SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense needed that.
Forget for a moment that Saturday’s 39-10 win came against a Nevada program that’s not on the same athletic level as Notre Dame. Coach Brian Polian — himself a former Notre Dame assistant coach — summed it up:
“If we were supposed to beat Notre Dame, we wouldn't be in the Mountain West Conference,” Polian said. “I mean, Notre Dame is not our peer.”
But coming off a loss to Texas in which it allowed 50 points, and with a make-or-break primetime home date against No. 12 Michigan State looming a week from now, Notre Dame’s defense desperately needed to exit Saturday with some positivity and momentum.
“It lets us know that we’re capable of being a dominant defense when we want to be,” nose guard Jarron Jones, who deftly intercepted a screen pass in the second quarter, said. “So to have this game under our belt, it gives us confidence going into Michigan State. And I feel like if we do the things that we want to do against Michigan State, I feel like everything will take care of itself the rest of the season.”
In the first three quarters Saturday afternoon — with the first-team defense primarily on the field — Notre Dame held Nevada to three points and 179 yards on 44 plays, an average of 4.1 yards per play (Texas ripped off 86 plays and averaged six yards per play on Sunday). Jones had that aforementioned interception, and James Onwualu had a pair of tackles for a loss to lead the defensive superlatives. Wolf Pack running back James Butler, who in 2015 rushed for over 1,300 yards (107 of which came against a pretty good front seven in Texas A&M), was held to 50 yards on 17 carries.
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Notre Dame’s defense set the tone on the Wolf Pack's first possession, on which Polian & Co. went for it on fourth-and-one from the Notre Dame 17. Daniel Cage smothered Nevada's Asauni Rufus for no gain, turning the ball over on downs. On Nevada’s next five possessions, it gained 51 yards on 20 plays to open the door for the Irish offense to take a 32-0 lead in the third quarter.
“We never had a drive that the defense had momentum in the Texas game,” Onwualu said. “So getting a little bit of that, getting some big stops, got some big plays, so it’s definitely momentum rolling into next week.”
That Notre Dame was able to manufacture this defensive success, even against an overmatched team like Nevada, is at least somewhat impressive due to the abbreviated week the team faced after returning home early in the morning on Labor Day from that hot, long, gutting evening in Austin. Irish coaches had to emphasize quality over quantity in terms of practice this week and focused on making sure players were not only prepared for Nevada, but well-rested.
“That's really what was the key to us being able to play and feel like we weren't lethargic or we weren't heavy-legged,” Kelly said.
Without the right plan, Notre Dame’s defense easily could’ve fallen into the same mistake-filled patterns that defined its loss to Texas.
“The way the coaches laid it out was perfect,” cornerback Cole Luke said. “We had our good amount of rest, we made sure we maximized our potential physically and mentally and we put the work in when we needed to put it in. We kind of pushed everything back a little bit just to get ourselves right and I think it paid off.”
Deploying a more consistent 4-3 base and 4-2-5 nickel look made a difference, too, six days after Brian VanGorder’s 3-3-5 scheme was ineffective against Texas up-tempo yet physical offense. Jones and Cage led a strong showing from the defensive line, and inserting sophomore Te’von Coney at Will (inside) linebacker for junior Greer Martini made a positive difference, too. With the less-complicated structure, Notre Dame’s defense was able to do the simple things — tackling, playing balls in the air, staying on assignment, etc. — much better against Nevada.
And in fitting with that idea of gaining momentum, Notre Dame’s defense re-established itself physically against Nevada.
“We felt like we had it established going into Texas, and obviously that didn’t work out, so we kind of had to re-assess ourselves and re-establish that culture of being physical,” Jones said. “… Everyone knew in the back of their minds we have Michigan State next, so we knew we had to pick it up this game.”
Michigan State, obviously, will present a much stiffer challenge than Nevada. This is a program that made the College Football Playoff last year and had won 36 games over the last three years. Bruising running back LJ Scott will create problems, and Notre Dame can’t afford to commit as many penalties as it did against Nevada (freshman defensive end Khalid Kareem’s roughing the passer flag negated what would’ve been Cole Luke’s first interception of the year, for example).
But Notre Dame’s defense had to start somewhere after hitting the reset button six days ago. It passed the test against Nevada, and now has a much more difficult — and important — one against Michigan State in a game the Irish can’t afford to lose.
“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there,” Kelly said, “I think we got a fighting shot against anybody we play.”