Making a Stand

The third installment in our Irish 101 series as we countdown to kickoff.

Today's 101 Installment – The Goal Line D

Shortly after Notre Dame's 23-7 loss at Michigan State last season I wrote a column "ND Football '08: I'll Take My Chances." (Good thing I didn't buy any stock that day). The impetus of the column/thought process was I thought the Irish offense found itself late in the game and even though the run defense was statistically punished, there was no quit in the unit. More importantly, I saw pieces in place that were looking to hit and compete when their backs were to the wall.

There was significant room for growth.

Entering 2009, the perceived strengths for the Irish squad includes its wide receiver corps; defensive backs – especially at cornerback; and likely the team's nickel package.

I'd like to propose a third: the goal line defensive package.

Notre Dame was faced with 23 first-and-goal situations last season: they allowed 14 touchdowns, five field goals, and on four occasions did not allow a point. The opposing offenses took an aggregate 58 snaps in those 23 situations against a competitive, active Irish goal line package. (On a related note, the Irish were exactly in the middle of the pack – 61st in Red Zone efficiency defense last season.)

Those 23 first-and-goals could have yielded 161 points against the Irish goal line defense. Instead, by meeting the challenge and stopping opponents cold in four situations while allowing only field goals in five others, the Irish goal line package saved the team 48 of those 161 possible points.

The 2009 short-yardage and goal line options available to Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta and Associate Head Coach/Co-DC Corwin Brown are abundant. Seven of the 2008 squad's 10 best goal line defenders return for 2009 (Scott Smith, Kyle McCarthy, Harrison Smith, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams). It's likely defensive tackle Hafis Williams will immediately join the middle of the goal line package and we can reasonably expect Kapron Lewis-Moore, Steve Filer, Darius Fleming, Toryan Smith, and Manti Te'o to challenge for two more spots (with T-Smith a certainty when opponents breach the three-yard line). One DB from the Raeshon McNeil (heavily involved last season), Sergio Brown, Darrin Walls, and Robert Blanton quartet will win a spot while a second from the group would likely join the package when Brown and Tenuta suspect a play-action pass, or if the Irish can force a 2nd down and more-than-five-yards situation.

Limiting and eliminating the offense's damage in first-and-goal situations is an overlooked aspect of defensive football – but one for which the Irish are well-positioned entering '09.

Super Six – Goal Line Defenders that Set the Tone

  • Linebackers Scott Smith and Brian Smith – The latter is obvious; but you'll see the former in the goal line package whether he wins a starting job or not.
  • Defensive Linemen Ethan Johnson and Ian Williams – Look for Johnson to move to a DE position in most goal-to-go situations.
  • Safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith – Smith was a force as an undersized linebacker in these situations last season and he should fare better coming up to make plays a few more yards off the line.

Defenders that Could Join the Goal Line Package

  • Linebackers Toryan Smith and Manti Te'o – Smith's hitting ability and Te'o's raw athleticism can both be unleashed in gap control situations.
  • Defensive Linemen Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman – Williams is a natural replacement for Justin Brown inside (without four immovable objects inside, the outside is irrelevant) and Newman will have a chance to unseat Paddy Mullen who held down one goal line DL spot for much of 2008.
  • Cornerback Darrin Walls and Athlete Steve Filer – Walls' anticipation bests that of both fellow cornerbacks McNeil and Blanton while Filer, like Te'o, could wreak havoc in this role.

2008 Top Plays at the Goal Line – The Turnovers

  • San Diego State (4th Quarter) – David Bruton forces a fumble on 1st and goal to keep the Irish within one touchdown of the upstart Aztecs.
  • Michigan (3rd Quarter) – Bruton strikes again, forcing a Kevin Grady fumble at the Irish four yard-line. Sergio Brown scoops up the offering to end the Wolverines threat.
  • USC (3rd Quarter) – Kyle McCarthy steps in front of a Mark Sanchez pass on first-and-goal with the Irish trailing by three scores.

2008 Top Hits in Goal-to-Go Situations

  • Michigan State (2nd Quarter): Brian Smith collides with Javon Ringer off right tackle to stuff the Spartans RB on 2nd and goal at the one-yard line.
  • Michigan State (4th Quarter): On third-and-goal from the one-yard line, Scott Smith blows up the lead blocker and forces Ringer to bounce outside where Brian Smith and Harrison Smith clean him up for a five-yard loss, forcing a field goal.
  • Bruton and Kyle McCarthy go high low vs. San Diego State to cause a possible game-saving fumble (above).

2008 Unsung Plays in Goal-to-Go Situations

  • Purdue (1st Quarter): Kerry Neal comes down the line off the left edge on first and goal to drill RB Kory Sheets. Steve Quinn and Darius Fleming help finish him off. Purdue misses a field goal three snaps later.
  • Pittsburgh (1st Overtime): Kerry Neal beats the left tackle and fullback to stop RB LeSean McCoy for no gain on first and goal from the nine-yard line. The Panthers are held to a field goal.
  • Pittsburgh (1st Overtime): On the ensuing play DT Ian Williams stays home when McCoy attempts to cut back inside after a screen pass, stopping the runner for a loss of three yards.
  • Pittsburgh (2nd Overtime): Kyle McCarthy, Pat Kuntz, and Justin Brown hold McCoy to no gain on 3rd and one to force the Panthers second field goal of overtime play.
  • Boston College (1st Quarter): Scoreless late in the period, Harrison Smith shoots the gap to hold Eagles RB Montel Harris to a two-yard gain. The Eagles were eventually held to a field goal on the drive but without Smith's athletic play Harris runs off the right side into the end zone.


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