Greg Hudson was named the interim defensive coordinator for Notre Dame just eight days ago. Just six days after taking over coordinator duties from Brian Vangorder, Hudson was tasked with helping Brian Kelly stop the hemorrhaging on the defensive side of the ball against an uptempo offense with one of the best rated passing attacks in the FBS. All things considered, Hudson passed his first test, but many more tougher challenges are on the horizon for the former Irish linebacker.
Notre Dame’s Defense Was Shaky Early
Saturday’s win over Syracuse did not start out well for the Notre Dame defense. The Orange opened their day with back to back 75+ yard scoring drives highlighted by a 72 yard touchdown to Amba Etta-Tawo. Syracuse went 154 yards in 9 plays while consuming just 3:12 of the clock with their fast pace, uptempo offense.
The Irish then surrendered another 75+ yard scoring drive later in the first quarter with a 9 play, 78 yard drive that used 3:08 of the clock. The drive chart below for the first half shows that the Orange were marching and the Notre Dame defense was on its heels.
A late first half touchdown set up by a special teams breakdown looked like it would give Syracuse all the momentum for the second half. Something that hasn’t happened in a while for Notre Dame happened at half-time though, the Irish made adjustments and came out in the second half and shut down the opposition’s offense.
Defensive Half Time Adjustments? What Are These Things?
Now look at the second half drive chart for the Orange.
In five third quarter drives, Syracuse didn’t have a single drive in which they gained 30 yards. They also didn’t have a single drive in which they scored a point. Now, contrast this to the losses to Texas and Michigan State when the Irish let both opponents come storming out of the gates in the second half to build big leads. The Spartans scored 21 third quarter points while the Long Horns scored just 10 but scored them on their first two second half drives and used them to build a 17 point lead.
Syracuse’s lone second half score came on a 14 play drive that took up over four minutes of the clock when all the Irish were concerned with was keeping Syracuse in front of them and forcing them to use up the clock.
Hudson and Kelly didn’t blow up the defense and replace the scheme given they had just a handful of practices. Instead, they used the same basic principles of Brian Vangorder’s defense but simplified things a lot and rotated in far more players than Vangorder used during his time at Notre Dame.
- Utilized three man fronts like we saw against Texas but this time the opponent wasn’t looking to run first.
- Played Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Jonathon Bonner, and Elijah Taylor much more than they previously had while taking players like Isaac Rochell off the field more and keeping him fresh all game long.
- Put freshman defensive back Donte Vaughn on Syracuse’s record setting receiver Etta-Tawo. Etta-Tawo’s biggest play – his 72 yard TD – came when he was lined up opposite Julian Love. Vaughn was up to the challenge.
- Brought some smart pressure in the second half after rarely sending any in the first half. Notre Dame only picked up one sack but did get consistent pressure on Eric Dungey in the second half.
One element of the Vangorder defense that remained in play, however, was the old BVG special of dropping Andrew Trumbetti into coverage. If Notre Dame had JJ Watt as a rush end maybe that play would be effective. They don’t and that concept needs to be ripped out of the play book and thrown away.
Still, utilizing a secondary that at times featured four freshman and then lost “veteran” Devin Studstill due to a questionable targeting penalty, Notre Dame played OK defense. OK should never be what Notre Dame aspires for, but given what this defense was doing, OK was an improvement.
Tackling was a nightmare over the first four games. Notre Dame defenders looked like matadors out there at times getting out of the way of charging defenders instead. The Irish didn’t exactly put on a tackling clinic on Saturday, but tackling – at least by the defense – was much better (looking at you special teams).
Some Promising Signs of Defensive Improvement
Anyone who had been expecting a complete turnaround and a dominating defensive performance last weekend was delusional. Notre Dame’s defense was off to a historically bad start and even last weekend the Irish surrendered 33 points to Syracuse. While points allowed are the ultimate stat of any defense, consider the following:
- After the first quarter, Syracuse had one scoring drive over more than 14 yards.
- Notre Dame forced five three and outs and another two drives in which the Orange went four and out (excluding the two four play drives to end both halves).
- Syracuse converted just 3 of 15 third downs.
- Syracuse scored just 6 points in the second half.
All of those stats are progress for a defense that was under siege in three of the first four weeks of the year.
Interestingly enough, our friends at Hammer & Rails warned of Hudson’s defenses playing well off opposing receivers and not generating much pressure. Keeping receivers in front of them was exactly what Notre Dame aimed at doing on Saturday while banking on keeping points down and letting its potent offense build a lead. Given the potential of the Notre Dame offense, that type of defense might just be enough to get the Irish back on track.
It was also nice to see the defensive coordinator jumping up and down and celebrating with his players. BVG did that in his first year but we hadn’t seen a whole lot of that on the sidelines from him ever since that North Carolina game in 2014. We’ll see if that keeps up as Notre Dame starts playing some tougher offenses and give up some big plays. For one Saturday at least, the players kept buying into what Hudson and Kelly were selling even after the rough start to the game.
Hudson seems to have endeared himself to these players pretty quickly as well. The players selected Hudson to lead them in the post game Fight Song in the locker room.
More Tests in Store for Hudson, Notre Dame Defense
Now, things will get more difficult for Hudson the next few weeks. The Irish won’t be playing a team like Syracuse each week that will give up 50 points to Notre Dame. The Irish face NC State, Stanford, and Miami over the next three games. Those three opponents have a combined record of 10-2 on the season.
How this new look Notre Dame defense lines up against a team like Stanford will especially be interesting to watch. The 3-3-5 alignment that Texas ran right through but worked against Syracuse would get absolute shredded by Stanford’s power rushing game.
Before the Irish even being to think about the Cardinal though, Hudson and Kelly have a tough task on their hands this week with a NC State offense averaging 40 points a game – albeit against some highly questionable competition (William & Mary, East Carolina, Old Dominion, and Wake Forest).
Greg Hudson scored passing marks in his first test as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, but seven more remain starting this weekend with NC State. If the defense can show as much improvement this week as it did last week, Hudson could very well pass his second test as well.