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Things We Learned, pt. ii: Notre Dame’s defensive depth the difference between 2020 and all years prior

Marist Liufau

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 27: Marist Liufau #35 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Michael Carter #8 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the first half of their game at Kenan Stadium on November 27, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame has a habit of losing key defenders in second quarters. Cornerback Julian Love’s head injury that cost him the second stanza of the 2018 College Football Playoff famously coincided with Clemson turning a 3-0 lead into a 23-0 blowout, but go back further than that and less noteworthy Irish moments come to mind, as well.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s targeting penalty on the first play of the second quarter at Pittsburgh in 2013 led to the Panthers marching down the field to tie that early November contest at 7 as part of outscoring Notre Dame 28-14 after Tuitt’s ejection.

When Joe Schmidt broke his ankle in the second quarter against Navy in 2014, he played through the injury for the first series of the third quarter, but the Midshipmen still capitalized on his struggle to score a touchdown and draw within one possession of the Irish. Navy would take a 31-28 lead before a Notre Dame flurry in the fourth quarter clung to the victory, but the Midshipmen outpaced the Irish in nearly every regard following Schmidt’s injury.

And then came sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton’s targeting ejection Friday at No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3 ACC) at a point in which the top-20 matchup was tied, and Notre Dame’s defense had yet to stop or even slow the Tar Heels.

North Carolina used the first down gifted by Hamilton’s clear penalty to gain another 31 yards and notch a field goal. It would then not score again as the Irish, sans Hamilton, turned what had been the No. 4 offense in the country into a unit unfavorably-comparable to Kansas and UMass.

Without Hamilton, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 9-0) turned to juniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown, not to mention more responsibility landed on sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford. Aside from that, the Irish did not change much, despite losing their best defensive back and arguably best defender. (Naming either Hamilton or senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah the undisputed best defender on coordinator Clark Lea’s unit would be an insult to the other.)

“We thought we had some things that they hadn’t seen before,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the 31-17 victory that may have essentially sealed Notre Dame’s slot in the College Football Playoff. “We were able to take away some of their glance reads off the [run-pass option], which made it difficult for them in certain situations. We were able to do it with moving our safeties around.

“I thought the plan was outstanding and players executed it extremely well. This was as well as our group played on the backend, even when Kyle went down. Houston and DJ and Shaun played extremely well and assignment-correct. Great communication.”

The Irish of the past could not lose a crucial defender and expect to hold up, not against Tino Sunseri, not against the triple-option and certainly not against a dynamic offense with a star quarterback supported by an explosive running game, be that 2018 Clemson or 2020 North Carolina.

North Dame has enjoyed defensive playmakers for a few years now — Tuitt and Love unquestionably qualified, and Schmidt’s steadfastness deserves its own acknowledgment — but only now has it found the depth needed to be a genuine contender.

“Houston coming in for us did a great job of locking down the secondary,” Irish senior linebacker Drew White said. “That’s just how the defensive unit is. It’s more than just 11 guys, it’s all the guys on the team, all the guys on defense locked in in meeting rooms, locked in in practice.

“Whenever a guy goes down, all 10 other guys have the utmost respect and trust in the guy filling in.”

White also praised sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau (pictured at top), who finished with five tackles in place of usual starter Shayne Simon, a deliberate choice by Lea to utilize Liufau’s length and ranginess, rather than Simon’s power and run fits, to counteract the Tar Heels’ RPOs, as Kelly mentioned.

And White credited freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis for stepping in to relieve junior TaRiq Bracy after Bracy was beaten a few times on North Carolina’s opening two touchdown drives.

“We’ve got great players and great depth,” Kelly said. “... Our defense was outstanding, especially in the second half. One of those road wins that really shows the mettle of your football team. Offense, defense was outstanding.”

That depth was on display on both sides of the ball, though injuries along the offensive line have not cost Notre Dame as dearly over the years. By no means should sophomore center Zeke Correll’s and senior Josh Lugg’s work up front be downplayed simply because Griffith, Liufau and Lewis all excelled.

But even Kelly knew what to expect from an offensive line back-stopped by reliably elite recruiting.

“We knew both these guys were going to step in and play well for us.”

The same could not be said for the Irish defenders. Losing key players there once turned a 7-2 season, with the two losses both coming to top-20 opponents, into an 8-4 finish (2013). It sparked a four-game losing streak (2014). It contributed to the narrative of Notre Dame getting blown out in worthwhile postseason competitions belonging alongside death and taxes in discussions of life’s certainties.

But losing Hamilton on Friday did not slow the Irish in the slightest. It would be foolish to say they played better without him — their intended system finally took hold — but the fact that Lea did not change his approach without his greatest failsafe speaks as loudly as the second-half shutout.

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