After every three games, Irish Illustrated will check in with a former Irish football captain/leader for his analysis of Notre Dame’s play.
Getting the ball rolling for us at the one-quarter pole is 1988-89 captain Ned Bolcar, one of several great Irish linebackers during an era when Notre Dame won one national title (1988), competed for another (1989), and then reloaded with a new group of talented players that made a run for the national championship in ’93.
We asked Bolcar to comment specifically on what he’s seen of the Irish defense against Texas, Nevada and Michigan State.
QUESTION: What were your thoughts on the 3-3-5 approach against Texas?
NED BOLCAR: If you’re playing against a freshman quarterback and a running game that is formidable with a big backfield -- 240 pounds plus a young offensive line -- you figure they’re going to try to come out and establish the run.
As a linebacker, I don’t want to be blocked one-on-one. I want to have some coverage up front. I want to control the front five with four defensive linemen. I had Chris Zorich in front of me, which obviously demanded a double team. But as a linebacker, I want to be able to get down hill, play off a guy chipping off a double team, and be able to attack the run.
You can’t do that when you have three defensive linemen, nobody up front is getting double-teamed, the guards and tackles are coming at the linebackers one-on-one, and you have to fight them off. The next thing you know, you’ve got a 250-pound guy running down your throat.
The defensive line doesn’t get penetration. The linebackers appear to be talented, but they’re manned up and I don’t care who you are, it’s tough to play one-on-one against tackles and guards and expect to make a tackle on a 250-pound running back. It’s difficult to get a shot for a squared-up tackle.
We don’t control the line of scrimmage with a four-man front, let alone a three-man front. So therefore we’re losing the battle on the line of scrimmage. The linebackers are on an island. I think there’s promise with these linebackers, but in that game, they certainly didn’t get any help from the line or the scheme.
Q: What would be the benefit of playing nickel personnel against Texas?
NB: I’m not the defensive coordinator or Brian Kelly. They get paid millions of dollars to make these decisions. I’m a fan who knows a little bit about football. But I don’t see the benefit.
Why would you bring in a nickel back at 200 pounds to cover a pass when you can’t even control the line of scrimmage? Why not try to force them to pass the ball? If you can’t stop the run, they’re going to run it down your throat. Texas ran the ball well. Obviously, the freshman quarterback threw the ball well, and that opened up the run.
The problem against Texas and Michigan State was we didn’t control the line of scrimmage, we didn’t get off blocks well and we didn’t tackle well. We don’t put pressure on the quarterback. Trying to get off blocks, it’s like glue.
I, personally, would always start at the front seven and work my way back. If you can’t control the line of scrimmage, they’re going to run the ball down your throat and they’re still going to be able to pass the ball.
Q: Why is Notre Dame tackling poorly?
NB: If you’re not getting off blocks well, you’re off-balance. You’re using one hand. You’re usually reaching and diving for somebody. So first they have to disengage from the block. They have to put more pressure on the line of scrimmage.
You need some push. You can’t let them re-establish the line of scrimmage two yards upfield because that creates gaps. There’s a trickle-down effect as it pertains to the linebackers.
If you’re not going to make a tackle, you at least have to jam things up so you can get front side or backside help. Poor tackling at linebacker usually starts on the line of scrimmage.
I know Brian Kelly said Tuesday that they’re going from speed to speed instead of speed to power. That’s an indication that their tackling fundamentals are lacking, and that’s been pretty evident.
Q: You played for two of the greatest Notre Dame teams in history (1988-89). You were captain of those two teams. What made Barry Alvarez a great defensive coordinator?
NB: He put us in position to win. We played the right scheme. He knew the talent we had.
Now granted, we had a lot of talent. We controlled the gaps. We had Chris Zorich at nose tackle. He always demanded a double team. We were stout on the corners with Todd Lyght. We had a great free safety in Pat Terrell.
We had the talent, but we put the talent in the right place and (Alvarez) also coached us up well. We were coached well as a unit and we executed as a defense. Once that whistle blows, if you don’t execute your role, you’re not going to be successful.
You can be in the right defense and you can be well trained. But come game time, if you can’t make the tackle when you should, can’t force a double team when you should, can’t force the ball back inside when you should, and can’t cover the receiver and break on the ball properly, it won’t happen.
I think the problem this year is being in some bad defenses, specifically against Texas, and guys individually not winning battles. I don’t think Brian VanGorder drew up a defense in which Cole Luke is 15 yards away from the receiver with the Michigan State game on the line.
Q: Who do you see playing well defensively?
NB: Isaac Rochell is putting as much pressure on the quarterback as he can. That’s not necessarily his strength. His strength is his physical strength at the point of attack. He’s the guy that’s getting some penetration. He’s around the ball.
I like James Onwualu and the progress he’s made in his game. He’s around the ball a lot and he forces the play to the middle of the field. I like Nyles Morgan. He’s active. You’ve got to have the linebackers making a lot of plays and he’s doing that.
Besides those three guys? Let me think. Jerry Tillery played very well against Michigan State. He made penetration. Cole Luke has been good at times, but he was not against Michigan State. When the Will linebackers have played well, they’ve been pretty good. But it’s taken one of them to fail to get to the more effective player of the two on that given day.
Q: During your time at Notre Dame, you were 4-1 against Michigan State. Michigan State was not then what they are now. But some things remain constant, like the way Michigan State forces you to be physically accountable from start to finish.
NB: That has been constant with Michigan State, and that’s why that 73-yard run (by Gerald Holmes) accentuates the importance of physicality and accounting for your responsibilities.
Michigan State won every one-on-one battle on that play, which is why the running back went untouched.
They motion through. Rochell comes around from the backside. Jarron Jones is cut down. The center cuts Greer Martini completely. Then the guard chips off the tackle and gets to Drue Tranquill, who probably got pushed in the back. They double-teamed the outside linebacker. Morgan comes up to make the tackle and gets taken out of the play by the running back.
Here’s where I disagree with that approach. Morgan completely sold his body to the running back. That’s great. But the one-for-one block completely gives up his body. Cole Luke is out of the play. No one is there to make a play, which makes the sacrifice of the Mike linebacker ineffective.
As a middle linebacker, I tried to take on blocks and still make plays. You’re doing your job, but when you take on power, you have to try to make the tackle, too. Michigan State wants you to sacrifice a one-for-one play by the linebacker. If your teammates aren’t getting off blocks, that sacrifice of one-for-one doesn’t help you.
Q: What are some basic solutions or a list of things this defense has to do in order to improve?
NB: Let me start by saying on the offensive side of the ball, the line needs to keep improving. I think it will and I think they’ve done some good things, but that performance against Michigan State – when they needed to be physical – fell short.
Defensively, find a way to do a better job of controlling the point of attack. Whether you play a four-man front or a three-man front, you’ve got to control the line of scrimmage. There’s too much push upfield. Establish the line of scrimmage at the line of scrimmage.
If you can’t get to the quarterback, don’t blitz. Why bring five guys and still not get to the quarterback? I don’t even know why we blitz. It doesn’t make sense.
Watch when Michigan State blitzes. Not every single one, but they create situations that allow them to get pressure on the quarterback. We never get there. We never even pressure the guy. It’s frustrating to watch.
We need better help over the top from the safeties, which I know isn’t going to be easy because the personnel is not ideal or very deep in numbers. We can’t be sound defensively giving up big chunk plays.
I’d like to see better run ‘tilt’ from the DBs. We’ve seen too much push between the tackles without the safeties in position to fill. Better run support in the middle of the field from the defensive backs.
That’s a lot to improve upon. The next couple games give us an opportunity to make progress in some basic areas of sound defense.