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Things We Learned, Part II: Notre Dame’s defensive lapses will continue, but with accompanying rewards

Toledo v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Carter Bradley #2 of the Toledo Rockets coughs up the football with seconds remaining as Ramon Henderson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will make the recovery sealing the game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame’s defense will make mistakes this season. The two costly touchdowns of 89 yards and 60 yards given up at Florida State were not simply symptoms of a season opener. Giving up a 67-yard run and a 66-yard catch against Toledo on Saturday confirmed that.

The Irish do not intend to allow such big plays, but they are the risk of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s aggressive approach, particularly early on in its adaption.

“We know why it’s happening,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the 32-29 victory against the Rockets. “We’re transitioning defenses. … We have new players on the field, younger players, inexperienced players that are going through some growing pains.”

That was more a factual statement than an excuse from Kelly. Notre Dame is down an expected starter in junior linebacker Marist Liufa (dislocated ankle) and his probable backup in senior Shayne Simon (torn labrum), as well as a contributor at Rover in junior Paul Moala (Achilles) and, through two games, a disruptor at Vyper in sophomore end Jordan Botelho (expected to be available this week). Add in replacing a starting safety, cornerback, star linebacker and two NFL-caliber defensive ends from last year’s unit, and the Irish are indeed working with new players.

And Freeman’s scheme is very different than his predecessor’s.

That latter adjustment may entail more than Kelly anticipated. After barely beating Toledo The Athletic’s Pete Sampson asked Kelly if there is more to figure out early in this season than expected, acknowledging Kelly had an idea some things would need to be figured out in September. Kelly’s initial “Ummm” was followed by an eight-second pause, an unusual delay for the coach in his 12 years at Notre Dame and an especially unusual delay during a postgame interview.

“Yes and no,” Kelly finally said. “Yes in the sense that I think from a defensive standpoint there’s a little bit more to it than maybe I thought in terms of figuring some things out.”

The no pertained to the offense’s struggles, ones Kelly sees as — and this is an oversimplification here — a result of having too many good players.

The defensive need to figure some things out pertains only to a small fraction of the plays. If not for those two most notable lapses at Florida State, the Irish gave up 293 yards on 72 plays, an average of 4.07 yards per play. Against Toledo, aside from those two field-flipping gains, Notre Dame allowed 220 total yards on 61 plays, an average of 3.61 yards per play.

The Irish have forced four turnovers through two games, a number that should be five if not for the inexplicable overturning of Kyle Hamilton’s diving interception on Saturday. The defense gave up only 22 points to Toledo, and that includes six points off short fields courtesy of offensive miscues. The Seminoles enjoyed 10 points from such occasions.

“What we’re talking about here is the execution for 80 snaps,” Kelly said Monday. “We’re executing in the first two weeks for 75 out of the 80, but when we don’t execute at the level necessary, we’re giving up big plays.”

There is every reason to believe that will continue. Missed run fits result from aggressive blitzes. Cornerbacks beaten in one-on-one coverage come from schemes trying to tempt an interception. When these moments fall short, they are costly. When they work, they lead to sideline elation.

Well, elation from most of the sideline. Hang around until the end of Notre Dame’s in-house highlight reel this week and notice Freeman’s muted response to the game-sealing fumble forced by fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and recovered by junior linebacker JD Bertrand. Freeman calmly pumps a fist, nothing more.

Freeman expects his aggressive defense to force turnovers, and he knows the bigger benefits of those plays: The Irish have scored three touchdowns in two weeks on possessions starting with short fields courtesy of their defense.

There are rewards, like creating havoc on 20.5 percent of defensive snaps thus far this season. There will be risks, like Toledo’s 26-yard touchdown dash to nearly win Saturday.

“We were trying to make sure we got some [tackle for loss] or negative snap,” Bertrand said of that exact play. “It’s just that execution piece. It’s something we need to see on film.”

Even as the breakout star of this defense, Bertrand (11 tackles in each game) knows things need to get better.

“This was a good game for us in the sense that we’ll be able to learn from this,” he said. “It was kind of an eye-opening game in the sense that it was bittersweet, we’re going to be able to take it from here, identify we need to get better. Every guy in that room knows they need to look at their own play individually and look where they can get better.”

That is to be expected from a high-risk, high-reward defense like Freeman’s. The dramatic mistakes in Tallahassee can be expected to last, at least for a few more weeks. Freeman’s own mantras suggest that reality, essentially urging the entire defense to embody a goldfish’s 10-second memory.

“Coach Freeman has made a big thing of ‘One play, one life,’” Bertrand said. “That’s the biggest thing that matters, making sure we play one play at a time. The past plays don’t matter.”

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