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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Gator bowl grades: Irish defensive line flashes sneak peak of 2023

While on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame looked to replace All-American junior Michael Mayer at tight end, they had a couple of major holes on the defensive side as well. The Irish were missing four defensive starters during Friday’s Gator Bowl, including two on the defensive line.

Senior vyper and projected first-round pick Isaiah Foskey, the Notre Dame record holder for career sacks, opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the draft. Additionally, graduate student defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, a staple of the defensive line over the past two seasons was ruled out this week with an injury. Ademilola notched five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2022, and he’s been projected as high as the fourth round in mock drafts.

The Irish got their first look at what their defensive line could look like without arguably their two best players of the past two seasons. Notre Dame rolled with eight primary defensive linemen during their clash with South Carolina. A few linebackers took snaps at edge rusher — the Irish have made a habit of crosstraining their linebackers at the vyper position to add versatility to various defensive packages. Here’s a look at standouts from the day, along with an overall drive-by-drive analysis.

Quarter 1

The Irish went down 21-7 in the first quarter, while playing three defensive possessions. The opening drive was a tough start for both the line and the defense as a whole. South Carolina drove 75 yards in 10 seemingly effortless plays for an opening score. The Irish largely rolled with juniors Jordan Botelho and Rylie Mills, senior Howard Cross and graduate student Justin Ademilola on the line. They struggled to generate really any pressure against a high-tempo offense. They allowed an early 13-yard run to spark the drive. Botelho, Foskey’s main replacement at vyper, took advantage of his first major opportunity, sacking South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler on a read-option play.

From there, the line play improved, as the Irish rolled with their second rotation, featuring senior Nana Osafa-Mensah, graduate student Chris Smith, sophomore Gabriel Rubio and freshman Junior Tuihalamaka. The Irish defense generated a turnover, courtesy of a forced fumble from the secondary. But the line played a minimal role in the drive. South Carolina would score on their final drive of the quarter, going 75 yards once more. Again, the Irish defensive line struggled to make much of an impact. The Gamecocks flew down the field to the edge of the red zone. The Irish did force a fourth down, but South Carolina faked a field goal and scored anyway.

After a South Carolina pick-six, the Gamecocks led 21-7. Throughout the quarter, the Irish defensive line generated virtually no pressure, and a very comfortable Rattler hit on most everything.

Grade: 3.0/10

Quarter 2

After a hot start, the Gamecocks slowed down in the second quarter, as the Irish new-look defensive line continued to try and find a groove. On their first play of the second quarter, Ademilola and Cross combined for a big play, surging through the line to force a three-yard loss on a first-down fun. However, South Carolina managed to move the chains again. Out near midfield, Botelho notched his second impact play of the game. He again read a read-option play well and notched a quarterback hit, forcing a rushed screen pass which was stuffed for no gain.

Although they didn’t directly notch much pressure, the Irish managed to collapse the pocket a few times, forcing more throws on the run. They held South Carolina to a field goal, keeping the deficit within two possessions. That seemed to be a momentum switch, as the defensive line began to generate more havoc throughout the game. The Gamecocks punted and threw an interception on their final two possessions of the half.

Rubio showed impressive pursuit in helping shut down a reverse and wide receiver pass attempt that turned into a three-yard loss. Botelho punctuated a strong first half with consecutive quarterback hits on the final two plays. The second led to an underthrow and an interception, ending South Carolina’s hopes of extending their 24-17 advantage.

Overall, the defensive line was much improved in this quarter, stuffing several runs and trick play efforts while finally making Rattler uncomfortable. They minimized big plays and gave a slow-moving offense a chance to start generating yards and points.

Grade: 8.0/10

Quarter 3

The Irish defense had a much stronger showing in the second half. They generated early pressure in forcing a three-and-out on the first South Carolina possession of the half. Osafa-Mensah shed a block to earn a second-down tackle. Botelho helped collapse the pocket on third down, forcing an incompletion.

South Carolina scored just once in the quarter, via a 42-yard scoring pass from Rattler, who faced heavy pressure from Mills on the play. The Irish didn’t allow another first down on any of the three more South Carolina drives in the quarter. The Irish featured some new looks in the third quarter on the line. Freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed then started lining up at vyper a few times. On occasion, the Irish put Ademilola and Botelho on the same side of the line, trying to generate mismatches by overloading their primary edge rushers. The varied looks kept the Gamecocks flustered and struggling on offense.

Late in the quarter, the Irish managed to flip the field at a crucial time. Ademilola pressured Rattler on first down and forced an underthrow on a deep shot. On third down, Ademilola and Botelho both broke through, with the latter notching his second sack of the evening. That quarter ended with the score tied 31-31.

The Irish started to make things uncomfortable for the Gamecocks in the third. However, the actual production was limited to one sack and some quarterback hurries.

Grade: 6.0/10

Quarter 4

The Irish needed to take the field just twice as a defensive unit in the fourth quarter. On the first, they netted another three-and-out. Tuihalamaka offered strong pursuit on a two-yard loss on first down. Tuihalamaka and Cross added second-down pressure as Rattler was forced to scramble.

A long pick-six by the Carolina defense meant that the Notre Dame offense was on the field for much of the quarter. When the defense re-took the field, the Irish led 45-38. They needed to hold the Gamecocks one more time, and with the help of a strong pass rush, the Irish defense obliged. For this final drive, Notre Dame called on Botelho, Ademilola and Cross for every snap. Sneed (five snaps) and Tuihalamaka (two snaps) alternated rushing off the edge.

The Gamecocks moved the ball quickly to start, getting all the way to the Notre Dame 35. However, the Irish pass rush stepped up. On second down, Mills showed excellent patience, spinning off a block that forced Rattler to take an intentional grounding penalty, putting the Gamecocks into a 3rd and 21. Cross and Admeilola brought pressure on third down, and Rattler fired incomplete under heavy duress. Finally, on fourth down, Ademilola broke through one more time, chasing Rattler toward the sideline and forcing him to heave it while rolling left. The pass fell incomplete, securing the Gator Bowl victory.

On eleven fourth-quarter snaps, the Irish generated heavy pressure on about half of them. They forced a tackle for loss and held Rattler to two completions on six attempts, passing for 20 yards. Additionally, the Irish defense notched a sack and forced Rattler to scramble out of a collapsing pocket twice. Beyond allowing some positive yardage on the scrambles and a personal foul on Sneed, it was absolute dominance from the defensive line when it counted.

Grade: 9.0/10

Overall, the new-look Irish offensive line started slow but improved drastically. An extremely comfortable Rattler looked frazzled and discombobulated throughout the second half. The Irish maybe didn’t get home as much as they would have liked. But Botelho did notch two sacks, and Mills added a key one on the final drive.

The middle of the line was stout against the run, but the pass rush struggled. Sneed committed two personal fouls, while Tuihalamaka was a virtual non-factor in his 24 snaps. Despite an inconsistent effort, the Irish made South Carolina one-dimensional, made a few big plays and stepped up when it mattered.

Final Grade: 7.3/10

Looking ahead to 2023

The Irish featured nine players that took snaps on the defensive line (including Sneed’s snaps at edge rusher). They did it almost entirely with a set of players sure to return next season. Of the nine, the Irish return seven of them. Smith is out of eligibility and will depart. Ademilola is the only question mark, as he could return for a sixth year and has not made an announcement.

Botelho made his case to be the starting vyper in a big way, delivering an impactful performance on Friday. Mills and Cross are likely locks for the starting lineup, although Ademilola’s decision could affect where Mills plays. Osafa-Mensah, Sneed and Tuihalamaka also present options off the edge. Rubio put together a solid game at defensive tackle.

So, with one major decision pending, Notre Dame showcased a majority of their 2023 defensive line at the end of 2022. Overall, they put together a promising effort, showing they are capable of not missing a step despite some key departures.