Notre Dame wanted to get to this sooner.
After watching the full debut of the third down defense against Michigan State, it’s easy to understand why. Because for the first time under embattled defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, it appears the Irish have a counter punch that might actually work.
It did last Saturday night, one of the few things that functioned as planned.
When Notre Dame got Michigan State into third down situations it often rotated in freshman defensive linemen Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes at end while Isaac Rochell and Jonathan Bonner moved inside. Freshman corner Julian Love posted up at nickel and junior linebacker Greer Martini subbed in next to Nyles Morgan.
The results were encouraging.
That personnel group faced nine third downs against Michigan State and allowed just three first downs. All three of those came on coverage breakdowns, not mistakes in the front.
“We've got other things that we need to get better at, but we think that that mix can be effective,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “And we’re still trying to find that rotation, but I think we're getting closer to finding that group.”
So far, so good.
On the personnel group’s nine snaps, Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor went 3-of-7 passing for 54 yards and an interception, created by a Hayes tip that Devin Studstill grabbed. He also rushed twice for five yards, but those carries didn’t result in first downs.
When Notre Dame went old on defense on third down the results got worse. Traditional lineups allowed the Spartans to convert 6-of-9 on third down, including those two conversions late that ended the game.
The Irish wanted to activate this look sooner after tinkering in August, but the 3-3-5 game plan at Texas complicated it. The Longhorns didn’t get into many third-and-longs, and they usually bulldozed the 3-3-5 when they did. The updated defense wasn’t necessary against Nevada, which basically got shut out until the reserves entered. The Wolf Pack finished 3-of-12 on third down.
While a lot goes into making this third down package work, speed off the edge is a major factor. That’s where Okwara and Hayes come into play, even in a defense without a sack this season.
“Daelin is really starting to pick it up, Julian is catching on,” Morgan said. “I remember watching Julian make plays (last week) as I’m doing my thing. It’s gonna be really nice.”
It’s all a good place for Hayes and Okwara to be heading toward Duke and beyond.
Notre Dame’s defense needs help. These two can provide some.
“Julian can bend really well off the edge. He gets there and really forces the quarterback to step up in the pocket,” Kelly said. “We think with Rochell and Bonner inside, athletic guys, that we feel we can generate the kind of pass rush that we're looking for.”