The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday 42-30, and in doing so improved to 8-1 on the season. In a contest that the Irish controlled for the majority of the game, the Notre Dame defense played well overall, but suffered many of the typical miscues that have plagued Brian VanGorder’s group all season.
Let’s delve into each unit of that defense and hand out some grades on their performances!
Defensive Line: B
The Irish defensive line did not have a poor game by any means, but they also definitely didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage like they have on rare occasion this season. Senior captain Sheldon Day continues to be an unblockable, disruptive force, and although his stat sheet from Saturday is modest (2 tackles, 1 tackle-for-loss), he constantly provided the penetration and pressure up front that wrought havoc and disallowed the Panthers from establishing any sort of consistent physical advantage at the line of scrimmage.
Nov 7, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) is sacked by Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Romeo Okwara (45) during the first quarter against at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Junior Isaac Rochell and senior Romeo Okwara both played good games, with Rochell collecting 4 tackles and a QB hurry and Okwara turning in a 4-tackle, 2-sack performance where he was the only consistent pass-rush threat off the edge. Sophomore DT Daniel Cage added 2 tackles and held down the fort in the middle along with freshman Jerry “Terry Jillery” Tillery.
This group is one of the more consistent and predictable units of the Notre Dame defense every game, as they can be counted upon to fill gaps and hold the point of attack, not easily driven off the ball by the offensive line. However, they also are mostly unable to generate a pass rush on their own, although Day and Rochell typically get a good push in the middle and Okwara occasionally is able to get free on the edge. If they could consistently get to the QB without the help of blitzing linebackers, this line would be a game-changer. However, since their pass rush is mediocre at best, opposing QBs often have all day to sit in the pocket and find receivers, and that was again the case for most of the game against Pittsburgh. Luckily, Panthers QB Nate Peterman is not the most stellar of signal callers, and his receivers, aside from Tyler Boyd, had a lot of trouble catching passes.
If the defensive line is consistent and generally predictable, then the linebackers are the daily sunrise and sunset of the Notre Dame defense. Every game, like clockwork, the same exact performance is put on display by the this unit. Junior captain Jaylon Smith is an absolute menace, and he showed that again against Pitt as he led the team in tackles with 7, adding 2 QB hurries. But while Smith is one of the best linebackers in the country every week, his partners in crime (senior captain Joe Schmidt and junior James Onwualu) can be counted on to be less-than-impressive.
Nov 7, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Tyler Boyd (23) runs after a catch as Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt (38) chases during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Schmidt had 4 tackles, Onwualu had 4 as well (and 1 sack on a nicely designed blitz), and yet the pair continue to get too easily caught up in blocks and react too slowly in pass coverage. There was one telling play where Peterman had taken off up-field after scrambling out of the pocket, and Schmidt showed a complete lack of awareness in chasing the tight end he was covering right out of bounds, showing his back to the ball carrier who he had no idea was running right down the sideline. Furthermore, the 5.6 yards per carry that Pittsburgh was able to accomplish can largely be attributed to Schmidt and Onwualu being unable to shed blockers quickly enough to make tackles, leading to the large number of tackles the defensive backs are forced to make in run support. Check out any of the big running plays for Pitt in this highlight video and focus on Schmidt and Onwualu. They’re struggling and it is hurting the defense, without a doubt.
At this point, it seems to my novice eye that they should not be starting on a possible College Football Playoff-caliber defense. Schmidt’s leadership and ability to adjust the defense pre-snap are undeniable, and Onwualu is oozing athleticism considering his background as a WR. But their shortcomings have been noted time-and-again here and elsewhere, and it seems crazy that they still see the amount of playing time that they do.
However, to be fair, no one besides the coaches knows how sophomore Nyles Morgan or freshman Te’von Coney or any of the other linebackers look in practice. For all we know, Schmidt and Onwulau are head-and-shoulders above the rest. However, it is certainly baffling to me that Schmidt is Notre Dame’s best option at middle linebacker considering the young talent we have at the position, and that same bemusement applies to Onwualu as well, as he never seems quite able to make the plays he needs to make. This group needs to start giving Jaylon Smith help, or they simply won’t be able to handle opponents like Stanford or those that the Irish might face in the College Football Playoff. Count me as one of the skeptics that we can see that kind of elevated play with this specific group of starters.
The Notre Dame secondary has been, to put it very generously, inconsistent and lackadaisical this season. They’ve certainly had their moments that remind us just how much talent the Irish have back there, but a good chunk of the time the defensive backs have looked lost, unaware, and just not up to the challenge.
Against Pittsburgh, that inconsistent play reared its ugly head again. Senior KeiVarae Russell had 6 tackles, but constantly got beat by Boyd or whoever else he was covering. Late in the fourth quarter, on a mental mistake by junior safety Max Redfield (6 tackles, 1 pass break-up, 1 TFL), Russell, instead of chasing the receiver and trying to still make a play, appeared to chalk up the play as a lost cause, choosing to complain to Redfield about how he was supposed to take the receiver deep, leading to Boyd catching a wide open touchdown.
Nov 7, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Matthias Farley (41) celebrates after intercepting a pass in the end zone against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Junior Cole Luke was a bit better than Russell in coverage, and put up 4 tackles, a pass break-up, and a QB hurry on the day. Senior captain Matthias Farley, playing in place of senior Elijah Shumate in the first half while he sat out suspended for a targeting penalty against Temple, played as well as one could reasonably ask in his stead, making 7 tackles and a huge interception on the goal line as Pittsburgh drove into the red zone in the second quarter. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the ND defense has again improved against trick plays, this time completely snuffing out Pittsburgh’s throwback pass to Peterman (who was looking to subsequently throw it downfield) by tackling him in the backfield for a major loss.
The secondary clearly has talent and athleticism. We have seen what Russell and Redfield are capable of athletically and know that Luke can be a shut-down corner, Farley a playmaker, and Shumate a fantastic safety in run support. But the group simply hasn’t put it all together for a complete game, instead letting bad offensive teams like Temple or Pittsburgh or Virginia beat them through the air time and again. And yes, Pittsburgh’s Peterman was just 12/31 for 223 yards on the day, but many of those incomplete passes were drops, bad throws, or occasional plays where the ND defensive line got some pressure and hurried the QB. The secondary has the talent, but needs to fix its focus and communication so as to finally get it all working and completely shut down an opponent’s passing game.
Pittsburgh is not a strong offensive team. Notre Dame’s defense, with the talent it has, should be expected to control the game against an offense like that. However, Pitt still managed 398 total yards and 23 points (7 came from the final score of the game, a fumble return for a touchdown by the Pittsburgh defense), and throughout the third quarter and the end of the fourth quarter, they were able to drive up and down the field and score against the Irish. Heightened linebacker play, a smarter and more focused effort from the secondary, and a more effective pass rush from the defensive line are what this unit needs to elevate its game.
Until it can do all or some of those things, expect to keep seeing an up-and-down, boom-or-bust defense that has stretches where they dominate and stretches where it appears they have forgotten how to tackle. The next two games against Wake Forest and Boston College should be more on the dominant side, and hopefully that will instill some confidence in the group and have them firing on all cylinders when they travel to Stanford for what would likely be a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.