The absence of Walton and Sapp was obvious in the first two games of the season. The Irish secondary surrendered 274 passing yards and two touchdowns against Washington State. They also surrendered another 251 yards and a touchdown against Michigan.
The Irish secondary turned it around however in the last two games allowing just 119 yards against Michigan State and zero touchdowns and just 127 yards against Purdue but did allow two touchdowns. The last touchdown was a two yard pass to a defensive lineman turned tight end against Purdue and probably not the fault of the secondary. The most impressive stat was their 2-for-15 effort on third down defense.
The Irish have faced four teams who rank in the top 54 in passing offense so far--Washington State (Ranked 21, 287 yards passing per game), Michigan (32, 265 YPG), Michigan State (33, 264 YPG) and Purdue (54, 221 YPG).
While it appears Walters' coaching has made an impact, we will know soon enough because their next three opponents can throw the football. Their next opponent—Pittsburgh—is ranked 14th in the nation averaging a little over 300 yards per game. They have also scored 16 touchdowns through the air in just four games.
USC is ranked 37th with 258 yards per game and has scored 10 touchdowns through the air in their five games. Florida State is ranked 16th with 299 yards per game and have scored nine times through the air in their five games.
All three teams are currently ranked in the top 15 teams in the country--Florida State is ranked 5th in the country right now, USC is ranked 9th and Pittsburgh is ranked 15th. The Irish secondary will have to play very well if they hope to have a chance to beat any of these top teams.
Walters knows his secondary has a difficult task of trying to stop the Pittsburgh passing attack. Pittsburgh is led by the nation's top-ranked passer in passing efficiency—Rod Rutherford. Rutherford has thrown for 1171 yards and 16 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions in four games.
He throws to the nation's top-ranked leader in receiving yards in Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has caught 32 balls for 583 yards and nine touchdowns in just four games.
"We're concerned, it's not scary but we're concerned," said Walters of facing the Panthers' passing attack. "We know what our guys are capable of doing and it's just a matter of—in a game like this—if the guys will play up to their potential. That's what you look for when you have a young group and they're not sure and don't have a lot of experience. You just want them to be able to play up to their potential and not have mental mistakes."
The Irish defense will have to get off to a fast start against Pittsburgh to allow the Irish offense to get rolling. Walters says they must start fast in any game. "In any game that's important. We feel that if we go in and play well, those things will occur."
The Irish secondary has improved over the last two games and Walters says just playing the game has helped his unit out. "It's always the players learning their coverage and technique and playing. I think the key thing is, when you play in big games, we tell them that big-time players play big in big-time games. We expect our guys to rise to the occasion and play well and so far they've taken that to heart. They're not playing as well as we could play at different times but we're pretty consistent and that's what you look for."
The turnaround in the secondary is impressive but Walters takes little credit when asked how he's able to coach his unit up to their level they are playing. "I think the key thing is you got to have the athletes who have the attitude that they want to play and want to be good. You start with that and then try to plug them into the system. Then you try to challenge them to play to their potential. Senior leadership helps—(Vontez) Duff and Glenn Earl are really providing great leadership and helping our guys, giving a little advice here and there. "
"You try to put a little pressure on them in that you say ‘this is the situation, we're going to be play this game, you better prepare yourself because this guy is coming and you don't want to embarrass yourself, the family and the University," Walters continued. "You better get yourself ready to play so you don't do that.' They've got to be coach able and they buy into what we're selling."
We can't remember a year where the Irish secondary faced so many good passing teams in succession. The Irish secondary will probably have their biggest challenge of the year on Saturday facing Rutherford and the nation's best receiver in Larry Fitzgerald.
Last year, the Irish held Fitzgerald to just 83 yards on seven receptions and zero touchdowns. Both he and Rutherford have improved drastically since that game. The Irish will have to try to keep Fitzgerald in front of them and put some pressure on Rutherford with the pass rush to have any chance in winning this game. That formula worked last year and can again this year.