LET’S START WITH FIRST DOWN
One week ago in Jacksonville, Navy’s first half triple-option offense produced an average of 10 yards per play on 11 first down snaps. That total dropped to a paltry 1.4 yards per first down snap in the second stanza as Notre Dame’s defense adjusted to the speed of the Midshipmen’s deceptive attack.
Today in Texas, the Irish defense picked up where it left off in Florida, holding Army to 2.5 yards per snap on its *eight meaningful first down efforts in the opening half; a 3.0 average over the course of the game.
(*Army gained 12 yards on first down to conclude the half as time expired thereafter.)
“Props to those inside guys, especially,” said linebacker and captain James Onwualu. “They’re doing a lot of the grunt work in there, getting those (offensive) linemen on their legs which allows us to run. So props to them.”
With the exception of the clock-killing 12-yarder, Army managed just two first-half gains of more than 10 yards en route to a 38-6 halftime lead.
LOTS OF LOVE AND LUKE
Notre Dame’s defense registered 11 Stuffs on 26 first half snaps and it was the Irish perimeter doing most of the damage statistically. Cornerbacks Cole Luke and Julian Love lent a hand on a combined seven of the 11 close-to-scrimmage tackles.
Two of Luke’s first half Stuffs occurred on third down while Love added another for a fourth down stop near midfield. The resulting turnover on downs led to an Irish touchdown seven snaps later.
Love, who intercepted the first pass of his collegiate career on fourth down at the Irish goal line, also defended a would-be Army touchdown pass from just outside the red zone earlier in the second stanza. Luke broke up a third down pass and narrowly missed a diving interception early in the fourth quarter.
“The kid was here for his spring break when he was in high school, trying to learn and doing what he could,” said Onwualu of Love. “Can’t say enough great things about him. He’s always asking good questions and trying to get more time from some of the veterans. I can’t wait to see what his career becomes.”
Though he played well last week in the 28-27 loss to Navy, Luke will not miss defending the option as the defense transitions back to reality for Saturday’s matchup vs. Virginia Tech.
“No. Not at all. I won’t at all,” said Luke when asked if he’d miss anything about defending the option. “These two weeks were more physical than the whole season. We’re just in the box a lot more,” he said of the cornerbacks’ duties. “Trying to adjust to Virginia Tech and USC is just going to take a lot of repetition.”
The Black Knights entered Saturday’s contest ranked sixth nationally in total defense – one spot below Ohio State.
Roughly four first half Irish touchdown drives later, Army’s defense was exposed for its previous level of competition. Notre Dame’s overall roster, especially its offense, impressed Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken.
“Did you happen to look at those guys in the green jerseys as compared to the guys in the white jerseys,” Monken joked post-game. “There’s just no physical comparison between the two football teams.
“We play other good players. We’ve played some good teams and some good players all year long, but they’ve got some pretty special guys.”
Notre Dame amassed first half gains of 37 (touchdown), 18, 27, 25, 23, and 31 (touchdown) yards en route to a 38-6 lead.
“We were able to throw the ball over their heads and it backed them off, so it gave us some opportunities to run the football,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I think any time that you get the ball vertically down the field, it’s going to open up your running game because they certainly weren’t going to play their safeties down.”
Six of Notre Dame’s first seven drives ended with points on the board including five touchdowns:
- 5 plays 71 yards TD - 14-0
- 8 plays 44 yards TD - 21-0
- 9 plays 71 yards TD - 28-6
- 9 plays, 49 yards FG - 31-6
- 7 plays 48 yards TD - 38-6
- 16 plays 76 yards - INT
- 5 plays 87 yards TD - 44-6
The Irish did not punt, maintaining possession for the final 8:51 of the second half to burn the clock to the final gun.
THIRD DOWN PROGRESS CONTINUES
Notre Dame stopped Army on its first two third down chances and by the time the Black Knights made good on their third, the Irish had built a 21-0 lead and as a result never had to consider a glance in the rear view mirror.
The Irish defense turned back four of Army’s first six third down chances of the second stanza as well, never allowing enough yardage for a viable fourth down decision from Army aside from a 4th-and-12 try at the Irish 13-yard line, one intercepted by the aforementioned freshman Love.
“It’s our money down now,” said Onwualu of third down. “We have a way different mindset. We used to practice it a little bit later in the week. Now we’re getting into it on Tuesday, continuing it on Wednesday and into Thursday. I think that emphasis has been huge.”
Notre Dame stopped nine of Army’s combined 13 third/fourth down chances over the course of the contest. They’ve held on 54 of their foes last 84 third down chances since assistant coach Mike Elston and defensive analyst Greg Hudson stepped into co-coordinator roles six games ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS SPARK
After weeks (months?) of deserved derision at their expense, the Notre Dame Special Teams has had its day.
And it only took 12 seconds to make its initial mark.
“They do a great job. They really believe in me,” said sophomore kick returner C.J. Sanders of his 93-yard trip to pay dirt on the game’s opening kick. “When you have a group of guys that really believe in you, anything can happen at any given minute.
“I feel like we have a chance to score a couple more before he season is over.”
The guys that believed in him, and more important, blocked for him, were as follows: Jalen Elliott, Avery Sebastian, Chase Claypool, and Nicco Fertitta up front; Asmar Bilal and Jamir Jones behind them; the tight end trio of Durham Smythe, Jacob Matuska, and Nic Weishar near the Irish 20-yard line, and fellow return man/traffic cop, Chris Finke.
Finke added a 22-yard punt return later in the first quarter to set up an Irish touchdown and 21-0 lead. But it was Sanders’ opening salvo that provided the spark.
“That was disappointing and not a great way to start a game where you need to play almost perfect to win,” said Army’s Monken. “To go down the first play of the game like that is tough, and I think it sets the tone.”