(Photo: Joseph Weiser)
In South Bend playing great defense, is back in style.
Passes defended, quarterback hurries, interceptions, fumbles forced, relentless pursuit. On the year Notre Dame’s defense has held its opponents to 14.2 points per game and 138 yards of total offense less than what they average against everybody else.
That’s good defense.
Overall, In eight key defensive statistical categories, the Irish rank no worse than 11th nationally. ND is giving up an average of just 279.9 yards per game (11th) and 15.3 points (10th).
And those impressive numbers have not been earned against a lightweight schedule. Among the challenges the Irish defense has faced is the number one at the time scoring offense in USC, and arguably the nation’s best wide receiver combo in Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Ebuka. To date the full slate of opponents ND has faced has posted a 45-18 win loss record against every other team on their schedule. ND’s defense has been good, and they have done it against a difficult schedule.
Ball magnet Xavier Watts is prowling the ND secondary with such ferocious efficiency that he just may be playing his way into an early entry to the NFL. Captain and Mike linebacker extraordinaire JD Bertrand is working on leading the Irish in tackles for the third straight season.
In the secondary, Ben Morrison and Cam Hart are the best cornerback combination ND has had in years. This past Saturday Morrison was a game time scratch and Hart left the game with an injury in the second quarter. Have no fear. Back-ups Jaden Mickey and Christian Grey responded quite nicely. Both made interceptions, Mickey’s was a “pick 6”.
Across the defensive line, the play has been dominant, and has shown steady improvement over the course of the season. The starting combination of Howard Cross III, Rylie Mills, grad transfer Jovante Jean- Baptiste and Jordan Bothello has been formidable, and so have rotational players Joshua Burnham, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Junior Tuihalamaka and more. In the week six win over Duke, Cross was named the national defensive player of the week for his 13 tackle, two forced fumble, one fumble recovery performance.
Cross’s national award was matched two weeks ago by Xavier Watts. In the last two games, the senior safety has ascended to national prominence. His national defensive player of the week performance came against defending Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and USC. On that day he posted 7 tackles, 2 interceptions, a forced fumble and a 15 yard scoop and score. That was followed up with another two interception performance against Pitt. He now leads the nation in interceptions with 6.
In 2022 first year defensive coordinator Al Golden produced a solid defense en route to a an overall 10-3 record by the Irish. That defense however struggled to defend the redzone. Actually “struggle” is an understatement. During the 2022 season ND opponents entered the red zone 34 times and scored 32 times, that ranked 129th out of 130 teams nationally. ND’s 2023 numbers are better across the board, and the improvement in defending the red zone is remarkable. Through 9 games ND has soared in the red zone defense ranking from next to the bottom to second in the nation.
ND’s defense is performing so well that it would seem that Al Golden is likely to move on to bigger and better things after the season. Before coming the ND, the 54 year old Golden spent 10 years as a head coach at Temple and then Miami. In 2016 he moved on to assistant jobs in the NFL with the Lions and the Bengals. After two solid years leading the ND defense, another collegiate head coaching position or perhaps a return to the NFL as a defensive coordinator could be in his future.
At the rate the Notre Dame defense is performing they may well go down as one of best ND defensive units in years. The last ND team to allow fewer that 15.3 points per game was the 2012 CFP team at 12.8. Prior to that you would have to go all the way back to the National Championship team in 1988 (12.3 ). A look at the total defense number of 279.9 average yards allowed after nine games is also historically impressive. the last ND team to allow fewer yards of total defense over the course of a season was in 1996 (270 yards per game). Prior to that you have to go all the way back to 1980 and Dan Devine to find a better number (213.2)
JD Bertrand, Xavier Watts, Ben Morrison, Howard Cross and company are on track to post numbers not seen in years in South Bend. Indeed, in South Bend this year, great defense is back in style .