Sept. 25, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – As Michigan’s high-octane offense drove to the University of Notre Dame six-yard line on a crisp September night in 2012, a Fighting Irish home football crowd of 80,795 fans roared for a defensive stand.
Wolverine magician Denard Robinson took the snap, and then-Irish freshman Sheldon Day burst through the Michigan offensive wall and lunged to sack the flashy quarterback for an eight-yard loss. Instead of cashing in for a touchdown that would have cut an Irish lead to three points and given Michigan a jolt of momentum, the Wolverines had to settle for a field goal that trimmed the Irish lead to 13-6 with 3:27 left in the game.
Notre Dame hung on in the final minutes of that 2012 game to snap a streak of three consecutive last-second losses to Michigan. The Irish, thanks to three gutty red-zone stands, kept the Wolverines out of the end zone in the victory.
“I actually did the wrong play,” Day says now with a laugh about his red-zone smackdown of the Wolverines in 2012. “It was a three-down situation. I peeked inside. (Robinson) started to run outside. I tried to make myself right and I had to dive for him. People had to rally to help me bring him down, because I lost leverage on him. It worked out, but I should have been doing my job.
“I definitely got a little blistered up in film on Monday,” says Day. “It was a lesson learned for a freshman. At the moment, it felt great, but the film session–it was pretty bad.”
Day, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound junior on the 2014 Irish defensive line, learned his lesson and now he’s the one cranking up the heat. The former Indianapolis Warren Central High School star has been a key reason the Irish have carved out a bruising reputation as red-zone lock-down artists.
No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) hopes to keep its defensive tenacity in high gear Saturday when the Fighting Irish play Syracuse (2-1). Kickoff at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., is set for 8:12 p.m. EDT.
When Notre Dame has needed a defensive stand, the Irish have answered the bell in the Brian Kelly era. Emerging as one of the nation’s top overall defensive teams since Kelly arrived at Notre Dame in 2010, Irish have been even better defending the red zone.
Since 2010, Notre Dame ranks No. 2 nationally in points/red-zone drive (3.71), and is also second in the nation against red-zone rushing touchdowns (a 46.55 percentage), and second in the nation in overall red-zone touchdown percentage (20.69).
Day says the Irish place a special emphasis on red-zone execution on offense. When Irish strategy meets Irish intensity, the opponent is usually going backwards.
“We’re trying to build a culture of dominance, and it starts up front,” Day says. “Every day, (defensive line assistant) Coach (Mike) Elston is preaching to us, violent, physical hands. He’s been preaching that to us since spring ball. He’s talking to us about shoot-out, lock-out and be aggressive with your hands and wear down offensive linemen. He talks about it every day, to the point it’s become part of our DNA, and it comes natural to us.”
Irish hit-man Joe Schmidt, 6-1, 235-pound senior linebacker from Orange, Calif., says defensive players must have a focused intensity, balancing rage and awareness.
“You’re throwing punches, as many as you can throw,” says Schmidt, smiling at the thought of inflicting punishment during red-zone fury. “It’s who gets the last blow, but at the same time, when you’re a linebacker, there’s a lot more to think about than just trying to destroy the guy in front of you. The defensive line, a lot of the time, they have a gap responsibility, or a contain responsibility. I’ve got a gap responsibility, but my gap might change–they might run, they might pass–I have to think about a lot of other things.
“If I just start frothing at the mouth and run downfield or downhill, there’s a big chance that they do something that really victimizes us,” Schmidt says. “I have to try to keep my cool.”
Schmidt, Notre Dame’s leading tackler, and his teammates need a heightened sense of focus in the red zone because they have a lot less space with which to work. They have to amp up the intensity, but be more acutely aware of their assignments in situations where every yard is critical.
“Obviously, our coaches call great plays,” Schmidt says of the Irish red-zone success. “We have some great schemes in the red zone. But as a unit, as a defense, I think we do a really good job of bowing up and never giving up. As long as we have grass to stand on, whether the ball is an inch away from the end zone, or 10 yards away from the end zone, we know we have a chance.
“I think it’s a combination of scheme and how we’re brought up in our homes, and how we try to practice here. We view it as an opportunity to make a big play. We look at it as a chance to take momentum away from the other team. When we keep a team out of the end zone, it creates a lot of energy for us. It gives a defense so much confidence from big red-zone stops, and it can deflate the other team. It can change a game.”
Many times, the red-zone stands come when a defense has been stung by the other team’s offense. Players can be aching from the collisions of 10-, 11-, 12-play drives that ratchet up the sense of urgency.
“It’s a gut check,” Day says of making red-zone plays. “You dig deep. You know that your brother next to you is hurting as bad as you, maybe even worse. You have to make that play for him. It’s a team effort. If you give up the big play, you let the team down. If you make the big play, everybody builds off of that. You get momentum.
“We love it when it’s mano a mano on the goal-line,” Day said. “It’s you versus that offensive lineman. It’s a one-on-one match-up. Who’s going to win? That’s what it comes down to.”
— by Curt Rallo, Special Correspondent