’ Then you’re not playing fundamentally sound while you’re playing aggressively. You’re doing something wrong.

It’s one thing to say you’re going to play aggressively, but within that scheme, you have to protect yourself. If you’re bringing a blitz guy, you better have somebody picking up the flat area. If you’re bringing a linebacker, you better have somebody who is going to cover the middle of the field. You better have sure tackles on the back end if you’re going to commit to the pass rush. If you’re going to fly fast to the ball, you better be well disciplined to play the cutback and have the talent to play the cutback.

I’ve seen a more aggressive defense with VanGorder, but also a lot of people out of position. So you’re not technically sound when you’re doing that. They’re coaching it up and the guys can’t do it week after week? Or are the defenses too complicated and they’re having to think too much and not react? That could be.

I don’t have the defensive game plan in my hand or the book in front of me, but sometimes you can overcomplicate things. You practice to make things second nature, and things don’t seem second nature to this defense. If you put in too much defense, now you’re thinking about every step you’re taking instead of reacting and being in the right spots.

It’s a chess match on both sides of the ball. Every offensive play is designed to go for a touchdown, theoretically, and every defense is designed to stop offenses for no gain. When there’s a breakdown, there’s a huge play. When a one-on-one battle is won, you see a successful defensive play. There are too many big plays, so not only are they losing some one-on-one battles, but there are breakdowns, mental errors, etc. Either it’s a physical breakdown on the player or the player has too much on his mind. Either way, it’s a breakdown.

What makes it even more maddening is that for the most part this year, it wasn’t the defensive front that was the problem. They were good up front. I don’t want to point fingers at guys like Joe Schmidt. But there clearly were times this year when I thought the linebackers were supposed to be there or somebody should have filled the run slot. It was the back end of the defense that let them down, not the line.

The tackling is still weak at times across the board. Is that because you’re playing a very good team? Yeah, it’s more obvious then. You can’t arm tackle Ohio State. You better be in the right position to make a play. They had more talent and they used that talent more effectively.

And now they’ve got a lot of guys to replace on a defense that wasn’t that good. You’d like to think they’ve recruited well to replace guys like Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, probably Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, probably KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley and Elijah Shumate. Guys have to step up and become the next C.J. Prosise of their position.

The great programs roll their next line of talent in. Alabama will. Ohio State’s losing a lot, but they’ll roll the next group in. You better have some young guys that are hungry and maybe bring a freshman or two into the equation.

First and foremost, though, they’re going to have to get more productivity out of the defensive players they’re putting on the field. That hasn’t happened the last two seasons.


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