"It's nice, I was comfortable (having a tackle lined over him)," Lucas Nix said. "I'm right back inside, but now I'm (uncovered) again. It's not so bad."
Last week against Boston College, the Irish may have turned a corner in improving its defense from where it has been in the past. The Irish defense allowed just five rushing yards to Boston College, the second-lowest output against an Irish defense since 1998. Its 11 tackles for losses was also the second-most for a Notre Dame defense, during the same stretch.
"I think the players, just getting more comfortable with what they're doing," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They've got good players, a lot of talent. They run real well. I think it's becoming more familiar with the system."
That system, is the 3-4 scheme. For players like Nix, instead of having a defensive tackle over him, that space is now open. However, it is open for inside linebackers to blitz up the middle, which seems to have worked well for the Irish so far this year. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has a solid rotation of three, including Carlo Calabrese (6-1, 240), Manti Te'o (6-2, 245) and Anthony McDonald (6-2, 238). All three have been effective. Calabrese--a one-time Pitt recruit--leads the team in both tackles for losses (5) and sacks (2.5).
In some cases, Kelly uses the outside linebackers on a blitz, but so far this season, it's been the guys inside creating more havoc, which only adds to the pressure facing the guards, Nix and Chris Jacobson. Occasionally, in passing downs, one of the outside linebackers will come up to the line, while two inside linebackers are kept in. Outside linebacker Darius Fleming (6-2, 247), has two sacks, tied for second on the team. The Irish also use Kerry Neal (6-2, 245) and Brian Smith (6-3, 243), opposite Fleming.
"They'll line up in a straight 3-4, and just like they did at Cincinnati, there will be times where they jump into a 4-3 look too," Wannstedt said. "The ends are over the tackles, for the most part."
The offensive tackles have the responsibility of taking on the ends, with the center--and in some rare cases the guard--picking up nose guard Ian Williams (6-2, 305). Defensive ends Ethan Johnson (6-4, 285) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 283) are essentially defensive tackles; bigger than anything Jason Pinkston has seen this year, and Jordan Gibbs in his limited time as a starter. Williams leads all defensive linemen with 20 tackles on the season, and he possesses 23 career starts.
"It is different," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Utah was a little bit of an under scheme, they ran a little bit of 3-4. But really, the last few weeks have all been 4-3 teams, so there will be a little more required of our players from the standpoint of focusing in, and making sure we get our hats, our blocks on the right people. Anytime you're seeing different schemes you have to make sure that you're not doing a little too much, then what you're doing is enough to go out and execute."