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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Irish defense looks to continue relentless play against Darnold, Trojans offense

In 2016, Notre Dame’s defense forced a total of 14 turnovers, intercepting eight passes and recovering six fumbles.

Through six games of 2017, the Irish defense has matched that total with eight fumble recoveries and six interceptions.

In his 13 games in 2016, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold threw nine interceptions.

In his first seven games of 2017, the redshirt sophomore has also matched last year’s total in the category, leading all Pac-12 signal-callers this season.

It’s those trends No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) will be looking to take advantage of in Saturday’s game against No. 11 USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12).

“I think it’s a strength and a weakness of his,” Irish captain and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Darnold’s aggressiveness. “[The number of interceptions] stems from his competitiveness and his desire to extend plays and get the ball downfield to his receivers. If he wants to throw balls in tight windows, we’ve definitely had a focus on guys getting their hands on balls and disrupting the ball.”

Much of Notre Dame’s ability to turnover its opponents can be attributed to the mentality shared by the entire defense: dominating the opposition. And senior defensive lineman Jay Hayes said its that mentality which the Irish will bring into Saturday’s matchup as well.

Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love makes a tackle during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Sept. 30. Love has 27 tackles and one interception on the year.
Irish junior cornerback Julian Love makes a tackle during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Sept. 30.
Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love makes a tackle during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Sept. 30. Love has 27 tackles and one interception on the year.

“We sit in this meeting room and it’s about dominating your opponent — having the skill sets and knowing what it takes to dominate your opponents,” Hayes said. “ … That message is reiterated throughout the defense — throughout the defensive line, throughout the safeties, throughout the linebackers, everybody. Dominate your opponent. The guy across from you, dominate him. Look him in his eye, dominate him. So that’s what we’ve got to do going into this game.”

But the Irish defense is well aware that the domination it aims for won’t come easily. While stopping Darnold may be the more apparent challenge, Notre Dame defenders realize that containing junior running back Ronald Jones II in the run-pass option attack the Trojans utilize will also be a challenge, as he has averaged 106 yards per game on the ground in his six games played this season. Between Darnold and Jones, the Irish expect a challenge, but it is one they also expect to meet so long as they play within themselves.

“They’ve got a lot of dynamic playmakers all over the field,” Tranquill said. “ … We just have to be sound and execute our defense, and if we do that, I think we’ll come out victorious on defense.”

“We plan on slowing them down the way we’ve slowed everyone else down,” Irish sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes said. “We focus on us, we focus on our process and we’re getting prepared for the fight.”

And that execution and focus will be multi-faceted; for the Irish linebackers and defensive backs, the emphasis will be on not allowing chunk yardage should Darnold extend plays outside of the pocket.

“He’s a playmaker,” Tranquill said of Darnold. “He can extend plays, has a very quick release in his [run-pass option] game and has the ability to scan the field and get deep within his progression. So we’re going to have to plaster routes.

“We’re going to have to focus on that downfield so that when he extends plays and gets out of the pocket, he can’t make those big plays.”

For the defensive line, however, the emphasis will be on preventing Darnold from getting outside of the pocket in the first place, making him uncomfortable while stuck between the tackles.

“[The key will be] just getting in his face and being able to hit the guy makes him uncomfortable,” Daelin Hayes said. “[Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long] says the quickest way to shut down an offense is to hit the quarterback and make him uncomfortable, so I think that’ll be huge this week.”

And the ability to rotate personnel constantly on the defensive line has allowed the Irish to be disruptive consistently throughout games.

“We’re just fresh,” Daelin Hayes said. “If you’re only in for five to six plays and you sub out the next series or whatever, you’re going to be fresh [and] … able to go out and make plays and be explosive, give it everything you got.”

That explosiveness is a trait the Irish defensive line expects to play an important role in Saturday’s game with the Trojans, as the defense hopes to use this game as a showcase of its ability to do what it believes it has done throughout this season: dominate its opponents.

“You’ve got to be relentless, and I think, going into this game, that’s what our guys are going to do — we’re going to be relentless,” Jay Hayes said. “This is a good game to show our ability to be relentless.”