Good and bad: Notre Dame has a big-play defense
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP)Notre Dame has a big-play defense. Sometimes the Fighting Irish make big plays. Often they give them up - too often for a team with hopes of earning a Bowl Championship Series bid.
No. 25 Notre Dame held Boston College to two touchdowns in a 20-16 win on Saturday, but gave up 13 big plays, or "explosives" as Irish coaches call them.
"We're still giving up the big play more times than we want to," linebacker Brian Smith said. "We gave up some explosive plays. But when it was time to make a play, we made them."
The Irish needed every one of the five turnovers they forced against Boston College (5-3). The 13 explosives were the most given up by Notre Dame this season. That's not a good sign considering the Eagles are ranked 93rd in the nation in total offense. Every team left on the Irish schedule except for Saturday's opponent, Washington State (1-6), has more productive offenses.
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis sees reason for optimism, though, pointing to improved play from the linebackers and along the defensive line, particularly against the run. Notre Dame also did a better job of tackling against the Eagles, a sore spot all season for the Irish.
"I think at the beginning of the year we had a whole bunch of problems. I think that we had problems stopping the run, we had problems giving up chunks, we were giving up a lot of points. We had a whole bunch of problems. Slowly but surely we're starting to solve some of these problems," he said.
The Irish linebackers started playing better when freshman Manti Te'o started playing regularly three games ago, leading to Smith being moved to middle linebacker. Te'o has a team-leading 27 tackles in those three games and Smith is third with 21 - a tackle behind safety Kyle McCarthy.
The defensive line had its best game against the Eagles against the run, with nose tackle Ian Williams making a season-high seven tackles, end Kapron Lewis-Moore making six tackles and the Irish holding the Eagles to 70 yards rushing - the fewest yards the Irish have allowed this season. A week earlier, the Eagles rushed for 293 yards against North Carolina State.
The secondary, though, remains a problem. BC receiver Rich Gunnell was repeatedly wide open on Saturday, making 10 catches for a career-high 179 yards. The Irish coaching staff has been trying different lineup combinations, with Sergio Brown playing more at safety on Saturday, Gary Gray getting more time at cornerback the past two games and Harrison Smith moving from safety to strongside linebacker, but has yet to find the right combination.
Weis believes the secondary will stabilize once the Irish find the right combination of players - and he's confident the Irish have the players to do it.
"I think now we have a much better idea of where we want to go as far as that goes," he said. "I think that the improvement will come with some more stabilized positions in the secondary."
Brian Smith said the Irish aren't as far away from being a good defense as some might think.
"We're really close," Smith said. "Most of the explosive plays that happen are because we do something so little, someone does something a little wrong. So we're right there. But great defenses don't make those mistakes. Defenses that struggle make the mistakes."
Weis also said that tailback Robert Hughes sustained a concussion when he was hit at the goal-line early in the fourth quarter. It is not known if he will be ready to play on Saturday.
The win over Boston College was the sixth game decided by a touchdown or less for Notre Dame, breaking a school record, breaking a mark set in 1939. The Irish went 7-2 that season, outscoring opponents 100-73. Take away the 35-0 shutout against Nevada in the season opener and Notre Dame has outscored opponents 175-169.