SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even as Notre Dame’s offense has blossomed in recent weeks, the strength of the Fighting Irish is clear to their coach.
“I don’t know if they get enough credit for who they are as a defense,” Brian Kelly said after Saturday night’s 38-17 victory over Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Fighting Irish (5-0) moved up two spots to No. 6 in the AP Top 25 on Sunday. They will try to remain unbeaten at No. 24 Virginia Tech on Saturday, but will play the rest of the season without one of their best offensive players. Kelly said Sunday that doctors fear guard Alex Bars tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee against Stanford.
On Saturday night, first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea and his staff implemented a game plan that focused on stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love, the 2017 Heisman runner-up, and then pressuring quarterback K.J. Costello.
Love, who had a 39-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, was limited to 34 yards on his other 16 carries before leaving the game with an ankle injury with just over 11 minutes remaining.
Costello threw for 174 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked five times, four by tackle Jerry Tillery. Costello was intercepted by linebacker Te’von Coney, hurried on four other occasions and had eight passes broken up, two by linebacker Drue Tranquill, who played with a broken bone in his hand.
“We take pride in being the heart and soul of this team,” defensive end Daelin Hayes said Saturday. The Irish defense limited Stanford to 51 plays and 229 total yards, just 31 in the final 30 minutes.
“We were really good on first down in the second half and putting them behind the chains, and they became much more predictable for us,” Kelly said.
Two consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter tell you all you need to know about the Irish dominance.
With the Irish up 24-17 as the clock ticked under 13 minutes, Costello dropped back on second-and-18 at his own 24 and was sacked by Tillery, a 6-foot-7, 304-pound future NFL draft pick, for a 3-yard loss.
“We’ve been in this position before with (Stanford),” said Tillery, who now has seven sacks this season. “We knew we had to close and finish.”
Then on the next play, Love was run down from behind by 6-foot-5, 241-pound defensive end Julian Okwara for a loss of 2.
“(Okwara’s) is the most athletic guy I’ve seen ever,” Tillery said. “He’s a freak.”
Love limped to the locker room shortly afterward favoring his left ankle and the Irish salted away the victory with two of quarterback Ian Book’s four touchdown passes.
Tillery added exclamation marks with consecutive 8-yard sacks on Stanford’s final possession.
“We’re just getting started,” Tillery said. “We play hard and we play fast. We make plays in big moments.”
Now that defense must play five of its final seven games away from home, starting at Virginia Tech. Then following a home game against Pittsburgh and an off week, Notre Dame plays Navy (Oct. 27 in San Diego), at Northwestern (Nov. 3), Syracuse (Nov. 17 in New York’s Yankee Stadium) and at USC (Nov. 24) with a visit from Florida State (Nov. 10) sprinkled in.
The Irish rank 44th nationally in rushing defense (127.0 yards per game), 12th in pass efficiency (102.47), 18th in total defense (4.49 yards per play) and 27th in scoring defense (18.8 points per game).
“Man, we’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “I told our team I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, but if we don’t embrace how hard this is going to be, we’re climbing Mount Everest with this schedule.”
Right now, Lea’s Sherpas have things under control.
Tranquill, a fifth-year graduate, will be fitted with a cast that will allow him to play. Running back Tony Jones Jr. suffered an ankle sprain in the Stanford game after the Irish did not have Jafar Armstrong because of a knee infection that will require a surgical procedure. Jones could be back for Virginia Tech, but Armstrong is out through the bye week.
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