Before the 2012 season even started, some of the biggest question-marks surrounding the Irish this year were on the defensive side of the ball. While most would consider Notre Dame’s front seven a strength, it is the secondary that was drawing most of the concerns. It is the fear of the unknown or untested in this case, as ND only returns one player with any real game experience. With de-commit Tee Shepard out of the fold and Lo Wood lost for the year to an achilles injury, the Irish have to rely heavily on Zeke Motta to provide leadership to a group that is in desperate need of a beacon in the night. As the Irish defense finally took the field for the first time this year against Navy, some questions were answered, but some important ones still remain.
It was very evident from the start that Notre Dames front seven were ready to answer the call. Facing a true option offense can be very tricky, let alone in the first game of the year and yet The Irish defense did not disappoint. They inserted their dominance up front, maintained their composure and played true assignment football. Rarely did players over pursue, get caught out of position, or fail to wrap up. The front three put pressure on Navy’s QB Trey Miller all game long, and contained a very strong Navy running game just as well. The Irish defense actually gave up about 300 yards in offense, compared to last year when Navy was only able produce a total of around 230 yards, yet this defensive effort seemed more dominant and complete. The Irish’s Louis Nix was in the backfield often applying pressure, and Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore equaled that pressure from the outside all day long. Tuitt also had very important fumble recovery and return for a touchdown that was a big momentum swing. It was that type of pressure that allowed ND’s linebackers to fall back into coverage and help provide support for a young and inexperienced secondary.
Notre Dames All-American LB Manti Te’o had a career day as he recorded six tackles, had his first career fumble recovery and his first career interception. Prince Shembo also showed off his speed and athleticism throughout the day, as he swarmed to the ball and provided strong run support. The line backing group as a whole helped hold the Navy rushing attack to just 3.7 rushing avg., and took away the short to medium pass all day long. They showed speed, poise, and composure and adjusted to any wrinkles the Navy offense threw at them. The Irish front seven imposed their will on the Naval Academy’s offense all day long and if they continue this type of play throughout the year, could end being a very special group.
As good as Notre Dame’s front seven were, things were not as positive in the Irish secondary. Both of ND’s safety’s Slaughter and Motta did an admirable job in pass defense, and were very aggressive in run support, with Motta providing the bulk of that support. The Irish should be ok this year with these two at the helm, but it is doubtful they will ever be considered strength in the 2012 season. The biggest cause for concern was obviously the play of cornerbacks Jackson and Russell, with Russell being the biggest culprit. During man to man coverage, the Irish young CB group showed why they are a big question mark this year. They were routinely out of position and struggled to keep up with a depleted Navy wide receiving corp. While this was to be expected, the fear is that when the Irish face passing attacks from the likes of USC and Oklahoma, things could ugly very quickly. That’s not to say that there is no talent in the secondary, but can they mature enough in their skill set before the schedule requires it. The Irish will face average passing attacks in Purdue and Michigan St., and should allow the secondary
to grow and gain experience. While the secondary will be a work in progress all year long, ND will have to be careful in the defensive schemes they choose to run. Consistently running man coverage will only expose the secondary’s weaknesses, as it doubtful we will ever hear the term “Russell Island” in the 2012 season.
While most Notre Dame fans can be excited about what they saw on the field on Saturday, obviously the schedule will start to show it’s dark side in a couple of weeks. If what the college football world witnessed in Le’Veon Bell in East Lansing Friday night is real, and not a result of an undersized front four from Boise State, than Michigan State should provide the first real test for the Irish defense. The bottom-line is Saturday Irish fans saw a defense that attacked early and often and did not take it’s foot off the pedal until the clock reached zero. It showed a killer instinct from start to finish, and should help provide the Irish a chance to win plenty of games this year.