SOUTH BEND — At the end of the first half against Virginia, Notre Dame trailed the Cavaliers 17-14. Virginia had just driven 76 yards in five plays, capping it off with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Bryce Perkins to Hasise Dubois to give the Cavaliers the halftime advantage. It was the first time the Fighting Irish had trailed at halftime this season.
Staring down a potential second straight loss, the Notre Dame defense stifled the Virginia offense in the second half. The Cavaliers had nine drives in the final 30 minutes. The results? Punt, fumble, punt, turnover on downs, fumble, punt, interception, field goal, interception. Virginia had 100 total yards in the half, 65 of which came on the field goal drive. Notre Dame won the game 35-20.
Dominant second-half defense — particularly in the third quarter — has allowed No. 9 Notre Dame to be 4-1 heading into a prime-time matchup with USC (3-2) on Saturday night in South Bend.
“There is a lot more continuity as a group, and clearly (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) is in his second year of calling defenses, so there is a lot of the pieces in play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Some of it is just good fortune. I don’t know that we can sit here and count every point, but it’s the second year in a system of defense with more continuity in terms of what we’re doing, defensively.”
Whatever the coaching staff is saying in the locker room at halftime must be working, as the Irish have only given up six third-quarter points this season. In 2018, they allowed 52 points in the third quarter across 13 games, an average of four points per game.
The only third-quarter points Notre Dame has given up in 2019 were two field goals against Georgia. The Irish lost that game, 23-17.
Kelly explained the process of what the Notre Dame coaching staff does at halftime.
He said Lea — who’s also the linebackers coach — and defensive line coach Mike Elston will get together and talk about any adjustments needed to be made along the front seven. Defensive passing coordinator Terry Joseph and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght will do the same, but with the secondary players.
After the coaches meet with their individual position groups, they meet with Kelly in his office. Both the defensive and offensive coaches go through similar adjustment schedules in the locker room.
“They all meet in my office, the defense, and I’ll listen to that and I’ll go to the offense, which is in the coach’s locker room,” Kelly said. “That one is a little bit different because you’re chronicling libraries of plays you want to use against defensive structures you’re getting. … Its adjustments based upon what you’re seeing and where you need to make the adjustments.”
Adjustments are made in every game, even in ones like the Bowling Green contest, which Notre Dame led 35-0 at the half.
“Bowling Green, we were short on a couple calls in terms of having somebody in a good position on the quarterback,” Kelly said. “One of their quarterback keeps, we didn’t have a safety in a really good position. Had to make an adjustment there. We didn’t have an in-and-out call on a bunch because of a certain call.
“So those are the kind of adjustments that are made at halftime that are within your system of defense that you just have to apply at halftime.”
The third-quarter domination has been a key reason the Irish have outscored opponents 205-74 overall in the first five games. Notre Dame has a 45-6 advantage in third-quarter points scored as well.
Redshirt junior safety Alohi Gilman credits the experience of the Irish defense for leading to third-quarter success. Notre Dame returned six starters from the 2018 team, including three of the four positions in the secondary.
“There’s a lot of guys in there who are veteran guys who are able to speak to the coaches,” Gilman said. “We communicate a lot, and we make adjustments together. So it’s kind of a combined effort. … I think we just spearhead everything with the older guys, taking charge of what’s going on, telling them what we see, things we can do to change and adjust. And (the coaches) put us in the right positions.”