Notre Dame Football: Defensive Grades vs. UMass


Notre Dame’s defense struggled in the first half but picked it up in the second half

Notre Dame defeated Massachusetts by way of a 62-27 blowout on Saturday afternoon, and looking at the final score, one would certainly assume Fighting Irish fans should be incredibly satisfied with their team’s performance. And, while the end result was appropriate considering the less-than-daunting opponent, the final score does not tell the whole story, especially for the ND defense.

For defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit, it was a tale of two halves on Saturday. The first half was concerning and underwhelming, as the Minutemen offense, wholly unimpressive heading into the game, was able to break a few big plays on the Irish defense and stay within 1 point of ND, down just 21-20 at the half.

The second half, however, saw an Irish defense that made a few adjustments and tightened things up discipline-wise, as they held UMass to just 7 points from then on and enabled the offense to comfortably extend the lead and provide a lot of younger players with an opportunity to play.

Defensive Line: C+

Sep 26, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Sheldon Day (91) celebrates after a sack in the second quarter against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line performed fairly well on Saturday, but was certainly not dominant. Senior captain Sheldon Day had 3 tackles, including 1 sack, and junior Isaac Rochell added 2 tackles, including 1 for a loss. Aside from those two making a few plays, the defensive line didn’t stand out much. UMass came into the game as one of the worst rushing offenses in the country, and they managed to put up 148 yards on the Irish defense. To be fair, 83 of those yards came on one long touchdown run, but the Minutemen, especially in the first half, were able to run pretty effectively. Furthermore, the defensive line didn’t put much pressure on Minutemen QB Blake Frohnapfel, allowing him to sit in the pocket and find open receivers in the first half.

Linebackers: B+

The linebackers continue to be the most consistent unit on the Irish defense, anchored by junior captain and certified athletic freak Jaylon Smith, who finished the game with 6 tackles, including 1 for a loss, and a pass break-up. Sophomore Greer Martini led the team with 8 tackles (1 for a loss), junior James Onwualu had 4 tackles (2 for a loss, including 1 sack) and a pass break-up, and sophomore Nyles Morgan had 7 tackles when he came in with the second team. Senior captain Joe Schmidt was his typical self as well, tallying 6 tackles and serving as field general for Notre Dame.

The linebackers definitely weren’t perfect, as they’re as accountable as anyone on the defense for the 83-yard touchdown run and for some of the pass defense miscues, but overall they were solid and cleaned up their act in the second half to ensure a landslide final result.

Secondary: C+

Sep 26, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Cole Luke (36) makes an interception while defending University of Massachusetts Minutemen wide receiver Tajae Sharpe (1) at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame defeats Massachusetts 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame secondary, hailed as a “no-fly zone” of sorts in the preseason, continues to be the weakest link on VanGorder’s defense. For the second time in 3 games, the defensive backfield was sucked in on a trick play, resulting in a long UMass gain that set up a first half touchdown.

Senior CB KeiVarae Russell had 7 tackles, including 1 for a loss, while senior Elijah Shumate and junior Max Redfield added 6 and 4 tackles, respectively, from the safety positions. Junior CB Cole Luke looked slow and lost on various completions for UMass, but did earn back some goodwill with an interception on a ball tipped by senior captain Matthias Farley. Junior CB Devin Butler added 2 tackles and a pass break-up, although he still looked a little lost occasionally in his coverage of Minutemen receivers.

Like the rest of the defense, the secondary looked much better in the second half, and hopefully figured some things out that they can build on as this season continues.

Overall: B-

The Notre Dame defense started out very poorly, plain and simple. They gave up big plays to a less-than-mediocre UMass offense, and allowed the Minutemen to hang around through halftime. However, they showed great resolve and focus in cleaning things up in the second half, taking care of business and only allowing one more touchdown the rest of the way.

However, surrendering 27 points and 450 yards to a UMass team who came into the game averaging 18 points and 417 yards per game against lesser opponents is definitely concerning, especially as the Irish travel to Clemson this weekend for a College Gameday showdown with the 12th-ranked Tigers. They have to bring their A-game (what we saw against Texas and Georgia Tech) if they hope to contain an explosive Clemson offense led by sophomore phenom QB Deshaun Watson. Their performance Saturday will give fans a clearer idea of how far Notre Dame can go this year with such an inconsistent defense.

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