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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Week 5 Notre Dame football grades: Defense so close, yet so far

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Notre Dame senior safety Xavier Watts runs into position during Notre Dame's 17-14 loss to Ohio State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 23.


Let’s just say it’s a good thing we haven’t been including coaching grades in this article.

If you had told Notre Dame fans the Irish would allow just 17 points to Ohio State, you probably wouldn’t have been able to finish your sentence before they started blasting the fight song. Yet three plays on the Buckeyes’ final drive — the fourth & 17 and third & 19 conversions, plus the infamous 10 men on the field touchdown that left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone wearing green Saturday — rendered so much of what came before it moot. The Irish defense wasn’t perfect in the first 58 minutes, but they certainly did their job. This week’s grades article attempts to weigh those two co-existing yet maddening realities.

Defensive line

If a normal year where Notre Dame didn’t bring in one of the country’s most experienced quarterbacks, Javontae Jean-Baptiste would easily be the team’s best graduate transfer. The former Buckeye was a man among boys on several occasions, finishing tied for the team lead with eight tackles and a quarterback hurry, though it feels like he could’ve been credited for more of the latter. Graduate student Howard Cross, senior Rylie Mills and (when he was on the field) senior Jordan Botelho all made plays as well. In fact, it was Botelho who forced the intentional grounding penalty on McCord that looked like it would put Ohio State in a hole too big to dig out of.

Notre Dame’s pass rush made a bit more of an impact in previous weeks, coming up with a pair of timely tips on Kyle McCord passes — one of which still resulted in an insane third-down conversion that, in hindsight, was an eerie sign of things to come. The unit largely limited Ohio State’s ground game. Everyone will expect a failing grade here because the D-line is where the Irish were short on the last two plays of the game. But that’s more on the coaching staff than the players.

However, the players are responsible for TreVeyon Henderson’s 61-yard scoring rush on the Buckeyes’ opening play from the second half. That play eliminated any chance the Irish had of building a breathable lead and ultimately set up their self-inflicted demise.

Weekly Grade: C+; Season Grade: B

Linebackers

Like with the defensive line, there was one clear standout in the linebacking core — graduate student JD Bertrand. He too was an animal, running all over the field to finish tied with Jean-Baptiste at eight tackles and even with three other Irish players at four solo stops. Bertrand also recorded one of Notre Dame’s two tackles for a loss and a pass breakup.

He had some help, too, and not from who you’d expect. Graduate student Jack Kiser had a disappointing game, though he did combine with Jean-Baptiste to stop Emeka Egbuka’s jet-sweep run on fourth and one in the final five minutes. Classmate Marist Liufau, meanwhile, was essentially a no-show, failing to make the stat sheet while also missing some tackles. Sophomore Jaylen Sneed delivered a game-changing pass breakup, though, getting his hand on McCord’s toss to the end zone on fourth and goal from the one in the second quarter.

The big missed opportunity for this group came on third down. Whether it was an ability to get to McCord in time or hold up in coverage, the Buckeyes were simply too effective on third and medium Saturday. Those are the moments where you’re counting on your linebackers the most, and the Irish just couldn’t make enough plays to get the job done.

Weekly Grade: B-; Season Grade: B-

Secondary

Of course, the secondary also shoulders some blame for those failures, third and 19 chief among them. If Egbuka had caught that pass at the four-yard line instead of the one, the Irish tackle him and the clock almost certainly runs out. But alas.

Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison once again led the way for the Irish. Morrison matched up incredibly well with consensus All-American wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., limiting him to just three catches for 32 yards. Egbuka and tight end Cade Stover haunted the Irish, though, with both catching seven passes for a combined 148 yards. Xavier Johnson also snagged an inexcusable 40-yard grab on 3rd and five late in the game.

There were a couple of busts in coverage, namely the Johnson catch and an 18-yard Egbuka reception that set up Ohio State’s second-quarter field goal. The Irish secondary has undoubtedly become a strength of the team. In a game where the Irish shied away from substitutions more than any this season, the secondary depth chart went fairly deep. But the inability to take advantage of a couple of questionable throws by McCord, who finished 21-37 for 240 yards, and one fateful mistake are hard to ignore.

Weekly Grade: C+; Season Grade: B

Special Teams

The kick return game continues to largely be a non-factor on both sides, although Johnson did have one fairly long kick return to the Ohio State 35-yard line. Sophomore punter Bryce McFerson did a nice job as per usual.

There was essentially only one noteworthy play for this group, but oh, did it ever prove to be costly. Coming up empty on one long drive was concerning. Repeating that trend on the very next drive ultimately proved debilitating. But that’s what happened when graduate student Spencer Shrader’s 47-yard field goal sailed wide left. It would take over 20 minutes before Notre Dame finally got on the board.

Shrader may have a big leg, but it’s fair to wonder how much trust the Irish will have in him going forward. He’s made just three of his seven kicks and is just 1-3 from within 50 yards. Like the rest of Notre Dame, Shrader needs to regain some trust this weekend.

Weekly Grade: D; Season Grade: B

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