In what was by far the best defensive performance Notre Dame has produced all season, the Huskies amassed only 124 total yards, the fewest the Irish have allowed in 12 years since Rutgers picked up 43 total yards in 1996. Additionally, Washington took zero snaps in Notre Dame territory against the Irish first-team defense. Perhaps more importantly, however, the Huskies gained only 26 rushing yards against the Irish defense. Looking ahead, however, the task isn't going to get any easier, as the Irish will face a number of proficient rushing offenses starting with Pittsburgh and LeSean McCoy. In the coming weeks, Notre Dame will face the second-ranked rushing attack of the Navy Midshipmen, the 47th-ranked Panthers and Boston College, who holds the 55th spot in rushing offense.
Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver has been analyzing McCoy all week and had some positive accolades to say about the Panthers runningback.
"We've got to play strong team defense," Oliver said of facing McCoy and the Pittsburgh offense. "It's not just going to take one person because he's a good ball player. Obviously he wants to run inside the tackle box and we want to take away those holes however we can, with whoever's on the edge, they've got to knock out those gaps because guys are trying to kick you out and pull with his guard and you've got to take away those seams, wherever it is. We've got to get him going east-to-west, not north and south."
McCoy presents the challenge of being perhaps the toughest back the Irish have faced all season. The sophomore leads the nation in scoring with 14 touchdowns on the season, good enough for a 12 point per game average. In order to successfully neutralize McCoy's abilities, Notre Dame will have to excel in one area that they did against the Huskies — tackling. Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown acknowledged that part of the success at stopping the run at Washington was due to the improvement on wrapping ball carriers up with better efficacy.
"Just like I said, every week what we want to do is limit missed tackles and limit big plays," Brown said. "So week-in and week-out that is what we want to do, and we're trying to focus on doing that this week. It's like a game-by-game deal. You don't think about the last one, you think about the next one and the challenge that you have, and that's what we try to do."
In order to limit these explosive plays, Brown stresses fundamentals every week in practice and the film room.
"Yeah, and realizing where your help is, the type of player you are going against, the type of tackle it is; all of that stuff matters," Brown said. "Sometimes in the midst of big games, great players, blockers, you kind of forget about some of the little things; staying in good balance, closing the distance, and using my help, wrapping my arms, one guy wraps and the next guy comes in and strips, those sorts of things. Yeah, so those are the kind of things we talk about."
Part of the reason as to why Notre Dame enjoyed success against the Huskies was the physical play of Pat Kuntz. The senior leads the Irish defensive line in tackles with 17 stops and holds the top spot in sacks with three. Headed into the final stretch of the season, Kuntz and the defense have several goals they would like to see accomplished. None, however, is more essential than the immobilization of opponents' rushing schemes.
"Well, I think that, number one, is the run defense and that's with any college defensive line," Kuntz said of necessary improvements. "That's the number one outlook — it's to stop the run. I feel like if we keep improving and keep working on the fundamentals, we can become a pretty darn good defensive line."
Seeing the stat sheet after contest against the Huskies, Kuntz and his teammates were pleased with the overall outcome against the rush, but the Panthers face a different set of obstacles for Notre Dame.
"It felt good, it felt good," Kuntz said. "We got on them early and our offense was getting after them so that also takes into play. But at the same time, Pittsburgh is a different team than Washington so anything that we did last week, you've got to throw it out of your memory because we've got a whole different battle ahead of us."
So what can the Irish take and build upon after the 33-7 win over the Huskies? More than anything, it's an issue of poise and momentum.
"It's a different offense," Kuntz admitted. "So it's hard to really take that much out of Washington, except for the momentum, success and confidence we have coming out of there."
Another cog that has been key in the hindrance of the opposing run game is the presence and play of safety Kyle McCarthy. The senior leads all Notre Dame defenders with 61 total tackles. Although McCarthy plays from further back in the safety spot, the coaching staff has been keen to bring him into the box and use his tackling ability to support the defense.
"Basically, it's about following the rules and keys of the defense," McCarthy said. "If the D line and the linebackers are doing a good job, filling their gaps and holding their leverage, the ball has no where to go but outside to me and for the most part, I've been making the most of that opportunity."
One aspect the Irish coaching staff has been trying to preach all season long is the ability to hold each other accountable for their respective responsibilities and roles within the defense. McCarthy couldn't agree more and recognizes that a majority of the plays he makes are because of this.
"All 11 guys have to be on the same page on the defense," he said. "The saying is you're only as strong as your weakest link, so if one guys isn't in his gap, the runningback is going to exploit that and make a big play and you don't want that as a defender."