The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20 on Halloween night in a close, down-to-the-wire game that required another late DeShone Kizer-led scoring drive to secure a victory for ND.
Watching this game was an interesting task for me, as I was in Grand Rapids for some Halloween festivities with a group of friends, dressed as Gordon from Dodgeball and trying to enjoy the evening out while simultaneously watching my beloved Irish. Here’s what I saw from the defense through my DIY rec-specs and in-between the various Dodgeball quotes I was spouting off all night.
Defensive Line: A
Oct 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Temple Owls running back Jahad Thomas (5) is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Daniel Cage (75) during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
The defensive line had its way with the Temple offensive line, holding the run-first team to just 107 yards on the ground. The big men up front were constantly wreaking havoc in the backfield and certainly held up their end of the bargain in the Irish victory. Senior captain Sheldon Day played another sparkling game with 6 tackles (2.5 for a loss), 1 sack, a forced fumble, and a pass break-up. Senior Romeo Okwara continued his streak of impressive play as well, totaling 7 tackles (3 of those for a loss) and 1 sack. Junior Isaac Rochell, one of the true breakout players on Brian VanGorder’s defense this season, put together another strong showing to the tune of 6 tackles and a pass break-up. Sophomore Daniel Cage played a good game in the middle as well, holding down the fort and getting a strong push.
The line collected 2 sacks and 7 tackles for loss overall, and the 13-30, 188-yard passing game by Temple QB P.J. Walker can be attributed mostly to the defensive line, who rarely let Walker have much time to find open receivers. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has to be proud of his guys after this one, as they were the anchor that kept the Irish from ever letting Temple push their lead past 7 points. Of course, the Temple offense and its offensive line were never projected to be world-beaters on Saturday, so this type of performance should be expected against inferior talent. However, kudos need to be awarded, as we haven’t always seen this kind of performance on this defense, and could certainly use much more of it as this season winds down.
Oct 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) leaves the field after Notre Dame defeated the Temple Owls 24-20 at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Different game, same old story. Junior captain Jaylon Smith is a playmaker, and he is one of the biggest reasons this defense has any success (along with the defensive line, at least in this game). The recently-named Butkus Award finalist had a team-leading 10 tackles on the evening, and was, per usual, doing his job from sideline to sideline.
His linebacker comrades, however, weren’t nearly as effective. Senior captain Joe Schmidt had two tackles and a pass break-up, and junior James Onwualu also just contributed two tackles. The only other linebacker to even record a tackle was senior Jarrett Grace, and so the linebackers were, once again, a liability during this contest. Schmidt is slow and just not athletic enough, while Onwualu still appears to not make reads very well and isn’t always strong enough to fight off of blocks. This unit must improve by the time the team travels to Stanford, as the Cardinal’s mammoth offensive linemen and punishing running backs will eat them alive if they don’t make vast improvements.
Progress! At least, that’s what you could argue when comparing this game to past ones, just based on the fact that the opposing team’s trick play, a flea-flicker this time, at least didn’t go for a touchdown. The secondary continues to experience miscues and breakdowns in coverage, and are the main reason Temple was able to move the ball at all.
Oct 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) intercepts a pass intended for Temple Owls wide receiver John Christopher (7) in the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Notre Dame won 24-20 Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Senior KeiVarae Russell struggled again in coverage for the majority of the game, constantly getting beaten by Temple’s receivers. However, he was able to salvage the game (for the second time in two games) for the Irish with another huge, NFL-caliber interception in the final minutes. Junior Cole Luke made three tackles, as did junior Max Redfield, both never looking very impressive. Senior Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, only recorded two tackles before he was ejected from the game in the 4th quarter for a questionable targeting penalty on a hit he made in the end zone on a Temple receiver. In his stead, senior Nicky Baratti looked slow and none-too-ready for the prime time, missing a tackle that could have stopped Temple’s game-tying touchdown in the 4th quarter (making it 17-17 at the time). Senior captain Matthias Farley was his typical self, adding a couple tackles and a pass break-up, but was unable to make many big plays in his time in the game.
The Notre Dame defense generally took care of business, holding Temple’s offense to 295 total yards and just 20 points. However, Temple’s offense is abysmal and one-dimensional, and so a squad with as much talent as ND should be expected to limit them to that level of offensive production, if not less than that. They should have been able to dominate in every facet of the game, but instead, the only real area they were successful was in the trenches, where the defensive line clearly won that battle.
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It’s beginning to sound like a broken record, but the Fighting Irish defense needs to play more disciplined and fundamental if Notre Dame wants to be in the College Football Playoff discussion by the end of the season. The secondary has to cover better, the linebackers need to play faster and more decisively (or VanGorder needs to insert players that can…*cough* Nyles Morgan *cough*), and the defensive line needs to duplicate the kind of performance they had against Temple when they play much stronger, more experienced offensive lines. It should be interesting to watch down the stretch, as it’s clear the offense, as talented and deep as it is, can only carry this team so far. The defense has to start pulling its weight, or the Irish will drop a game they shouldn’t over the next few weeks.