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Saturday, April 20, 2024
The Observer

Week 4 Notre Dame football grades: Defense has work to do up front

The first quarter of the 2023 season really couldn't have gotten off to a better start for the Notre Dame defense. The Irish allowed a combined six points in their first two games, then picked off 2021 ACC passing leader Brennan Armstrong three times and allowed just seven second-half points to their first Power Five opponent of the year.

But last week's Ohio State primer offered some concerning signs. The Irish did clean things up mid-game, allowing only a field goal in the final two quarters, but games against lesser foes like Central Michigan are more about the process than the result. While getting to 4-0 is what matters, what happened on that journey will help shape this weekend’s highly-anticipated clash with Ohio State.

Defensive Line

The Irish have been able to generate pressure at a good rate this season, although they haven't necessarily gotten the results to show for it. Graduate student Javontae Jean-Baptiste continues to be an impact player ahead of a matchup with his former team. He led the Irish with three quarterback hurries, one of which forced a third-down incompletion.

However, the two sacks and forced fumbles the Irish produced didn't come from their defensive line. Notre Dame has also failed to recover any of the seven fumbles they've forced all season. Sophomore Joshua Burnham also took a roughing the passer penalty that accounted for the second-longest play of Central Michigan's opening touchdown drive. Senior Rylie Mills took another that would've cost the Irish points if not for a missed 36-yard field goal.

The Chippewas finished with 3.9 yards per carry, a higher figure than the Irish would have liked. With a strong Ohio State ground game coming into town, the Irish will need to take a step forward next week.

Weekly Grade: C; Overall Grade: C+

Linebackers

The absence of graduate student JD Bertrand due to a concussion was certainly noticeable. Fellow graduate students Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau stepped up in his absence, with Kiser leading the defense with 10 tackles and forcing a fumble.

However, sophomore Jaylen Sneed failed to make an impact in a bigger role. Missed tackles were an unfortunate recurring theme, especially in the first half. This unit deserves its fair share of blame for the Chippewas' success on the ground last week, although they made some big plays as well. The big three of Bertrand, Kiser and Liufau can shoulder enough of the load against Ohio State. But at some point this season, the Irish will need someone else to step up.

Weekly Grade: B-; Season Grade: A-

Secondary

Other than one bust in coverage that resulted in a 31-yard strike, the Irish defensive backs weren't seriously challenged for the third time in four games. That isn't to say they didn't make some big plays, though. Graduate student safety Thomas Harper made the play of the game with a bone-jarring, fumble-forcing sack. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison's athletic pass breakup on a third down end zone shot prevented the Chippewas offense from gaining any momentum in the second half.

The Irish held Chippewas backup Jase Bauer to 10 of 20 passing for just 137 yards. Kyle McCord and his all-star cast of receivers will be a tougher task, though. The Irish secondary should get a boost with senior safety DJ Brown expected back from a hamstring injury. Notre Dame's secondary may be the team's deepest spot with five safeties and three or four corners the Irish can trust to hold their own. They're capable of rising to the moment against Marvin Harrison Jr. and company.

Weekly Grade: A; Season Grade: A-

Special Teams

If there's a dark horse difference-maker against the Buckeyes, it's graduate student kicker Spencer Shrader. After drilling a 54-yard field goal against NC State and drilling a 56-yarder off the upright, Shrader connected from 50 yards out to give Notre Dame a three-score lead for good. He did come up short from 59 as well, although his 56-yard try last week had more than enough leg. Last year, the Irish didn't even attempt a field goal from 50+ yards. They've already tried four this year, which could be a game-changing development.

Otherwise, it was a standard low-event game for Irish special teams. The hype of last year's punt-blocking prowess has fully died down at this point. Ohio State's kick return performance has been historically mediocre in recent years — the team hasn't returned a kick for a touchdown in over a decade. It dates back to 2014 for punts.

Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: A-

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