Notre Dame Football: Defensive Grades vs. Clemson


The Notre Dame Fighting Irish fell just short in an exciting, sopping wet, heartbreaking 24-22 game in prime time on Saturday night. After falling behind 14-0 in just the first 7 minutes of play. The Irish fought tooth-and-nail to climb back into the contest, anchored by a defense who turned things around after a nightmare start, allowing just 10 second half points, with 7 of those coming on a very short field after ND freshman kick returner C.J. Sanders coughed up the half’s opening kickoff.

Although the defense’s flat entrance to the game put Notre Dame in a big hole early, they righted the ship and contained Clemson sophomore QB Deshaun Watson and a Tigers offense that is always dangerous, albeit one that was playing conservatively with such a large lead and was only forced into one turnover by the Irish.

Let’s take a look at how each unit of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense played during the loss.

Defensive Line: C

Senior captain Sheldon Day and his fellow defensive linemen did not play as well as they are capable of on Saturday night, especially when it came to creating pressure and penetration into the Clemson backfield. Watson was rarely hurried (only twice, both by senior Romeo Okwara) or forced into rushing any passes.

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However, after the first two possessions, during which Clemson was running willy-nilly against the Irish defense, Notre Dame largely contained the Tiger backfield’s rushing attack. That started with the defensive line holding the point of attack and allowing ND linebackers and defensive backs to fill gaps and take down ball carriers. No one on the line was overwhelmingly successful as individuals, but as a unit they played an important role in keeping the Irish in the game throughout the second and third quarters, while the offense still struggled to put up any points. Junior Isaac Rochell led the way for this unit with 7 tackles, including 0.5 for a loss, while Okwara, freshman Jerry “Terry Jillery” Tillery, and Day added a combined 12 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss.

However, overall for the game, the defensive line let itself get pushed around a little too much by an offensive line they should be able to beat on most snaps, and its ineffectiveness in the beginning of the game along with its inability to make many big plays (turnovers, sacks, etc.) contributed to the deficit that the Irish failed to overcome in the fourth quarter.

Linebackers: C+

Oct 3, 2015; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Artavis Scott (3) carries the ball as Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) attempts to tackle in the first quarter at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the defensive line, the Irish linebackers looked completely lost in the beginning of the game. However, once they settled down and began focusing on wrapping up Clemson players, junior captain Jaylon Smith and company began to make a few tackles and contribute to the defense’s turnaround.

Smith (9 tackles, 1 tackle-for-loss) and junior James Onwualu (4 tackles) were able to use their speed to catch ball carriers for key stops and keep Clemson from picking up a few critical first downs in the second half, enabling the offense to make the comeback that they did.

Senior captain Joe Schmidt had his worst game of the season, however, logging just one tackle and constantly struggling to get off blocks and keep up with Clemson players who were simply much stronger and faster than him. Irish fans have to be banging their heads against the wall at this point, wondering why sophomore Nyles Morgan isn’t ready to see some time. His athleticism and speed are much needed, and could be more valuable than Schmidt’s on-field adjustments at this point.

If it weren’t for Smith, the linebackers would have had a pretty bad game. However, they did get things generally turned around along with the rest of the defense, so it’s hard to give them too bad of a grade considering their stingier second half.

Secondary: C

The Notre Dame secondary was everyone’s biggest concern coming into the game, considering their recent struggles and Watson’s deadly accuracy so far this season. That concern was compounded by the secondary’s shortfalls on the first two Clemson drives, and capped off by senior Elijah Shumate and junior Cole Luke both hitting WR Artavis Scoitt on the goal line only to fall harmlessly to the soggy ground, bouncing off Scott as he walked unscathed into the end zone.

Oct 3, 2015; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Wayne Gallman (9) carries the ball during the second half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Tigers won 24-22. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

For the rest of the game, especially once Clemson went ahead 21-3 at the beginning of the third quarter, the secondary was mostly serving its duty in run support as Clemson looked to milk the clock and wear the Irish down. Junior safety Max Redfield tallied 14 tackles, 11 of those being solo, which definitely isn’t a good sign for the defense considering he and senior safety Elijah Shumate are the last line of defense. However, when tested, the secondary mostly rose to the occasion, as made evident in Luke’s momentum-shifting interception of a potential Watson touchdown pass in the third quarter.

Their lack of readiness in the beginning of the game certainly hurt Notre Dame, however, and like the linemen and linebackers, their redemptive play in the second half wasn’t enough to turn the tide.

Overall: C

The Notre Dame defense is directly to blame for the almost instantaneous deficit the Irish faced midway through the first quarter. They did not come out prepared to play, and the Clemson offense punched them in the mouth. They turned things around in the second half, making various key stops when called upon, but their lack of playmaking ability (1 turnover, 0 sacks) provided no help to the offense’s frantic fourth-quarter comeback. Clemson’s defense was forcing fumbles all night, and in comparison the Notre Dame defense just was not good enough to win the game.

VanGorder has a lot to get figured out, and fast, as the Irish have to contain another triple option offense in Navy next weekend before playing host to a USC offense on October 17th that will feature playmakers more talented and explosive than any offense they’ve seen to-date.