SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – It’s been a perplexing season for the defense at No. 9 Notre Dame, an odd mix of being stout while also surrendering big plays and touchdowns in bunches.
The Fighting Irish (6-1) head into Saturday’s game against No. 21 Temple (7-0) struggling to find consistency on defense. The defense ranks seventh nationally in holding opponents to three-and-out on 31 percent of their possessions, yet has allowed 15 plays of 35 yards or more.
“If we are more consistent as a defense, we are going to be really good. We just have to get to that point,” coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday.
In their last game, the Irish gave up 590 yards of offense to Southern California — the most yards in six years under Kelly — with 340 yards of that coming on seven plays.
“We’re at a point at one time in the game where it’s 24-10 with five minutes and 50 seconds to go in the half and the thing just goes crazy on us,” Kelly said.
That’s when USC quarterback Cody Kessler threw a backward pass to Jalen Greene, who threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the third time this season the Irish have been gashed by a trick play. On USC’s next possession, Adoree Jackson turned a screen pass into an 83-yard touchdown. Notre Dame won 41-31.
It’s been that way all season for the Irish, allowing opponents to score in chunks. Navy scored on back-to-back possessions. Clemson scored two touchdowns in the first two possessions. Massachusetts scored on three straight possessions. Georgia Tech scored on its final two possessions in the final minute.
Kelly blames poor tackling and undisciplined play, especially on the trick plays.
“We clearly as coaches and players know what our deficiencies are, and we know how to fix them. We just got to get that done.” Kelly said. “In practice, we talked about it last night again as a staff. We are making up gadget plays. We are trying to get our guys to do their job and be disciplined.”
The biggest problem has been in the secondary, especially at safety, where Max Redfield has struggled. So Matthias Farley played some there against the Trojans. Kelly was asked Tuesday what he wanted from that position.
“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things. Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be and we are coaching them every single day,” Kelly said.
The Irish rank 50th in total defense, giving up 370.3 yards a game, and 39th in scoring defense, giving up 22.6 points a game.
The good news for the Irish is they don’t play a lot of potent offenses in their final five games. Temple ranks 108th in total offense, Pittsburgh is 94th, Wake Forest is 105th, and Boston is 125th. The exception is against Stanford in the regular-season finale. The Cardinal is 32nd in total offense.
Kelly said the Irish need to put together four quarters of solid defense. The Irish held USC scoreless for the final 24 minutes and Clemson’s only touchdown after the first quarter was set up by a fumble by C.J. Sanders on the second-half kickoff. So Kelly knows the defense is capable.
“We just haven’t put together four quarters of football defensively,” he said.