Notre Dame’s defense has shown glimpses of hitting its high, talent-supported ceiling this year. But it hasn’t played with much consistency, as evidenced by the sheer number of big-chunk plays opponents have racked up against it.
Notre Dame has allowed 18 plays of 30 or more yards (102nd among FBS teams) and six plays of 50 or more yards (105th). They’re only one of seven defenses to allow multiple plays of 80 or more yards, joining an unimpressive list of Colorado State, Eastern Michigan, Rice, Texas Tech, UTEP and Wake Forest for that dubious statistic.
Contrast those big plays -- most of which have come early in games -- with the Irish defense allowing opponents to convert only 28 percent of their third-down tries (10th), and it's even more apparent why those big plays are a problem.
"We play at different times really, really good football," coach Brian Kelly said. "We saw it against Georgia Tech where we were dominating at times. We just haven't put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else's job."
Trick plays have become a major headache for Brian VanGorder's bunch, with the latest resulting in USC wide receiver (and former quarterback) Jalen Greene throwing a 75-yard touchdown to a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster. Virginia and UMass also successfully exploited Notre Dame's defense with gadget plays that didn't appear difficult to identify were coming.
“There's no need for big, structural changes,” Kelly said. “Our attention to detail has got to be better relative to run fits. How many times have we been hit with trick plays? Sooner or later, you've got to do your job and take care of that. That's not a scheme thing. That's a discipline thing.”
This is a talented, deep defense with NFL-caliber players on each of its units -- Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell should play on Sundays as early as next year -- but for whatever reason, poor discipline continues to be a Saturday theme, leading to those big plays.
If there’s a larger point of optimism for this defense, though, it’s that it’s a group that has finished strong. After allowing 14 quick points at Clemson, Notre Dame’s defense locked down DeShaun Watson & Co. the rest of the game. USC didn’t score for the final 24:40 of last week’s game, allowing C.J. Prosise & Co. to power an offensive comeback. When this defense is locked in, it's a solid group that can be leaned on, especially late in games.
“When you finish stuff off in the fourth quarter, it kind of eradicates stuff that happened in the first half,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who had a massive interception against USC, said. “Of course you go back and correct it, but when you finish off strong, you kind of show more of your character. You’re not really worried too much about the first half like oh my god, we played terrible in the first half, it’s like, if we finish strong, now we gotta work on starting fast and those things will come together. I think that’s the name of the game throughout the year if you watch our defense is we finish off strong, though we start kind of slow. … I think that’s really what it is, is be disciplined but start off faster.”
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Those early mistakes can’t be erased, though. Ideally, Notre Dame won't back itself against the wall defensively by allowing early big plays and could string together a complete game of solid defense. There's little margin for error heading into a five-game stretch that'll define the 2015 season, and defensive mistakes certainly will make things more difficult for Notre Dame to end November with an 11-1 record and shot at the College Football Playoff.
"I'm very, very confident that we can put four quarters of this kind of play together," Kelly said. "So if we had not put together second half performances in the fashion that we have, ... I would be less optimistic."