NOTRE DAME, Ind. — If Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly could have put the most faith in one unit of his football team heading into the 2019 season, his defensive line had a pretty strong argument to make.
After all, the Irish would return a pair of All-American candidates in defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, plus four others on the depth chart who saw action in at least 12 games in 2018. And last season, that defensive line was instrumental in limiting Irish opponents to just 139.5 rushing yards and 18.2 points per game.
So when the first two Irish opponents of 2019 rushed for 249 (Louisville) and 212 yards (New Mexico) and when the Irish didn’t record a sack against either New Mexico or Georgia, questions flew as to whether the defensive line could once again reach the elite level it once knew.
Tenth-ranked Notre Dame put those questions to bed Saturday against No. 18 Virginia.
Surrendering an average of 204.3 rushing yards per game through three games this season? The Irish gave up just four (4) (yes, four).
No sacks in their last two games? The Irish recorded eight against the Cavaliers, all by defensive linemen.
Add in three forced fumbles on sack efforts and one interception resulting from a quarterback hurry and the Irish defense looked every bit the terrifying entity everyone thought it could be.
It was nothing if not a signal that the line was starting to find its identity. Not just with Kareem and Okwara, who combined for 5.5 sacks and shared the game ball, but with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (48-yard fumble return), Adetekunbo Ogundeji (23-yard fumble return for touchdown), Jamir Jones (sack, forced fumble), Kurt Hinish (two TFLs) and Jacob Lacey (1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sack).
“From a rushing standpoint, we want to continue to be a team that doesn’t give up big plays in the running game,” Kelly said. “Four yards rushing, a lot of that is the negative in, obviously, the sacks. … Defensively (we have to) continue to go in the route we’re going with the development of our front seven and finding a really solid front seven that doesn’t give up big runs.”
There wasn’t a big run to be had Saturday, a fact made all the more significant for its rarity. It’s not often any team is limited to so few rushing yards, let alone a ranked one. The Irish hadn’t held a ranked opponent to single digits or fewer on the ground in 53 years, when they restricted No. 10 USC to -12 rushing yards in 1966.
It was Okwara whose three sacks, two QB hurries, two forced fumbles and fumble recovery had the biggest impact for the Irish on Saturday. The Irish scored almost immediately after each of Okwara’s strips, with C’Bo Flemister capping a four-play, 54-yard drive following Okwara’s fumble recovery in the first quarter and Ogundeji returning Okwara’s second forced fumble in the third quarter to give the Irish a two-possession lead.
Kareem, meanwhile, added 2.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Tagovailoa-Amosa sent Notre Dame Stadium into a frenzy in the third quarter after snatching Jamir Jones’ strip sack and returning it 48 yards to the Virginia seven, setting up a Tony Jones Jr. touchdown.
“It was exciting just to see all your brothers go out and just produce, all the work that we put in over the years is finally coming to fruition,” Kareem said. “We’ve got to stay consistent and don’t let this be a one-time thing, have the same preparation week-in and week-out and the production will come. I don’t think anything really changed, we just kept coming and didn’t back down. We understand on the D-line that we’re the tip of the spear and everything starts with us, so we just kept coming and the sacks came.”
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins had been having his way with the Irish early, going 18-of-22 for 235 yards through the air in the first half as the Cavaliers took a 17-14 lead into the intermission. Indeed, it wasn’t until the second half the Irish defense came alive, with four of its five turnovers and five of its eight sacks coming after halftime.
And while Perkins finished with 334 passing yards, just 99 of them came in the third and fourth quarters.
“We wanted to make sure that the pocket collapsed on him and made it difficult for him to get outside and improvise,” Kelly said. “We stuck with our game plan.
“I challenged our staff to be stubborn and persistent and determined and we did that. It broke through for us in a manner that we saw, a lot of those sacks really come together in the second half.”