SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame junior defensive end Isaac Rochell couldn’t sleep after he and his teammates blew out Texas last Saturday night.
It wasn’t because Rochell was too excited to sleep after a five-touchdown victory. Instead, he couldn’t stop thinking about the plays he and the Irish defense didn’t make, specifically in terms of sacks.
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“I was so frustrated,” Rochell said. “I mean, you’re always happy to get a win, but I’m happy if I can’t sleep and we win by 35 points. That means you can improve so much. We just want to keep getting better.
“… We had quarterback hurries, but that’s not a (tackle for loss), that’s not a sack. It’s frustrating.”
Rochell and defensive tackle Sheldon Day are on the same page, with the two-time Irish captain saying Wednesday he didn’t grade himself well after a game in which he had one sack and four quarterback hurries. The goal of the Irish defensive line isn’t to just pressure the quarterback, it’s to take him down.
In reality, the amount of pressure Irish pass-rushers got on Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard contributed to a brutal night for both players. But that not-good-enough mentality stands in stark contrast to where Notre Dame’s defense was a year ago after shutting out Michigan.
“As a younger player, I would’ve been happy I didn’t get mental errors, happy I didn’t get loafs,” Rochell said. “But we’re a different team this year … We’re not going to squander a season. We’re going to get after it.”
That shutout of Michigan proved to be fool’s gold, as Notre Dame’s defense still made plenty of mental errors that didn’t go away and were exposed after Joe Schmidt’s season-ending injury on the first day of November. It wasn’t that Notre Dame’s defense was complacent after shutting out Michigan, but there were so many mistakes being made that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder told his group they were ahead of schedule.
In holding Texas to three points on Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense committed fewer mental errors, which now allows them to focus on more narrow areas that need improving, like finishing with sacks on pass rushes.
“Guys were really frustrated with themselves because we left a lot of production out there on the field,” Schmidt said. “I know Sheldon was really mad at himself, he missed a couple sacks that he does not miss. And for me, I made a few mistakes, I missed a tackle or two and didn’t defeat a block that I wanted to defeat the right way. For us, we really weren’t — yeah, we were excited we won, but there’s so much we needed to get better at from that game.”
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Rochell offered this comparison: In Notre Dame’s season-opening win against Rice last year, he committed eight mental errors. Against Texas, that total was zero.
So that’s at the heart of why Notre Dame thinks its defensive success against Texas is more sustainable than anything it did last year — “night and day,” coach Brian Kelly said. The stuff that’s being worked on are the kind of things that can keep this group producing into November, instead of collapsing down the stretch.
“(Complacency’s) a plague,” Schmidt said. “… Success is good for a unit, for a team, but it needs to be balanced with, you can’t lose your edge ever.”