If It's Not One Thing, It's Another

The Notre Dame defense has almost gotten a free pass, as head coach Charlie Weis and his offense have been taking the brunt of the heat following three blowout losses to start the season. They deserve it, but as Weis took his team back to training camp this week to change attitudes and search for solutions, there was no shortage of problems needing addressing on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish defense has been consistent.

They've been consistent in getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage, consistent at failing to set the edge, and consistent in missing tackles. Of the 212 plays the Notre Dame (0-3) defense has been on the field, 150 of them have been runs. That's no surprise, considering they rank 111th nationally against the run, allowing 237.33 yards per game. Teams know they can run, and if the Irish don't show any signs of stopping the run against Michigan State (3-0) on Saturday, they will continue to see a healthy dose of it on a week-to-week basis.

"I think that was one of the biggest reasons on why we went back to really doing the basics, and not having any mental mistakes, and just going out and playing and making sure we're wrapping up," fifth-year senior safety Tom Zbikowski explained. "From my perspective, there was a couple missed tackles against Michigan that there shouldn't of been, that we've got to make and we will make."

The Irish and their brand new 3-4 defense implemented by first-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, have seen two front-line running backs in three games, but that's no excuse for the extreme struggles they're having. Especially when you know it's coming, whether stopping the run was a cause of concern before the season or not.

In the season opener, Tashard Choice ran for 196 of Georgia Tech's 265 yards on the ground. The following week against Penn State, Notre Dame looked good against the run for three quarters, but in the end it was the same story. Austin Scott had 116 of the Nittany Lions' 164 rushing yards. Against the Wolverines, Zbikowski's comment was an understatement, as Mike Hart broke tackle after tackle en route to 187 of Michigan's 289 yards.

"It's been a combination of things, and it's been different things in different games," Weis said of the struggles. "In one game it's bounce-out runs. Next game, it was inside runs with missed tackles. And the last game, it was schemed runs. There is different areas of concern in different games on different runs. I think it still stems, all three of those, really still come down to when we talk about those core elements and things you need to do, it's controlling the line of scrimmage. Because when the line of scrimmage goes this way, you have a problem."

In fixing the problem and establishing that core, Weis said practice this week has been much, much, much more physical. The players have echoed that sentiment.

"Very physical," senior linebacker Anthony Vernaglia stated with a snicker. "Emphasis on tackling and emphasis on being physical.

"It gets us back to the basics of defense which is taking on blocks, shedding blocks and tackling people. We don't normally tackle all the way to the ground in practice, so getting back to that will help us not miss as many tackles as we did last week."

Those miscues kept the Irish defense on the field longer than they should've been. The opposition is converting on 52 percent (24 of 46) of their third-down plays, and the Irish have only registered three sacks.

"It's really people not executing the game plan," senior defensive tackle Trevor Laws said. "People always say you're just tired out in the second half, you played so many plays. But I mean our play count isn't really that high, and when you go back and look at the film, it's really just people not doing their jobs on defense, on certain different plays they should be doing it. I feel like the team is in pretty good shape collectively. People need do their job all the time through the year."

Virtually untested against the pass, the Irish rank fifth nationally, yielding just 114 yards per game. As far as what Laws said about being in good shape collectively, if they can find away to play against the run like they did in the first three quarters against Penn State, maybe we'll see what the secondary is truly made of. Weis said following the game, that the Nittany Lions gained 100 of their 164 yards from the midway point of the fourth quarter on.

Laws stated that Sunday's practice following the Michigan game was the most physical one of the season. A lot of guys being interviewed on Wednesday said they were feeling more bumps and bruises this week. Vernaglia said he thought that in three practices, the team has become tougher.

"Mentality," he said of the biggest difference. "A lot of it has to do with your mind. A lot of it is technique, basics, tackling. A lot of the big runs could've been stopped by holding onto the ball carrier."

Against the Spartans on Saturday, the Irish we'll have their hands full trying to hold onto the ball carrier again. Michigan State features a two-back attack, with 5-foot-9, 200-pound Javon Ringer (55 carries, 255 yards, 1 TD) as the slasher, and 6-foot, 255-pound Jehuu Caulcrick (45 carries, 217 yards, 6 TDs) as the battering ram. Caulcrick, who had four first half touchdowns in the season-opening win over UAB, ranks ninth nationally in points per game.

Those two are capable of breaking a lot of tackles. In preparing for that, and the rest of the season, Irish players have had to deal with each other when missing a tackle this week in practice.

"Just coaches and just each other, teammates just getting on each other about missed tackles," Zbikowski said. "We know there is going to be missed tackles, but you have to try and eliminate them as much as possible."

"If a guy messes up, coach Brown is there, I'm there, we've got to get it fixed and we just want to get on the same page," senior linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. explained.

Apparently, there hasn't been any free passes this week on the practice field.

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