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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Adams: Irish offense needs to relieve some of defense's burden

Seventy-nine points. That’s how many the Notre Dame defense has given up this season. After giving up 14 points to Louisville in the first quarter of the season opener, the defense held them to three points in the remaining three quarters as the offense eventually found a rhythm. It also allowed only one touchdown in the first half against New Mexico and one more in garbage time.

Then, the defense took a leap forward, as the defensive line and linebacking corps improved leaps and bounds from where they were in those first two games and held a vaunted No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs rushing attack to only 154 yards rushing. They also recorded key stops on third downs, forcing the Bulldogs to kick field goals and keeping the game within reach.

Most recently, they recorded 13 tackles for loss, equalling a total of 61 yards and held Virginia to only four net-rushing yards. To be fair though, those four net yards are due in large part to the defense also recording eight sacks for -55 yards. That’s right — eight sacks, including three fumble recoveries on four forced fumbles, one of which resulted in an Irish touchdown.

Against Virginia, the Irish offense recorded 343 yards, while the Cavaliers offense recorded 338. The difference in the game: not only the negative yards acquired from sacks and tackles for loss, but the 71 yards on fumble returns that put the Irish in terrific scoring position and swung the momentum of the game. One of those resulted in a touchdown for senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji and nearly resulted in another for junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (brought down at the Virginia seven-yard line). Head coach Brian Kelly said it was imperative the Irish pressure Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins to negate the team’s running ability.

“Well, tactically there’s a lot of things that you can’t do. … He limits you in a lot of areas. So, we had to get a great pass rush and we had to contain him with our front four, we had to put our corners on an island quite a bit and force him to throw the football. Which he did, give him credit — first half, he was great,” Kelly said. “In the second half, we were able to get to him quickly and he had to get the ball out of his hand quickly, and that was really the difference in the game for us. They could not run the ball between the tackles when they wanted to run the football with a five-and-a-half-man box. If they could, that would have required us to do other things.”

Tagovailoa-Amosa discussed the feeling of seeing that game plan work against the Cavaliers.

“It’s such a blessing, just seeing our plan just going to fruition. Everything we’ve been repping all week, it just all came together,” he said. “[We] continue to [pressure] the QB so we can get sacks. Not only that, we can pressure the QB so he can make bad decisions, and that’s what happened with the turnover ratio and stuff like that.”

Right now, the Irish own a +9 turnover margin through four games, one of the best in the nation. Thanks to the defense making plays, the Irish have been able to separate against Louisville (three fumbles recovered) and Virginia in two games that were tightly contested in the first half, dominate New Mexico (three interceptions, one fumble recovery) and they had a chance to defeat the No. 3 team in the nation on the road (fumble recovery on a muffed punt in red zone). Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem said the defense doesn’t feel any pressure to make these kinds of plays to help spark the offense.

“I mean, we know that if we’re up, all we have to do as the defense is stop the offense from scoring,” Kareem said. “[The] offense, if they don’t score another point and we keep our opponent to zero, then we’re good. It’s a win.”

While the defense has been outstanding through four games, the offense has been underwhelming and, as such, too much is being asked of the defense. Just looking at the matchup with the Cavaliers, the Irish offense’s only score that didn’t come off of a turnover was on their opening drive. The next three were the result of fumbles with the last coming from an interception by senior safety Alohi Gilman. Other than those, the offense struggled to move the ball for extended periods, admittedly against a tough Virginia defense.

On their first drive against the Cavaliers, the Irish were 4-4 on 3rd downs, including a rushing touchdown by senior running back Tony Jones, Jr. After that, they went 2-11 to finish 6-15 on 3rd down. Still, it is a marked improvement over the 1-10 mark they posted on 3rd downs against New Mexico, and slightly better than their 4-11 mark against Georgia.

And yet, this is a team that had Georgia on the ropes in Athens. Regardless of how stingy a defense you’re facing, if you’re a team with national championship aspirations, the days of being able to win it all while relying on your defense are long past, as shown by Alabama’s rout of the Irish in the 2012 national championship and the recent 30-3 loss to Clemson in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Even senior running back Tony Jones, Jr. said the defense’s play, specifically Ogubdeji’s touchdown, gave the offense a spark.

“It was a big lift for [the defense] to score,” he said. “We were kinda down because we had two punts in a row, and then they scored and it hyped us up, and we scored.”

Still, Kareem sees the relationship between the offense and defense as symbiotic, where one leans on the other.

“I mean, we have offense’s back and they have ours. So, when they’re back is against the wall, we’ll show up for them, so we’re not really concerned about that,” he said. “We’re one team, so as long as one side of the ball is making plays, then we’re all good.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but in the long term, what’s been happening isn’t sustainable. Getting three or four takeaways in a game shouldn’t be a necessity, it should be a luxury. This defense has been making the plays for the Irish this season, and the offense needs to pick up some of the slack. The Irish offense has to show up for the team to have a realistic chance at making a major bowl game and winning, or, if they’re lucky, getting back to the Playoff and challenging for another national championship.