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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame football grades: Defense, special teams need to eliminate mental mistakes

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Sophomore linebacker Joshua Burnham attempts to block a kick during Saturday’s game against Duke.


While the fourth and 16 scramble by senior quarterback Sam Hartman was the defining play of Saturday’s game, defense and special teams significantly contributed to Notre Dame’s 21-14 victory. The Irish, met by a hostile Duke crowd, had a handful of head-scratching plays and defensive miscues. However, the team showed great resolve and overcame adversity to pull off the last-minute victory. Before looking ahead to next week’s road test in Louisville, let’s look back at the defensive and special teams performances. 

Defensive Line 

For the entirety of the first half, the defensive line looked great. Their stout run defense and strength at the point of attack forced Duke into a number of third-and-longs throughout the first half and helped the Irish enter the break up 10-0. However, in the second half, momentum shifted. While Duke had started the game at a roughly 50-50 run/pass split, the Blue Devils leaned heavily into the run game in the second half. On a number of plays, Irish defensive ends, including senior Jordan Botelho, lost contain, allowing Duke quarterback Riley Leonard to rush around the edge. As the crowd became more engaged in the comeback, the defensive line struggled to match the physicality of Duke’s ball carriers, who gained multiple chunk plays on the ground. 

Head coach Marcus Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden are almost certain to emphasize this week the number of penalties the Irish committed Saturday. The defensive front had three offsides penalties that shortened Duke’s distance to the sticks. To make matters worse, the targeting call on Botelho set up Duke’s go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. On the positive side, the standout on the defensive front this past week was senior defensive lineman Howard Cross III. Cross racked up a total of 13 tackles, 1 sack, 3 ½ tackles for loss and a key forced fumble to seal the game. 

Weekly Grade: B-; Season Grade: B

Linebackers 

Similar to the defensive line, Notre Dame’s linebacker corps was instrumental to the first-half shutout. Senior linebacker Marist Liufau stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with six tackles, ½ sack, ½ tackle for loss and a recovered fumble to end the game. Fellow linebacker JD Bertrand also had a solid performance, finishing with 11 tackles on the night. 

While the end numbers for the linebackers looked impressive, they had a number of frustrating plays in the second half. By the fourth quarter, the Irish linebackers looked tired. On one play, Duke running back Jordan Waters slipped through the arm tackles of both Liufau and Bertrand. This was a significant change from their efforts in the first half. The linebackers seemed to constantly get stuck inside, which allowed Leonard to scramble.

Leonard might be tricky to defend, but if the Irish want to be ready for Caleb Williams in a couple of weeks, they need their linebackers to keep an eye on the quarterback at all times to avoid back-breaking quarterback scrambles. 

Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: B+

Secondary 

After a couple of intermediate passes to move the chains in the first quarter, it looked like the Irish secondary might be in trouble. However, after the missed field goal on Duke’s opening drive, things certainly changed for the Irish secondary. On the next drive, safety — and former receiver — Xavier Watts read the eyes of Leonard perfectly and stepped in front of the receiver to get a takeaway. 

The only major mishap on the evening for the secondary was the confusion on Duke’s lone passing touchdown. When Duke receiver Jordan Moore moved in motion, graduate cornerback Thomas Harper jogged slowly behind him. While teams usually play man coverage in the red zone, Harper appeared to expect the defense to bump and account for the motion. Because of this, Moore found himself wide open and Duke got their first lead of the game midway through the fourth. 

Despite this one mishap, it was a great game overall for the Irish secondary. Leonard, a projected first-round draft pick, only completed twelve passes on the evening. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison gave up more passes than Notre Dame fans are accustomed to, but the secondary used the “bend, don’t break” philosophy to keep everything in front of them. Duke lacked a vertical passing game and the secondary did not allow any explosive plays for the entirety of the game. 

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: B+

Special Teams 

What a week to talk about Notre Dame special teams. The unit started out with a bang as Marcus Freeman called on freshman running back Jeremiyah Love to execute a gutsy fake punt play. Behind a convoy of blockers, Love scampered 34 yards into the red zone. The Irish then scored to take an early 7-0 lead after their first drive. 

Later on in the first half, graduate transfer Spencer Shrader knocked a 35-yard kick through the uprights to give the Irish a 10-0 lead. Despite this initial make, Shrader missed from 37 yards midway through the second quarter. Distance was not the issue, it was the accuracy. Shrader’s kick sailed just to the right of the goalpost. Missed field goals have become commonplace for Shrader this year who is now 5 for 10 on the year. Despite the miss, Shrader redeemed himself later in the contest by knocking down a 45-yard attempt that sailed over the right upright.

Punter Bryce McFerson also continued his solid sophomore campaign and pinned the Blue Devils deep multiple times throughout the game. 

A hair-raising moment occurred for Irish fans at the start of the third quarter. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Duke punted away to the Notre Dame 35. At the last second, senior wide receiver Chris Tyree tried to play the bounce and inexplicably dove at the ball. In a sea of Duke defenders, Tyree lost the football before it was quickly recovered by senior safety Ramon Henderson. 

While the trick play was a great energizer for the team, the continuing field goal woes and the inexplicable Tyree decision harmed the Irish. 

Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade: B