While the Notre Dame (0-2) defense has played well against the pass through the season's first two games, preventing the opposition from running the football has been a different story. Georgia Tech and Tashard Choice ran wherever they wanted, gaining 265 yards in a 33-3 season-opening victory. The Irish looked much better against No. 12 Penn State last Saturday, before wearing down in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions ran for 164 yards in a 31-10 victory, but Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said 100 of those yards came from the mid-point in the fourth quarter on. From the 12-minute mark in the first quarter, to 7:13 remaining in the game, the Irish offense managed just two first downs.
With the offensive struggling to string together first downs and stay on the field, the defense has been forced into many tough situations this young season.
"Definitely fatigue is a factor for d-linemen," fifth-year senior defensive end Trevor Laws said. "We're big guys and we run around a lot. But with the rotation that we have and the conditioning that we have, it really hasn't been that much of a factor for us so far. As far as giving up too many points in the second half of games, it's our fault and it's not the conditioning."
Weis has commended his defense for playing well for the most part, keeping the team in the game for as long as they did. But he has also told them, they can get off the field in three plays as well. Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver agrees.
"The thing that we tell our guys regardless of what's happening with the offense, we still control our own destiny," Oliver said. "There's nothing saying we can't go three and out and get off the field. So that's what we're preaching to our guys. If you're out there a long time, well hey, get yourself off. The way you do that is by making plays."
It won't get any easier for Notre Dame's front seven in Ann Arbor on Saturday against Michigan (0-2). Senior running back Mike Hart is the NCAA's active career rushing leader, gaining 3,679 yards. The Irish are expecting to see a heavy dose of Hart, with true freshman Ryan Mallet making his first-career start at quarterback in place of the injured four-year starter Chad Henne.
Hart will have the opportunity to personally back-up his victory guarantee on the field, and he will be running behind a big physical line anchored by left tackle Jake Long, perhaps the nation's best.
"The problems we've had for the most part have been outside," Oliver said. "So, we talk in terms of setting the edge regardless of who is out there. Long is a guy that is going to come at you and run you to the sideline if he can. So we want to stop that momentum and set that edge and not give Hart a two-way go. If anything we want to set the edge and make him cut back to the meat of the defense."
"A lot more run preparation," nose tackle Pat Kuntz said of this week in practice. "Michigan is a run notorious team, and they're going to come right at us, so we have to be prepared for it."
More production from the offense, and the defense will have more in the tank to stop Hart and company.
***For the most part, Oliver is happy with the play and rotation on the defensive line. He has been rotating Laws, fifth-year senior Dwight Stephenson Jr. and Justin Brown at defensive end. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Kuntz and true freshman Ian Williams have been his nose tackles.
"I'd like to get another guy in that rotation, and maybe in time I'll get that guy," Oliver said. "But right now, I just feel comfortable with the three guys at end I'm rotating in there, and I feel comfortable with Ian. But when Pat's playing well, it's kind of hard to take him out."
If anyone were to step up and earn some game reps at defensive end, it would likely be sophomore Paddy Mullen.
***The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Williams has been steady when asked to spell Kuntz. He's had three tackles in both games this season, clogging up the middle.
"He's a warrior," Oliver said. "He's got some good strength. I didn't know he was as strong as he was initially when he first came here, but he holds the point pretty well. He's just gotta believe in himself in terms of making plays."
In the Florida High School weightlifting state finals his senior year, Williams bench pressed 385 pounds, and clean and jerked 325 pounds en route to an all-around fourth-place finish.
***Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown joked around that linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. won't be thinking about him returning to his alma mater on Saturday. He said that Laws won't care either. But Kuntz on the other hand, he'll be thinking about Brown when they take the field.
"Me and him, we talk a little trash to each other, fun stuff like that," Kuntz said. "I give him a hard time, he gives me a hard time.
"I tried to get some tickets off of him, just joking around with him."
***Laws has been arguably Notre Dame's best player through two games. He is the team's leading tackler with 19, an impressive number from a guy who plays in the trenches. Normally a linebacker or safety leads the team in stops. In fact, linebacker Joe Brockington is next in line with 17 tackles, followed by Crum's 15.
The 6-foot-1, 296-pound Laws has also blocked a field goal, and broken up a pass and recovered a fumble.
"I think I've been pretty productive myself," Laws said. "Definitely a lot more plays I could've made. Every time you watch film, it's like there is so many things you could've done differently. But I mean I'm pretty happy with me individually. I think d-line is playing real good too. I think people are flying around and making a lot of plays. Like always, there is so much more we can do, so much more to be done.
"My expectations are high, and I'm quite sure his are to," Oliver said. "If you don't set high goals, you'll never have an opportunity to achieve them, so I'm quite sure he's setting some high goals for himself. He's probably still not happy with his sack production and things of that nature, so there's still some goals out there to achieve."
Against Michigan, Laws will be looking for his first tackle behind the line of scrimmage.