Notre Dame fans may have questioned the decision to give the head coaching job to Marcus Freeman but no one could question his defensive acumen. Freeman’s defenses at Cincinnati and Notre Dame were impressive and that trend has continued as a head coach. The Irish defense has been tested in different ways this year and they have held their own very well. Louisville will bring a new test as they have shown that they can create big plays in the passing game as well as the run game.
Notre Dame’s top tackler this year is their defensive tackle Howard Cross. In all of my years writing this post, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this. Cross also leads the team in tackles for loss and finds himself around the ball a lot. The Irish are deep in the interior and they also have a lot of veterans but they are not a big group. The Irish are vulnerable in one key area and that is against the run. They are not bad by any stretch, but teams have found some success there.
I haven’t been overly impressed by the edges of the Irish defense but Jordan Botelho has flashed a handful of times. Bothelo will miss the first half of the game after a targeting call but his fresh legs could actually benefit them in the second half. Javontae Jean-Baptiste didn’t see the field all that much at Ohio State but he has entrenched himself as a starter for ND. He is due for a sack or two based on his time at OSU, so he is a guy to keep an eye on.
People talk about defenses “flying around” all of the time but I’ve been really impressed by how fast and how active the ND back end is. The linebackers get to the ball so well and JD Betrand has been a stud in the middle. These guys will be a big factor in the run game but I do wonder if Jeff Brohm looks to use more play action to take advantage.
One thing that I’ve noticed in watching the Irish is that they don’t really have a specific player that stands out like a Payton Wilson but instead, they play well as a group. I think that makes it hard to plan against. Though Wilson went off last week, it took NC State moving him around (pretty normal for them) which left some other spots as a weakness. I just don’t know that you can do that against this defense that is so old and experienced.
The secondary is the strong point of this defense and they have one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Benjamin Morrison. After a freshman All-American season, Morrison has not slacked off this year. He has four pass breakups to go with an interception and a tackle for loss. His matchup against Jamari Thrash should be a lot of fun to watch.
Xavier Watts is the other player that makes a ton of plays for this defense. You can’t watch the game without noticing just how much he shows up on the screen. He is a huge factor in the run game on the edges as well as in support behind the linebackers. If we see one of those back-breaking big plays by the defense, I’d expect it to be from Watts.
The Irish defense overall is stellar but the one stat that has caused them issues is third down defense. Ohio State was able to hit 58% on third downs and it was a huge factor in their win. The other big factor in Notre Dame’s season is their turnover margin. They’ve forced 9 fumbles so far and recovered 1 while picking off 6 passes. They’ve only turned the ball over twice so far. This is where Louisville has to win the game. Be efficient stay on schedule and don’t give the Irish extra possessions.