SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is one of two FBS programs without a sack in 2016, a glaring zero for a lagging defense on a 1-2 team that effectively was eliminated from the College Football Playoff three weeks into the season.
But perhaps even more concerning is the lack of pressure Brian VanGorder’s group is putting on opposing quarterbacks. Only defensive end Isaac Rochell (four) has been credited with multiple quarterback pressures, and Notre Dame as a team only has 11. It’d be one thing if Notre Dame’s defensive players were at least getting into the backfield and disrupting passing plays without getting sacks, but this defense isn’t even doing that.
Coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that the lack of sacks has, in part, been due to a calculated effort by the Irish to not put more pressure on a young, inexperienced secondary.
“If you bring pressure, you put pressure,” Kelly said. So it's measured. “It's measured by how much pressure do you want to put on your corners and safeties, and so we're measuring that. We're measuring it by down and distance. We're measuring it by opponent from week to week.”
Having a consistent pass rush could help out that young secondary, though, just as it did in 2012 when Notre Dame replaced a starting cornerback (KeiVarae Russell for Lo Wood) and a starting safety (Matthias Farley for Jamoris Slaughter) and was able to still field a championship-level defense. That's not a perfect comparison, given the differences in Brian VanGorder and Bob Diaco's schemes, but getting negative plays when a quarterback drops back to pass would seem to be an aid for the Nick Colemans and Julian Loves and Devin Studstills of the Irish defense.
The problem, though, is that getting a consistent pass rush for this 2016 team isn't an easy fix. Kelly said Rochell needs to "let it go" and move from being close to getting to the quarterback to actually getting to the quarterback. The defensive line hasn't played well as a unit yet, with only some individual performances -- like Jerry Tillery against Michigan State or Daniel Cage against Nevada -- standing out.
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And talented freshmen like Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara are still figuring out the basics of what to do when they get on the field, so they're not fully ready to be consistently effective pass rushers.
“They're coming,” Kelly said when asked if Hayes could help out with the pass rush. “I know you want him now. I want him now. I wanted them all last week. But they're going to get there.”
At best, the Irish pass rush is a work in progress that'll eventually build to being an effective group by November. At worst, it's a unit that'll languish near the bottom of college football in total sacks.
In 2015, Navy had the fewest sacks of any team ranked in the AP top 25 (22 sacks, finished No. 18), and it’s no surprise that all four participants in the College Football Playoff ranked in the top 13 in sack total (Alabama and Clemson, last year’s championship game participants, were Nos. 1 and 2).
Even if Notre Dame were to average two sacks per game through the end of bowl season, that’d only give them 20 sacks, which in 2015 would’ve tied for 99th in FBS. And given that this team last year — with all that NFL talent on it — only averaged 1.85 sacks per game, that sort of an uptick seems unlikely.
So if Notre Dame is on pace to finish the year with fewer than 20 sacks, that’d put them on an inauspicious path. In 2015, only three power five teams finished with records above .500 and had fewer than 20 sacks: Duke (8-5), Auburn (7-6) and Texas Tech (7-6).
We’ll see if Notre Dame can fix its pressure problem and/or buck last year’s trend over these next nine-to-10 games.
“Obviously, we have to bring pressure in certain situations, and we got to get home, and we're close to getting home,” Kelly said. “We had a couple where we're right there. We've got some hurries, but we don't have the sacks yet, obviously. … So we got to get there. We understand that. We're clearly aware of the situation. But to bring pressure, you add pressure.”