Notre Dame Defense In The Background — Again
From game 1 versus Michigan on Sep.1 and now heading into the Dec. 29 College Football Playoff against Clemson, the Notre Dame defense has thrived on a consistent theme: They are the “other guys,” or the crew in the background.
In its advertisement for for the College Football Playoff, ESPN uses the word “resurgent” to describe 12-0 and No. 3 Notre Dame, while 13-0 and No. 2 Clemson is chronicled with a “dominant defense.”
Statistically, it’s understandable to have the Tigers profiled that way. The numbers speak for themselves: No. 1 nationally in fewest yards allowed per rush (2.40), No. 2 in scoring defense (13.7 points per game), No. 3 in run defense (92.9 yards per game) and sacks (46, or 3.54 per contest), No. 4 in total defense (276.7), and No. 7 in third-down conversion percentage allowed (.282).
Clemson’s “worst” figure in the major defensive categories is in pass efficiency defense at No. 16, whereas Notre Dame is No. 3.
Yet, in addition to Notre Dame’s highest ranking ever in pass efficiency defense, the Irish quietly also are 10th in scoring defense (17.3) and have been ranked in the top 3 all year by Pro Football Focus in overall pass pressure.
Football Outsiders with the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which does not include “garbage possessions,” has Clemson’s defense No. 3 and Notre Dame’s No. 8 overall. In fact, Notre Dame and Fresno State have been the only two teams in the 129-member Football Bowl Subdivision not to permit more than 27 points in a game this year. Clemson would have been in the club had it not allowed more than 500 yards passing to South Carolina in a 56-35 victory during the regular season finale.
The Irish defense allowed only 10 points to the Michigan offense and seven versus Pitt, which lost 42-10 to Clemson in the ACC Championship. Especially encouraging is the unit began peaking in the final month, including a 36-3 win over Syracuse and a 24-17 conquest at USC, after the Trojans opened the game with a touchdown drive.
Playing second fiddle, though, has been familiar for senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. The Louisiana native heard it during last year’s bowl preparation as well going against other Tigers, in that case the home state LSU team. LSU’s defense received the accolades individually and statistically, but Notre Dame prevailed, 21-17.
So when asked if the Notre Dame defense feels slighted again, Tillery gave his best poker-face response.
“No, I think that’s always the story when teams play Notre Dame,” Tillery responded. “We played Michigan — it was Michigan’s great defensive line. We played Syracuse — Syracuse had some great players. Last year NC State’s defensive line was going to come in here and steal the show.
“But the story is always different after the game. …We’re looking to change the narrative in this game, too.”
Although generally guarded in how he responds to inquiries, Tillery didn’t hide his emotions about whether all the publicity about the Clemson defense once again serves as a chip-on-the-shoulder motivating factor.
“For sure, for sure,” Tillery said. “That definitely gets guys going.”
While the linebacker combination of Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill has been among the best tandems in the nation and the defensive backfield has been replete with playmaking skills, led by consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love and instant impact safety Alohi Gilman, the depth-laden front line headlined by Tillery — who received first-team All-American accolades with Love from Sports Illustrated — helped make the back seven more effective.
Tillery’s 622 snaps (about 48 per game), led the line, but five other linemen had at least 323, and four others had 140 to 237.
The rotation of fresh bodies in the trenches — combined with quality production and not just playing people for the sake of it — has reaped huge dividends for the overall operation.
“That’s been the message from the beginning,” said Tillery of the quality depth up front, which now could add sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who had foot surgery after the opener versus Michigan. “We know that it takes a lot of guys to be able to play at a high level for 60, 70, 80 snaps per game. I think that influences the work ethic of the guys in the off season and fall camp when they know they’ re going to get a chance, because that hasn’t always been the message here. That definitely affects the development of some people.
“We’ve had a shift here. People understand that they’re going to play. The work has reflected that.”
A year ago at this time, Tillery and leading tackler Coney were seriously contemplating bypassing their final season and turning pro. At the 11th hour in January, both announced they were coming back.
The impact on this defense with their return was similar to Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey coming back in 2017 for a major turnaround campaign, or even Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert in 2012 when head coach Brian Kelly posted his first 12-0 regular season with the Irish.
“We trust our coaching, we trust what they are telling us and we know that if we execute the plan that they give us, then we’re going to have success,” said Tillery of the veteran defense that was expected to be the 2018 team strength from the outset. “Everyone’s bought in to what we’re doing here, so that’s what helps us win games.”
A look of confusion, if not disbelief, crossed Tillery’s face when asked if he could have ever envisioned a 12-0 output with an opportunity to play for the national title.
“Yes, that’s the expectation here,” he instantly responded. “That’s how we work, that’s what we work toward.”
No matter how much they might be in the shadows again.