September 12, 2006 // Notre Dame Football

Defensive Safety Valves

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(UHND.com) – Two weeks into the season and the Notre Dame defense is grabbing most of the headlines for the #2 ranked Irish thanks in large part to the outstanding play of its starting safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum N’Dukwe.  The senior classmates are leading a defense that is becoming a strength instead of a punch line for the Irish.

In 2005, both safeties were the subject of criticism from the media and the Notre Dame message boards all over the net, but thus far this year, they are the main reason the Irish defense is drawing some early rave reviews.

It started in first quarter of the Georgia Tech game – Calvin Johnson, All American receiver, running open down the middle of the field found out the hard way that Chinedum N’Dukwe is a force to be reckoned with.  Johnson momentarily hauled in a bomb from Reggie Ball before the Ohio native delivered a sonic boom of a hit to jar the ball loose.

Fellow safety Tom Zbikowski drew some attention in week one as well and it wasn’t only because he was sporting a freshly cut Mohawk.   The Chicago native led the Irish in tackles with eight and was all over the field.  Notre Dame played a lot of nickel and moved Zbikowski closer to the line of scrimmage and the senior defensive captain was a terror on the field.

This past weekend the combo were even better in a rout of Penn State, especially the Duke.  N’Dukwe did it all on Saturday – a sack, a pick, and good deep coverage.

After the Lions got on the scoreboard for the first time Saturday, they got the ball back quickly and decided to test the Irish deep.  Anthony Morelli badly under threw his receiver and N’Dukwe was in perfect position to make the pick and put an end to the little momentum that the Lions had at the time.

Nedu’s “wow” moment of the game would come later in that third quarter.  With Derrick Williams lining up under center as he had numerous times throughout the game, N’Dukwe came flying into the backfield and delivered a bone crunching, fumble forcing hit to the speedy sophomore receiver.

Much was made of N’Dukwe’s off-season weight loss and so far go good – he looks like a completely different player out there.  Last year he looked out place a lot and looked like a linebacker trying to play safety.  The slimmed down version of Nedu looks much faster on the field while still being every bit the heavy hitter he was a year ago.

Not to be out done by his running mate in the secondary, Tommy Z turned in an impressive performance of his against the Nittany Lions.  Aside from delivering numerous big hits all game long, Zbikowski had a hand in two turnovers which led to 14 Notre Dame points.

The marquee play for Zibby was, of course, his third quarter fumble return touchdown on the Lions opening drive of the half.  Morelli’s ill-advised option pitch bounced right into Zbikowski’s hands and he raced into the end zone untouched from 26 yards out to give the Irish a 27-0 lead.

Zbikowski would kill another Penn State drive early in the first half when he delivered a punishing hit to Tony Hunt causing a fumble which was recovered by Ronald Talley.  The fumble killed a good looking Penn State drive early on and kept the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor.

Some pundits were projecting Zbikowski as a potential first rounder this summer which drew some moans and groans from critics who suggested Zbikowski was weak in coverage.  Thus far, those pundits are looking pretty clever as Zbikowski is playing at an All American level.

So far this year both safeties have been a couple a holy terrors on the field for the Irish defense.  Of the three turnovers forced by the Notre Dame defense this year, Zbikowski and N’Dukwe have had in all three.  Anything that either safety has hit this year has gone down – usually fairly hard – and if they continue to perform at this high level, the Notre Dame defense will continue to be a strength for the Irish.

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