So you say the Irish were lucky in the first quarter when Miami’s Phillip Dorsett dropped not one, but two deep balls, either of which could have gone for a touchdown and given Notre Dame its first deficit season.
Fair enough. Difficult to argue. Significant breakdowns.
But it was the defensive unit’s response to the early adversity and the subsequent three-and-a-half quarters that quickly re-established Notre Dame’s stop unit as one of the nation’s best as well as one of the most effective in Irish history.
“Think of what Coach (Bob) Diaco has had to defend in the five weeks,” said Brian Kelly Sunday after Notre Dame’s convincing 41-3 victory over Miami in Chicago’s Soldier Field Saturday night.
“(Navy’s) option offense, a run-first (team) with a (talented) quarterback in Purdue, Michigan State, a grind-it-out, great running back, a Michigan team that presents so many conflicts in run-pass, and then a (Miami) team that really throws it well…
“It’s been an outstanding performance to date. We’ve seen it all. Now we just need to build on it.”
That building process continued against Miami on several fronts. After using sacks/lost yardage plays to their great advantage in the first four victories (14 sacks, 22 tackles behind the line of scrimmage), the Irish failed to sack Hurricane quarterback Stephen Morris and recorded just one tackle for loss for minus-one yard.
No problem. The Irish put enough pressure on Morris with predominately a three-man front, which allowed eight to play in pass coverage. After throwing for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns in the previous two weeks, Morris was held to 201 yards and zero touchdowns.
“We take away the depth of the pocket,” Kelly said. “There is no depth to the pocket. We get such a great push from our nose and our inside that it’s hard to see downfield and you have to move your feet, which takes you out of your timing.
“A lot of the passing game is built upon the ability to step up and have great timing, and we do a very good job of disrupting timing within our scheme. That continues to be our biggest strength.”
Kelly was as concerned as Irish fans were when Dorsett got behind the defense twice in Miami’s opening drive, knowing full well that the Hurricanes would try to quick-strike Diaco’s unit again. That problem was solved on the sideline.
“We were in great coverage,” said Kelly of the deep balls Dorsett dropped. “There was a burst at the top of the route that we did not match with the same kind of urgency. We corrected that after (safeties Matthias Farley and Zeke Motta) came to the sideline. Coach (Bob) Elliott and Coach (Kerry) Cooks got on the phone right away, made the corrections with how they need to burst to stay on top of the route, and it wasn’t an issue the rest of the game.
“Believe me, (Miami) saw what we saw, so they went back to those same routes and we were on top of them. I was really pleased with our guys picking up their game when we needed to.”
Kelly also liked the nuances of the Irish pass coverage that evolved as the game progressed.
“We liked our re-routing,” said Kelly of the pass coverage by the Irish defensive backs and linebackers. “We thought we missed a couple of opportunities to re-route on the perimeter. But by and large, we were spot on, we were disciplined, and we put ourselves in a good position to succeed because we pushed the pocket and took away the quick throws that they like.
“Probably the biggest thing was that after we settled to the speed of the game and picked up our own level of speed, we kept the ball in front of us, which was the No. 1 goal going into the game.”
Because Miami’s attack was more pass heavy than each of the previous four opponents, Diaco was able to tap into his bag of coverage schemes, which presented some issues to the young Hurricane offense.
“We were able to utilize all of our calls,” Kelly said. “Because of the teams that we had played, we had not been allowed to really get into all of our zone coverage looks, and we’ve got a multitude of them.
“(Miami) probably saw three or four different zone looks that they had not seen all year because of the games that we played. Navy, Purdue…against a pass-first team (like Miami), we got into a lot more three-down (linemen), we were able to drop eight into coverage, and we were able to do a lot more things on the back end of our defense.”
Kelly’s blueprint for success at Notre Dame is coming together at an accelerated pace. The Irish are now second in the country in points allowed (7.8, behind only Alabama), 10th in pass efficiency, 13th in total defense (290.0 ypg.), and 17th in rush defense (106.8 ypg.).
“I’ve had to run an offense that scored more points than the defense, and you don’t do your defense any service in those kind of games,” Kelly said. “When you play the game that way, you’re susceptible to off days and you’re going to get beat.
“When I came to Notre Dame, having lived in that world of trying to out-score opponents, I felt the best blueprint we could put together for a national championship here was through our defense. We’re starting to see the building of that, and it’s only our third year. We’ve got a ways to go.
“But the blueprint here is to not try to out-score people and turn it into a track meet. It’s control the line of scrimmage, play great defense, and be solid in the special teams. It’s just the choice in the way I want our program to evolve.”
The evolution - and the dominance - continues.