SOUTH BEND — On paper, Notre Dame defeated Florida State by 16 points this past Saturday. It was a nice win for the Fighting Irish playing their first full-contact football game in 21 days due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
However, No. 4 Notre Dame feels like improvements must be made — especially on the defensive side of the ball — if they’re going to achieve the goals they’ve set out for the 2020 season. Those changes need to start being made this Saturday at home against Louisville (2:30 p.m., NBC).
“I think its not the kind of defense (defensive coordinator Clark Lea) has put out there, nor the type of defense I want to put out there,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly of the defense’s performance against Florida State. “There are some factors that were unique in that we had a lot of those guys that were not practicing during the week, and it showed. You have to practice this game to be at your very best. I think there were some uncharacteristic defensive lapses, if you will, that occurred that we don’t normally see, but we will address those and our guys are aware of them.”
The COVID-19 outbreak on the team affected the defense more than the offense, as the depth of both the linebacker and defensive back positions have been tested.
Before the South Florida game Sept. 19, both Buck linebackers on the depth chart — junior Shayne Simon and redshirt freshman Marist Liufau — were announced as unavailable for the game. This led to redshirt freshman Jack Kiser getting the start, turning in a game ball-worthy performance in a 52-0 win over the Bulls.
Since then, though, Kiser has been out of action. He did not play against Florida State and wasn’t on the initial Irish depth chart Monday, along with starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Kelly said both should be ready to go for this week’s game, though, if everything goes to plan.
Another player who has stepped up is junior Bo Bauer. He recorded four tackles and a sack against Florida State, splitting reps at the Mike linebacker position with starter Drew White.
“Bo’s evolution has been much more about … I think his ability to control and handle his emotional space; in other words, getting into his emotional zone where he can play the game and play it at the level necessary to be the best football player,” Kelly said. “That’s not just from a physical standpoint; that’s from a technical and tactical standpoint.”
COVID-19 had an affect on the Notre Dame cornerbacks against the Seminoles as well, forcing starting safety Shaun Crawford to play the majority of the game at the position. Crawford has been a corner for the Irish the past few seasons and only made the move to safety this offseason, so he was familiar with the position. While he did allow a touchdown early in the game, Crawford also snagged a game-sealing interception at the goal line late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s an honor to have the trust from my teammates and from my coaches to be able to move around mid-week and for whatever position fits the scheme best that week,” Crawford said. “ … Just trying to get familiar with safety and then going back to corner was a little different just because I’ve been at safety, seeing the game from a different angle, playing things a little different. So, going back to corner was a little frustrating, but I took that as a challenge.”
Junior corner TaRiq Bracy also had a career day against Florida State, recording a team-high eight tackles. After being mostly used in specialty defensive packages, Bracy has been able to evolve into an every-play corner for the Irish.
“I like to pride myself on guarding a receiver, becoming a shutdown corner,” Bracy said. “I played baseball in high school, so I was able to flip my hips pretty fluidly playing centerfield. I think that game translated into playing field corner.”
Along with COVID-19, injuries have played a factor for the Irish too. Backup Rover linebacker, junior Paul Moala, is out for the season with a torn Achilles. He is replaced on the depth chart by graduate senior Isaiah Pryor, who transferred to Notre Dame as a defensive back from Ohio State last December.
This means starting Rover linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will be looked on to produce even more than he already has for the Irish this year. The redshirt junior does a little bit of everything for the Notre Dame defense, but there’s one part of game in particular that he enjoys the most.
“I don’t take the most pride in any particular part of my game, but I love pass rushing,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I love the ability to say that I got to the quarterback or I beat a man one-on-one. I think that’s a key part in the development and even the scheme of the defense: the quarterback is the most important person on the field, so if you get to him, you can stop the play.”